The Great Wall of Censorship

Top ex-officials of the Chinese Communist Party recently condemned the censorship of a newspaper that criticized the Chinese government. A letter written by these ex-officials stated, “History demonstrates that only a totalitarian system needs news censorship, out of the delusion that it can keep the public locked in ignorance.” This letter is especially remarkable considering who wrote it. The thirteen signatories of the letter included a personal secretary and biographer of Mao Tse Tung and former heads of Party sponsored newspapers. China’s history has included censorship since the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party. The country recently scored 159 out of 167 in the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. In this index of press freedom, China nearly tied North Korea for dead last. While China has not made monumental progress in the movement towards a free press, these recent comments are signs of improvement. Censorship, has not officially decreased. However, newspapers have been working towards privatization, and have pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable to print about the Chinese Communist Party in China. The newspaper that the Party shut down was known as Freezing Point. It was closed because of an article written by Yuan Weishi, stating that the government has too much control over what is being taught in Chinese history classes. While the Chinese government allows some liberal social commentary, it very rarely allows negative reporting on the Party or the Party’s actions. The golden age of Chinese censorship was before Mao’s death. Very recently, however, the parameters of acceptable reporting have expanded. In 1990 and 1994, China set laws limiting journalists’ rights; regardless of the fact that this blatantly contradicts Article 35 of the Chinese constitution, which states that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.” These legal limitations replaced much of the direct communication between party officials and newspaper editors, which was a more effective form of government censorship. Even with these developments, China has made relatively little progress towards a free press when compared to its progress towards a more open economy. The state of China’s media is what spurred the letter condemning the incident with Freezing Point. The letter warned that “Depriving the public of freedom of expression so nobody dares speak out will sow the seeds of disaster for political and social transition.” This is a very real threat, especially with the growth of a capitalist Chinese economy and the loosening of censorship. Censorship requires 100% control to successfully exist for a long period of time, such as the completely totalitarian government censorship in North Korea. While the state of press freedom in North Korea is deplorable, the North Korean government can take credit for an extremely effective, if brutal, government control of the press. Without this level of control, the press can argue against government censorship and spread anti-party ideals. It is important to note that most violations of Chinese censorship are articles specifically speaking out against Chinese censorship. It was this kind of dissatisfaction with the government that spawned the revolution that created the current Chinese Communist Party. If China wants to prevent the kind of “political and social transition” the officials spoke of, it should either drastically decrease its censorship or it should revert to the older and much more effective system. It would probably be more beneficial for China to strive for a less government controlled media. Other major players in the world do not look favorably upon China’s censorship, as shown by Congressman Tom Lantos’ comments to the four technology companies that have cooperated with the Chinese government to censor certain websites. Lantos publicly criticized these companies, saying, “Your abhorrent actions in China are a disgrace. I simply don’t understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.” If China wants to work with other powerful and more democratic countries and prevent insurrection in its own nation, it should heed the advice of the ex-officials and decrease the government’s involvement in the media.