The Listening Post

Censorship in China: A game of cat and mouse

What are the Chinese authorities doing to keep rumours in check and the media under control?

While the freight train of Chinese development powers into the 21st century, complex social, political and economic forces are shaping a new China – one that President Xi Jinping hoped would be the foundation for a “Chinese Dream” when he made his inaugural speech as president in March 2013.

But while Xi and the Communist Party may speak from the highest platform, they are increasingly obliged to listen to a different national conversation – one that takes place on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, which doubles as one of the world’s biggest rumour mill.

The government has now realised, especially with the emergence of social media, that media is just a battleground that they cannot afford to lose.

by Bingchun Meng, London School of Economics and Political Science

Until recently, Weibo censorship has been a matter of stamping out sensitive terms as and when they emerge. Reports suggest the state may employ as many as two million “public opinion analysts” in this game of semantic “whack-a-mole”.

However, since August, China’s opinion police have begun to target the “rumour-mongers” themselves. A number of high-profile microbloggers – known in China as “Big V” bloggers – have been arrested and paraded on state TV – “Killing a chicken to scare the monkeys”, as the Chinese proverb goes.

China is, in a way, caught between its Maoist past and its capitalist present which one can see in the devotion to industry that stains the skies over its mega-cities and scars the lungs of its people.

And it is there, too, in the media – where Beijing uses soft power to get its story out to the world (in English) – while cracking down hard on citizens who stray from the official version of events.

To discuss China’s complex social media equation, we speak with Zhuang Chen, the editor of the BBC Chinese website; Chinese writer and journalist, Lijia Zhang; Xia Yeliang, a professor of economics at Peking University; and Bingchun Meng, a media lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Our Newsbytes this week: Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef is on the airwaves and back in the firing line; Argentine President Cristina Kirchner scores a legal victory against the Clarin media empire; and a crackdown on critical radio in Somalia.

Our feature takes us to the Philippines which, despite being a vibrant democracy, is rated one of most dangerous countries for journalists. That is especially true in the provinces where local politics and organised crime occupy a “Wild West” of “guns, goons and gold”. Listening Post’s Meenakshi Ravi takes a look at how journalists get caught in the crossfire.

Our web video of the week is a viral hit produced by comedian Hisham Fageeh, 26, who is Saudi born but based in New York. Fageeh says the idea of singing No Woman, No Drive to the tune of the Bob Marley classic came to him in the shower. Millions of hits later, he still will not be drawn on whether or not he supports his country’s ban on women drivers.


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