“They can’t control everything”: Does China enjoy more freedom than we think?


East-West Dichotomy: It is true that the Chinese government practices censorship within the online realm, but is China really denied access to the freedom of information?

This year, Chinese reporters and China correspondents are facing new government ‘restrictions’, including mandatory seasoning in Marxism and written examinations to follow. Simultaneously, foreign journalists have experienced difficulty in renewing their visas in order to gain access to the country, and the online sphere has had laws implemented that prohibit the proliferation of ‘rumour-mongering’.

Last year, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China revealed that at least sixty-three foreign journalists had been stopped by authorities in the course of their reporting, with at least nine cases descending into violent clashes. Usually these cases involved foreign journalists attempting to cover collective citizenry action against the government.

For many correspondents, the threat of losing access to visas and the problems associated with reporting on sensitive issues is just another needle in the haystack of what is already a hefty pile of frustrations about reporting in China. Phone tapping, computer hacking and office bugging are all routine practices of the Chinese government… or so we have imagined.

Stephen McDonell has been the ABC’s China Correspondent since 2006. McDonell has won three Walkley awards for his coverage of the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. In an interview with East-West, McDonell expelled many of the harsh apprehensions the west has burgeoned of media freedom and access to information in China.

Restrictions on reporting in China are not what they used to be. According to McDonell, it’s not like the ‘good old days’ where a journalist could expect to be followed everywhere they went, or pressured into not printing a story.

“Basically the [Chinese government’s] way of sensoring what [journalists] do is by controlling access to people and to places… They don’t try and block our signal,” McDonell explained.

“The other way [of implementing censorship in China] is they lock down anyone in power in terms of speaking to us… Nobody leaks [in China]. In other countries you get quite senior people in politics talking about ‘what’s really going on’ in the upper-echelons of power.”

McDonell pointed to the recent Bloomberg News Asia situation where an investigation into the wealth of China’s political elite was allegedly dropped out of fear that government reprisals could inflict upon the company’s other interests in China, primarily the sale of its financial data terminals.

Chairman of Bloomberg L.P Peter T. Grauer said the company should reconsider articles outside of business news, because it threatens the success of various other ventures of which Bloomberg is a stakeholder in China.

Though McDonell dismissed any apprehensions against Chinese journalists and students undergoing a study of Marxism.

“I don’t think it matters one way or the other if people study Marxist ideology at university [or elsewhere]… I know someone who got his wife to do the exam for him!”

For so many, the advent of the Internet has been a shining beacon of hope for the further freedom of the proliferation of information and ideas. Western society is the first to scorn any eastern state denying their citizens the right to access information on the Internet freely.

One anonymous Chinese Internet executive explained to East-West that westerners have a rather misleading idea of how Chinese censorship and China’s ‘great firewall’ operates. The government doesn’t shadow the fact that certain keywords and access to certain websites is made more difficult through the firewall. He explained that these hurdles are relatively easy for most Internet users in China to navigate past, anyway.

Alice Arnold is an Australian citizen who spent a year in China after completing her high school studies at Willoughby Girls High School. Acquaintances of Alice were concerned that she had been “abducted” as they didn’t hear from her for an extended period of time. Alice laughed this idea off, and proceeded to explain how the western perception of China’s oppressed information markets is also a laughing matter.

Alice rationalized her extended online absence whilst in China by explaining the difficulty in a foreigner determining between a safe and reliable ‘Virtual Private Network’ (VPN), and one that isn’t.

“Generally, to use things like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (which are inconveniently blocked and unblocked) you need to get yourself a VPN.”

“A VPN allows you to become exempt from the ‘great firewall’ of China. It masks your IP (Internet Protocol) address so it escapes the firewall.”

Ms. Arnold explained that most foreigners in China are also able to escape the ‘great firewall’ quite easily, as word of mouth in China proliferates the information to be able to do so.

“Many foreigners in China will obtain a VPN so they can maintain contact with their overseas contacts,” Alice Arnold said.

According to Alice many Chinese citizens will also have a VPN in operation.

“Usually they’re the younger generations, under thirty-five maybe, and more accustomed to western media.”

“Other curious under thirty civilians may not go so far as to obtain a paid VPN, but manage to successfully get onto free proxy portals provided by the Falun Gong, which I actually have not successfully been able to do, so I admire that.”

The Falun Gong are a Chinese religious and political faction that since demonstrations in April of 1999 involving ten thousand Falun Gong practitioners outside the central government compound in Beijing have been viewed by the Chinese Communist Party as a “heretical organisation”. Falun Gong adherents have since emerged as a prominent voice in the Chinese dissident community, advocating for greater human rights and an end to Communist Party rule.

It isn’t just reports on the oppression upon Chinese citizens when it comes to the access to information that Alice refutes, it’s also the way in which Chinese journalists report the news.

“News [in China] is actually not too emotional or heavily ridden with bias as in western media. It’s very [impartial]. The biggest issue with Chinese media is that perhaps they like to keep it down if something is bad, as to not actually reveal the true nature of it, in fear that it may cause disruption among the people,” Ms. Arnold said.

“The other problem is that if anything is happening in the western world, you’re probably going to hear about it two months later, unless it’s on the scale of something like 9/11.”

Another western view of China that is heavily distorted, Alice says, is the level of control that the Chinese government is actually able to exercise over it’s citizens.

“To everybody’s surprise, China is the most lawless society you could imagine.”

“Because of its massive population, it is unable to control everything that it wants to.”

Hailing Cheng is a Chinese expatriate who studies at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, NSW. Hailing had a lot to say about the progression of this ‘freedom’ that China is currently experiencing.

“In the eighties the public didn’t have much freedom to access information. I think, at the time, people were fed information and didn’t have many chances to be able to research or fact-check that information,” Hailing Cheng said.

“The real change started in the nineties. Nowadays, people have a wide dimension of freedom. We have similar web pages like Facebook called Sina Weibo, and similar pages like Google called Baidu. The public has the chance to access more information and share information.

With the Internet, some kinds of news that the [Chinese] government has tried to ‘cover-up’ previously has now been uncovered by the public,” Ms. Cheng explained.

Michael Anti is a Chinese blogger and describes China’s approach to the Internet as a “block and clone” model. China’s government blocks western online platforms such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook, but allows the development of local variants of these platforms.

Stephen McDonell says social media hasn’t significantly impacted upon the ability to do his job, and hasn’t necessarily made it easier. He shares the view of the Chinese government that sometimes social media can cause more harm than good and spread unnecessary rumours and proliferate here-say disguised as fact.

“As we know with social media absolute nonsense can spread like wildfire, so does gossip and slur and innuendo. It spreads here [in China] as it does anywhere, so we end up with all this disinformation and it’s quite bad,” McDonell said.

The situation with Google China, McDonell says, was more of a moral stand than a necessary one. The company redirected their search engines from google.cn to google.hk, therefore bypassing the ‘great firewall’ and allowing uncensored searches in simplified Chinese.

“China said [to Google] that they had to censor their searches, so in a strange sort of compromise they based themselves in Hong Kong [instead]. Unless you have a VPN you can’t read the articles that show up on the search engines anyway,” Stephen McDonell said.

“It’s a funny thing in China, you feel like you’re always going two steps forward and one step backward. I think it generally is opening up but then [the Chinese government] puts the brakes on.”

McDonell is adamant that censorship is not the “scary” aspect of Chinese everyday life, rather the scariest aspect of their culture is nationalism.

“[Nationalism] is really what clouds people’s judgement, not Marxism, not censorship, but nationalism. [The Chinese government] run this monopolist party because they’re leading the people through socialist transformation through to communism… But nobody believes that’s honestly the line of the party anymore, they just have to pay lip service to it,” McDonell said.

The recent MH370 missing flight disaster, McDonell says, is an excellent example of how nationalism rather than Marxism is able to cloud the judgment of Chinese citizens.

“MH370… all of it… was just patriotic clap trap. People were pushing the line that Malaysians ‘know things’ that they hadn’t told the families involved in the fiasco. But the Chinese government had said they want the Malaysians to tell us more, and they’ll report it that way because they’re nationalists,” McDonell rationalised.

So surely the west’s problem with China must be more than a simple moral objection to denying absolute freedom of information to Chinese citizens, because Australia has oftentimes proposed to filter internet access and allows the monopolization of our printed media markets.

Not so long ago Tony Abbott criticized the ABC for reporting too far from the official Liberal party line, and was quoted on Sydney commercial radio 2GB in January this year as saying the ABC “instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s” and he wished to see “some basic affection for the home team.”

Not only that, but the coalition is set to resume a policy of Internet censorship, using cyberbullying as its pretext. The last time a coalition government was in power, online gambling and the online discussion of euthanasia had been prohibited.

At a ‘Make It Count’ debate in 2010, Abbott was quoted as saying “I think we have to be careful about what some might describe as the heavy hand of censorship. I’m not normally one for wanting to see government enquiries, but I think in this case we probably do need a further review… To ensure a new way of ensuring that proper community standards are applied to the media, all media, including new media.”

What the now Prime Minister was describing can be loosely translated into a loss of the freedoms of Australians in seeking, receiving and imparting information freely and can be compared to the west’s perception of China’s ambitions, who with their ‘great firewall’ aim to keep their citizens ‘safe’ and content to an acceptable societal standard.

What westerners have portrayed, taught and learned of China (as an oppressed society) can be viewed as a by-product of the politics of the proliferation of ‘democracies’. A ‘freer’ world is surely a more profitable one, and China’s market with all its’ financial potential sure has been a difficult one to crack.

Share This Post

About Author: rkelly23