What is the Price of Press Censorship?

What is the Price of Press Censorship?
What is the Price of Press Censorship?
Posted on 2014-05-02

By CHANG PING

Recently, the deputy chief of the Internet Team of the Haikou City Public Security Department was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His crime: accepting bribes. Local media made a point of obscuring his name, identifying him simply as Wei X-Ning (魏某宁). Only when Southern Weekly followed up with an investigative report did everyone learn that his name was Wei Yining (魏一宁).

But one thing no media inside China bothered to talk about was the fact that this was a case of corruption in which the power to control the press (舆论监控) was abused — and the case should prompt deeper reflection on corruption of the propaganda system itself.

The court found that Wei Yining had used “the convenience of his position,” with the power to control the internet, to delete more than 280 internet posts in exchange for around 700,000 yuan. The bribe payers were 11 web police from the public security bureaus of 11 local cities in 6 provinces. They were responsible [to their local superiors] for removing posts on two major Haikou-based websites that was detrimental to the image of their local governments. They would pay up, and Wei Yining would send down an order for the posts to be deleted.

The way this was done was actually quite simple. Once the local internet control officers had paid Wei Yining the fee he demanded, Wei would issue orders for deletion of the content to senior web managers at the sites in question via QQ message. For the web managers executing such orders was simply a matter of habit. Even if they had their doubts, they wouldn’t dare say anything. Generally, it would take only 10 minutes for an order to be executed from start to finish.

Censorship for Hire

The Wei Yining case makes clear just how much room there is for corruption in the execution of ostensible official business. It is now routine practice for local governments to pay for the removal of criticism or for the promotion of laudatory coverage.

Many people have already noticed the way that official Party mouthpieces and individuals can enrich themselves by virtue of their official power and monopoly status. Local governments, for example, engage in all sorts of misconduct in order to ensure that their own local prestige projects (形象工程) are reported on China Central Television.

According to a report from The Beijing News, there is now a case before the court in Beijing’s Fengtai District in which it has emerged that a public relations company was searching online for negative news about governments and enterprises and then approaching them with offers to delete the content for between 500 yuan and 2,000 yuan per item. The suspects in that case include a person named “Liu X” who is identified as an internet cop. This Liu X was allegedly using his position as an internet cop — responsible for removing pornography and other undesirable content — in order to delete posts on behalf of this public relations company. The case is estimated to involve more than one million yuan in bribes.

The Golden Goose of Propaganda

The fact that Chinese media don’t dare report is that in the larger context of corruption within the propaganda regime, these web police are actually insignificant. The golden goose is the propaganda department and its local branches. The propaganda department controls not just the internet, but also newspapers, television and book publishing. It has not just the power to order the deletion of web posts, but can also tell all of the media under its shadow what needs to be reported.

Moreover, the propaganda department also controls personnel issues for the vast majority of media. It can order the punishment of media staff, remove publishers or editors in chief, and even tell media to fire journalists. Many local propaganda departments even have the power to impose economic sanctions on media.

I wrote an article last year for the iSun Times called “Striking Back Against the Propaganda Department” (“反击宣传部”), which recently won a Human Rights Press Award in Hong Kong. In that article I talk about two basic characteristics of propaganda departments. First, they operate without checks and balances. Second, they are completely non-transparent. There are no mechanisms, not even with the Chinese Communist Party apparatus, to check propaganda departments and address problems. Most resolutions or instructions from administrative departments in China are documented, and in many cases they must be open to the public. But the bans issued by the propaganda department are protected by the justification of national secrecy — and propaganda organs are in fact less and less willing to leave any sort of trail.

Who Watches the Propaganda Department?

It’s probably difficult for most people even to imagine how a junior web control official can swallow millions in bribes. How much more is possible for a senior-level propaganda official with nearly boundless power? But the secret nature of propaganda work is such that no media would ever dare expose corruption among the commissars charged with keeping them in line.

However, if you conduct an internet search for the term “bribery by propaganda officials” (宣传部长受贿), you will discover to your surprise that a great many propaganda heads or deputy heads have been removed for corruption. Looking at the public trials or investigations for propaganda officials we’ve seen recently, we have big fish like former deputy propaganda chiefs Li Dongsheng (李东生) and Shen Weichen (申维辰), and small fry like the former deputy propaganda chief of Zhejiang’s Yuhuan County, Geng Jiangping (耿江平). And between these there are no doubt countless propaganda officials acting with impunity.

You will find, however, the none of these propaganda officials have been tried for corruption they engaged in while serving in propaganda positions. No one it seems (based on our partial sample) has been tried for abusing their power to censor the media.

Is is that there’s no fat to skim off the surface in propaganda posts? Is it that the conduct of these officials was unimpeachable while they serve in propaganda posts? This recent case against internet cop Wei Yining suggests that the answer to both questions is NO, and that this corruption is just the tip of the iceberg.

This article was first published in Chinese at PaoPao.

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