Home Correction journal In Xi’s China, even internal reports fall prey to censorship

In Xi’s China, even internal reports fall prey to censorship

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By DAKE KANG

BEIJING (AP) — When the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, reporter Liao Jun of China’s state-run Xinhua news agency told conflicting stories to two very different audiences.

Liao’s dispatches assured readers that the disease was not spreading from person to person. But in a separate confidential report to senior officials, Liao took a different tone, alerting Beijing that a mysterious and dangerous disease had surfaced.

His reports to authorities were part of a powerful internal reporting system long used by the ruling Communist Party to learn about matters considered too sensitive for the public to know. Chinese journalists and researchers send secret bulletins to top officials, ensuring they get the information needed to govern, even when it is censored.

But that internal system is struggling to give candid assessments as Chinese leader Xi Jinping consolidates his power, making it risky for anyone to question the party line, even in confidential reports, a dozen officials said. Chinese scholars, businesspeople and state journalists in interviews with The Associated Press. .

It’s unclear what the impact was, given the covert nature of high-level Chinese politics. But the risk is ill-informed decision-making with less feedback from below, on everything from China’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to its approach to the coronavirus.

“Powerful leaders become hostages,” said Dali Yang, an expert on China politics at the University of Chicago. “They actually live in cocoons: protected, but also safe from the information they should be open to.”

The reports are classified as state secrets, giving them an air of mystery in China. They are called “neican”, which is pronounced “NAY-tsahn” and means “internal reference”.

They report on what would be considered the basis of journalism in many other countries: corruption, strikes, public criticism, accidents at work. In China, such issues may be too sensitive for public consumption, as they “could damage the Party’s reputation”, according to a 2020 Chinese academic paper.

Newspapers, think tanks and universities across China each have their own classified reporting channel, sending intelligence to local and provincial authorities. They monitor air pollution in the industrial province of Hebei and guide the disposal of spoiled pickles in Hunan, a region renowned for its cuisine.

But a few outlets, such as Xinhua and the state-controlled People’s Daily, provide information directly to Chinese leaders. Their confidential reports have overthrown officials, changed policy and launched government campaigns against poverty and waste.

The Communist Party calls internal reporting a secret weapon, acting as its “eyes and ears”, while propaganda acts as its “throat and tongue”.

Those who write internal reports are thoughtful, open-minded and often critical of the government, says Maria Repnikova, a China media scholar at Georgia State University.

They may be threatened or intimidated, even when supported by the state, with officials taking extreme measures to prevent bad news from reaching their superiors.

“They’re pretty careful about what’s going on in there, because they always have guards,” Repnikova said.

Xi knows intimately the power of this internal reporting system, said Alfred Wu, a former journalist who met Xi when he governed Fujian province. Xi has cultivated ties with Xinhua and People’s Daily reporters, outlets with direct and confidential lines of communication with Beijing — and thus, the power to influence his career.

“He was always mingling and socializing with reporters,” Wu said. “Xi’s street smarts helped him so much.”

After coming to power in 2012, Xi stifled dissent and launched an anti-corruption campaign that jailed his rivals. The crackdown has made journalists more cautious about what they write in internal memos.

Xi took control of Xinhua, which nominally reports to the No. 2 official, the prime minister. Under Xi, Xinhua at times began to ignore Premier Li Keqiang, whose frustrations boiled over in an internal meeting, Wu and a state media reporter with knowledge of the matter said, speaking on condition of anonymity. to discuss the sensitive subject.

A Xinhua journalist famous for his insider reporting that helped topple a senior public company executive is now unable to publish, according to a close aide, because the risks are too great.

“Before, he could make these disclosures because Xinhua had the power to protect him,” the associate said, declining to be named for fear of reprisals. “Now they say he can’t report these things anymore.”

The internal reporting system was also vulnerable to corruption. Officials and businessmen manipulated him to defend their interests. In one incident, officials in Shanxi province gave journalists cash and gold bars to cover up a mining accident that killed 38 people.

Xi’s crackdown has curbed corruption, but also sidelined many of Xi’s competitors and crippled low-level officials, who are reluctant to act without clear authorization from the top.

The government’s tightening grip on the internet under Xi also distorts internal reporting.

Decades ago, officials had little way of knowing what ordinary people were thinking, making reports a valuable channel of information. But the internet “gave everyone their own microphone,” wrote the People’s Daily, resulting in an explosion of information that internal reports struggled to parse.

The internet also posed a threat: critics bonded online, organizing to challenge the state.

Xi met both challenges. Under him, China has strengthened big data analysis to tap into the vast tide of information. Internal reports now increasingly cite the internet, with some bulletins largely made up of social media posts.

Xi also launched a campaign against “online rumours” and put millions of censors to work. One of the first to be arrested was an investigative journalist accusing a government official of corruption.

So while internal reporting now relies heavily on online information, the internet itself has become tightly censored, which can distort the message sent to the top.

Electronic surveillance has also become ubiquitous under Xi, making it more difficult to share sensitive information, a current and former state media reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized. to talk to the foreign media. Communications are heavily monitored, which keeps officials and experts, not just dissidents, under the scrutiny of the state.

As a result, people withhold critical information, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

In the early days of the virus outbreak in Wuhan, Xinhua’s Liao reported the arrest of eight “rumourmakers” for spreading “false information”.

In fact, they were doctors warning each other about the emerging virus in online chats. Her story discouraged others from speaking out, leaving central management blind to the spread of the virus.

She also wrote an internal report alerting Beijing to advice from Wuhan health authorities leaked online. But instead of galvanizing faster action, his reports made officials believe the outbreak was under control, according to University of Chicago professor Yang.

“It’s a systemic problem,” Yang said. “They were operating in a system that stifled information channels for good decision-making.”

The State Council’s information department, China’s Cabinet, declined to comment. Xinhua did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP.

The story of the virus illustrates a paradox of internal reporting: the tighter the controls, the more valuable the reports become. But tighter controls also make it harder to find reliable information.

Interviews with Chinese scholars suggest that when it comes to decisions made by the summit, there is now little room for discussion or course correction.

Although China has not expressed direct support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing’s position is clear: as part of Xi’s “no limits” partnership with Russia, officials are expressing their sympathy for Moscow’s grievances towards the West, portraying the United States as a hypocritical tyrant and NATO as the aggressor.

But in private conversations, many Chinese foreign policy experts express views that diverge from the party line. This diversity of opinion, however, is not being transmitted to Chinese leaders, some scholars fear.

“There’s a lot more diversity of opinion than you might think,” said one academic, declining to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

At the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a book published in Russia was not allowed to be translated into Chinese because it contained sections criticizing Putin, according to an academic familiar with Russian experts at the academy.

An expert has written an internal report suggesting the Chinese foreign minister call his Ukrainian counterpart, the academic said. When the call came about a week later, many academics praised the expert in a panel discussion.

Then one of the scholars said the expert should recommend Xi call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “If I do this, I will not be able to write another report,” the academic said in the expert’s writing, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Xi has not spoken with Zelenskyy since the start of the invasion.

Many experts fear that China has alienated Europe by favoring Russia. A landmark investment deal with the European Union seems almost dead, and Europe is increasingly aligning its China policy with the latter’s biggest rival, the United States.

A scholar took a calculated risk to make his point heard. Government adviser Hu Wei published an online essay in March criticizing the war and saying Beijing should side with Europe.

Hu wrote publicly because he feared his bosses would endorse an internal report, according to Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Even if the article were censored, he thought, it might attract the attention of high officials.

“The information bubble is very serious,” Zhao said. “I’m not sure even the authorities have any idea how popular a certain point of view is.”

More than 100,000 people viewed Hu’s essay online. Within hours, it was blocked.