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China’s Export of Censorship (2)

Posted by Author on October 12, 2009

by Christopher Walker and Sarah Cook, Far Eastern Economic Review, October 12, 2009-

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More insidious has been an indirect form of economic intimidation, whereby publications, event organizers or governments engage in self-censorship on topics deemed sensitive to the mainland, a dynamic some have dubbed “pre-emptive kowtowing.” Given their small size, proximity and relationship to the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon.

This June, the Hong Kong edition of Esquire magazine, published by South China Media, pulled a feature story by journalist Daisy Chu on the Tiananmen Square massacre slated to run on the 20th anniversary. In 2008, a prominent legal journal in Hong Kong made a last-minute decision not to publish an article on Tibetan self-determination. A blackout on independent coverage of the Falun Gong is believed to be practiced among certain Hong Kong and Taiwanese outlets whose owners have close ties to Beijing or significant business interests on the mainland.

As China’s economic clout and role on the global stage grows, it will inevitably exert greater influence beyond its borders. However, the issue is not whether China—which features one the world’s least hospitable environments for free expression—will project influence but what shape this growing power will take. The CCP plans, for instance, to spend billions of dollars on expanding its overseas media operations in a potentially massive show of “soft power.” But whether this enormous investment will simply project the deeply illiberal values that characterize China’s domestic media scene to a wider playing field is a question advocates of free expression should seriously ponder.

This critical question, so far, does not provide an encouraging answer.

China’s attempts to insinuate itself into Taiwan’s media sector, and Beijing’s ongoing efforts to limit the vitality of Hong Kong’s media, are among the examples of this phenomenon in Asia. The CCP has recently demonstrated its willingness to suppress open expression in Germany and Australia. The United States is not immune to this pressure. The Dalai Lama will be waiting a bit longer for his meeting with President Obama.

The Chinese government’s position at the vanguard of efforts to monitor and filter Internet content, using its wealth and technical acumen to devise methods to limit the free and independent flow of information online, also has serious transnational implications for free expression. China effectively serves as an incubator for new media suppression; authoritarian governments around the world carefully watch China’s censorship techniques and learn from its innovations.

The community of democratic states must acknowledge the Chinese government’s growing media ambitions and efforts to censor beyond its borders. Acquiescence in this challenge will only embolden the Chinese authorities.

Christopher Walker is director of studies and Sarah Cook is an Asia researcher at Freedom House.

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