CPJ: One Country, One Censor: How China undermines media freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan

China, meanwhile, is a champion of censorship and information control. China’s government has core values that are inimical to democracy and press freedom despite constitutional provisions that say otherwise. Article 35 of its constitution states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” But plainly, Chinese people do not enjoy these rights. At the end of 2019, China had 48 journalists in prison, more than any other nation, according to CPJ research. China has faced a progressively more restrictive media environment since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.

Whatever the constitution says, Xi and China have made no secret about what’s expected from the media. Xi outlined his expectations for media standards during a visit to news establishments in February 2016, as reported by Xinhua, the state-run news agency:

All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity, Xi said.

They should enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking and deeds to those of the CPC Central Committee and help fashion the Party’s theories and policies into conscious action by the general public while providing spiritual enrichment to the people, he said.

Foreign correspondents face severe restrictions when trying to report from Tibet, Xinjiang or elsewhere. And when journalists such as Chun Hang Wong of The Wall Street Journal or Megha Rajagopalan of BuzzFeed News report on sensitive topics, they risk expulsion. Since Xi came to power, investigative journalism has been nearly wiped out and journalists are talking about a “total censorship era.”

Of course, China has no power to enforce anything like “total censorship” beyond its borders. At the same time, it has every incentive to influence editorial content overseas; for example, to blunt international moves to prevent equipment sales by Chinese telecom giant Huawei; to potentially soften public opinion against its massive “Belt-and-Road” infrastructure program or the spread of Chinese military installations aimed at securing shipping routes; or simply to enhance China’s image as a matter of pride. China’s often strong reaction to criticism in the foreign press illustrates a high degree of sensitivity. China’s leadership cares about the nation’s image.

This report looks at China’s efforts to influence media in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are on the frontlines of the battle for press freedom. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong have been bastions of civil liberties in East Asia. While one is a special administrative region of China and the other a breakaway island over which China claims sovereignty, both have vibrant Chinese and English-language media that operate outside of China’s direct control. As China has tried gradually to ramp up pressure in both markets to influence editorial content and sometimes to manipulate public opinion, freedoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan have come under strain. These two places may also be valuable signposts for how China exports censorship elsewhere in the world—and maybe, how to resist.

Taiwan hosts one of the freest media scenes in Asia, a product of its evolution from military to democratic rule in just over 30 years. But today, as China becomes more aggressive in finding ways to spread its message, Taiwan faces a dilemma: How does it maintain its openness and press freedom while facing an adversary that has vast resources and technological prowess, and lacks the values that have made Taiwan a democracy?

Based on CPJ reporting, Taiwan does not have a clear answer. As this report documents, China’s influence over local legacy and social media has grown. That influence has become potentially more worrisome as general elections on January 11, 2020 approach, reflecting fears that China is intervening surreptitiously to sway the outcome. Facing potential threats, Taiwan has employed a patchwork of legal and regulatory approaches to punish media for inaccurate reporting or distortions, while experimenting with other methods of fighting lies with truth.

Unlike in Hong Kong, Taiwan prohibits direct ownership of media properties by mainland Chinese entities or individuals without the government’s approval. That prohibition has nonetheless failed to halt China’s efforts to influence media or prevent individuals with strong business interests in China, who are potentially vulnerable to Chinese pressure, from owning Taiwanese media. Advertising, too, plays a role: Taiwan bans advertising by Chinese state, but not commercial, entities. A cursory look at Taiwan’s newspapers indicates that papers that are critical of China do not carry advertisements from China. It pays to be pro-Beijing.

China’s influence, or at least the rise of China-friendly news coverage, picked up in 2008 when chairman of the Want Want Group, Tsai Eng-meng, and his family acquired one of Taiwan’s biggest media companies, the China Times Group. Tsai is a native Taiwanese billionaire who made his fortune manufacturing and selling crackers and drinks in China. He has openly promoted closer relations with China in preparation for what he sees as eventual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. The group has an extensive list of media properties including The China Times and two other newspapers, three magazines, three TV broadcasters, including CTITV and China Television, and eight news websites or apps, according to the company. Some business practices have landed the Want Want Group in trouble and raised questions about its independence from Chinese influence.

Concerns about mainland influence over Taiwan media, including social media, deepened during the December 2018 mayoral election in the major southern city of Kaohsiung which saw the rapid rise of Han Kuo-yu.

Read this long, but excellent report here:


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