The Great Leap Backwards of media in China

Cover Image of RSF report on the state of media freedom in China.Image by Badiucao, used with permission.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based international NGO, has regularly produced an annual index since 2002 describing the state of media freedom across the world, including China, the latest of which was released in May 2023. In early 2022, RSF also published a report called “The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China,” an ironic reference to Mao’s Great Leap Forward that, in 1958–1962, eventually led to massive starvation and millions of deaths.

To understand the nuances not only of censorship and state violence but also of resilience and journalistic courage, Global Voices interviewed Cédric Alviani, head of the Taiwan-based office of RSF for East and Southeast Asia. The interview took place in person in English in Taipei and has been edited for style and brevity.

Filip Noubel (FN) Why give such a title to your report, and what are the main findings in this 2023 edition? 

Cédric Alviani (CA): In 2019 we published a report called “China's pursuit of a new world information order” to analyse Beijing's footprint in global media through advertising and media purchase, pressure, statements by ambassadors. Our reports are written for the general public based on information that is widely accessible online. Our latest report was initially published in early 2022 and offers three parts covering journalism, and how Xi Jinping has in the past decade distorted investigative journalism, not unlike during the Maoist period when the state media was also highly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The second part deals with Hong Kong, and the last part talks about the right of the Chinese people to access and share information, particularly over the internet.

The title is a bit provocative, but it is an honest title: there has truly been a dramatic recess over the past decade. From the 1990s onwards, high-quality investigative journalism started to develop in China. Even the state owned-agency Xinhua sometimes criticised government and Party officials. Those investigations often forced the government to act to deal with corruption, such as in the landmark cases of the AIDS villages, the scandal around poor construction of schools after the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the deaths of migrant workers in detention.

In 2012, Xi Jinping established his control over China and decided he didn't want the media to keep conducting such an “external audit” of Chinese society. This is a great loss for China as the CCP clearly cannot play this role, being itself an actor involved at all stages of decision making. So Xi brought the media back under tight control, first by focusing on state-owned media, and then on independent and investigative journalists, and finally through regulations banning the use of VPN, by punishing authors of posts that are critical and become viral, and expanding legislation about national security and espionage. This is really a Great Leap Backwards. It is very destructive for a Chinese society that is no longer able to reflect upon itself, as was seen with the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019 when local authorities decided to hide the reality from the public until it became impossible to deny. This attitude wasted the key period of three weeks during which the epidemic could have been contained. During the SARS epidemic of 2002–2004, China had indeed much more transparency.

FN: Today, media does include social media. Can we still talk about the diversity of opinions on social media in China? 

CA: Chinese people have a lot of different opinions, and when they can, they do express them. It is absolutely untrue to claim that Chinese people all support the CCP, that they don't complain as long as there is economic growth. Despite punishment becoming harsher, and the high risk of losing their jobs, people do protest. We saw it with the outbreak of COVID-19, and in late 2022 with the White Paper movement that was leaderless and spontaneous. The government gave up their ‘zero-Covid‘ policy almost overnight, realising how dangerous that movement was for their grip on power. We of course have no reliable data on how many people have been detained, arrested and charged after this, but the fact is people did protest, perfectly knowing the risks. To sum up, the public sphere in China is no longer open to public debate: the minute one starts getting influential, despite all the guarantees made by the Chinese constitution that includes freedom of expression and of the press and other rights, they may receive a harsh punishment.

For more on protests in China, read Chinese citizens find ways to dissent despite the risks

FN: What is the situation in Hong Kong, given that you just conducted an observation mission there in late June

CA: In RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, Hong Kong currently ranks 140th, the same level as China two decades ago, while China now ranks as low as 179 out of 180 countries and territories evaluated. Hong Kong is a frontline between the two systems that currently clash in the world: the liberal democracy model that is far from being perfect, but stands to improve, and the authoritarian model.

What’s different with Xi Jinping is that he is totally unapologetic about authoritarianism and openly rejects the universality of human rights. China goes as far as encouraging other governments to control their media to ‘guarantee stability.’ There is still a high level of freedom in Hong-Kong, but the Chinese regime wants it lowered because it also stands as the dream of people on the mainland. Hong Kong was once considered as a model for China’s transition to the rule of law, but now it’s the opposite and the Beijing regime is actively trying to put an end to this open system.

The cost is high though: international businesses are not coming back to Hong Kong after the pandemic, or are moving to other places in Asia. The closing of independent media, the challenged reliability of information, the detention of journalists (12 are behind bars as of now, which is unprecedented), and government pressure on the Foreign Correspondents’ Club are all some of the many factors behind that.

It is still possible to report on many issues in Hong Kong, but the National Security Law has opened the door to arbitrary accusations and detention of journalists, making it increasingly dangerous for them to report on topics related to politics and society. If rule of law is not applied in 100 percent of the cases, then there is no rule of law.

RSF's full report is available for download here.

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