BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. The great firewall of China, the digital fortress aimed at keeping out the marauding forces of uncensored news information, entertainment and literature, is being reinforced. Already heavily censored, the country's three largest news organizations got a visit last month from President Xi Jinping, just to remind them, you know, where their loyalties must lie.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They are there to serve the interests of the Communist Party.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The media should be, first and foremost, a Communist Party mouthpiece.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He told executives that the media must protect the Party’s authority.
BOB GARFIELD: It's their party and they’ll decry if they want to, decry Western influence, decry anti-revolutionary sentiment, decry criticism. Meanwhile, new laws have been put into place prohibiting foreign publishers from loading any content onto Chinese servers without government approval.
Lokman Tsui is assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former head of free expression for Google's Asia and Pacific regions. Lokman, welcome to On the Media.
LOKMAN TSUI: Thanks for having me here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s start with the March 10th development, the law that blocks foreign companies from publishing any content online of, quote, “informational or thoughtful nature without prior approval from the government” that could cover just about anything.
LOKMAN TSUI: That is sort of the point. [LAUGHS] And it's not that it's ever been specific in the law. They already have really broad categories for the kind of content that is not permitted. When Google decided to move its search engine outside of China, it was at that point Google versus China. That was in 2010, and since then, you know Facebook is not there and Twitter is not there, YouTube is not there, Dropbox is not there. And, you know it’s no longer Google versus China. It’s now pretty much the Internet versus China, right?
It’s not like, you know, this law suddenly changes what’s going on in China. It’s really just codifying what’s already going on. The big idea that Xi has been pushing is this idea called Internet sovereignty. It’s a fancy word for being able to justify that, hey, I have the right to control the Internet inside my country.
BOB GARFIELD: The new laws affect foreign media outlets but the most glaring impact is on domestic media, now explicitly expected to promote the government and the party. I want to play some tape from a video that was published at the order of President Xi to put a positive spin on his latest Five-Year Plan. And here's a bonus. It’s in English.
[13TH FIVE-YEAR PLAN CAMPY SONG]:
Hey, have you guys heard what’s going on in China?
President Xi Jinping’s new style?
Yes, and there’s more.
This is Shi San Wu.
The what? China’s 13th Five-Year Plan.
Yeah, the Shi San Wu.
Every five years in China, man, they make a new development plan.
The time has come for number 13.
The Shi San Wu, that’s what it means.
As the plan goes from high to low
The government experience continues to grow
They have to work hard and deliberate
Because a billion lives are all at stake!
Like every Zhao, Quin, Sun, Li, Zhou, Wang…
BOB GARFIELD: When the public sees this kind of cheesy propaganda, do they roll their eyes?
LOKMAN TSUI: People might have opinions about it but they, they won’t air it, and then so it’s the classic sort of spiral of silence theory from, from Neumann, explaining how the Second World War could happen in, in Germany back then. If you have an opinion but you think the majority doesn't share that opinion, you won’t voice it, and hence, the spiral of silence.
Sometimes you see when the crackdown is intensifying, you’ve seen a couple of people within the government speaking up, saying, hey, this might not be a good thing, you know, assuming the media also serve the public. That’s huge. You do see sort of these moments where someone says, hey, you know the emperor doesn’t have any clothes on.
BOB GARFIELD: Speaking of the emperor, since the death of Mao Zedong, there have been, I don’t know, half a dozen leaders of China. None of them, with the possible exception, of Zhou Enlai, had a cult of personality built around him. But it, it looks almost as though Xi is trying to cultivate that very thing. Is that my imagination?
LOKMAN TSUI: No, it’s not your imagination. [LAUGHS] I think it's absolutely true. You can just look at the difference in media content and campaigns. There was this joke on Twitter. They looked at the front page of the People's Daily, 11 of the articles [LAUGHS] on the front page were all about Xi, on the
[ ? ] and even on the [ ? ]. The term was, you know they were the first among equals. [LAUGHS] That’s no longer the case under Xi; Xi is just the first.
BOB GARFIELD: there’s one other little wrinkle to this crackdown I wanted to ask you about.
LOKMAN TSUI: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: A Hong Kong bookstore owner just kind of vanished, apparently to the Mainland, where it was presumed that he was being held by authorities for some slight, real or imagined, against the Party.
LOKMAN TSUI: There are five [ ? ] at this point, not just one, that are all, if you ask me, being kidnapped to China. They are based in Hong Kong. We have high levels of autonomy, according to the basic law. You know, we allow free expression here. The books they publish are flies in the ointment kind of stuff , meaning unauthorized biographies of political leaders, undocumented love lives of political leaders, you know, and all that stuff.
And so, what’s happened is that, you know, like at some point they disappeared. The wife reports this, saying, you know, he’s gone. I don’t know where he went. This one particular person, the boy was in Hong Kong. There was another person who was in Thailand in this nice fancy resort in Pattaya, I believe, also, for some mysterious reasons ended up in China. And so, this is not just about Chinese soil and, you know Chinese territory, right? They’re going outside the borders to grab people, at this point.
BOB GARFIELD: And if you’re the Hong Kong political elite, it’s all about choosing your battles with the Mainland government and party, right? So is this where they draw the line in the sand and defend this guy's rights?
LOKMAN TSUI: No, the interesting thing is that they got the people to confess on television. He was forced to be on TV and then said, okay, you know I, I went back to China to confess a crime I did 13 years ago. I hit someone with my car, and now 13 years later, you know while I was lounging in my pool in Thailand, I suddenly got a wave of guilt, you know, and I felt compelled to go back and confess my crime.
The utility to this public confession is to keep up this charade that, hey, you know, we are still complying with law and we haven’t done nothing wrong because, hey, you know he’s here by himself, we didn’t grab him, right? And hey, you know the fact that he, you know has certain rights, you know he’s giving them up voluntarily. Look, you know, he said so himself on television. If you're the Hong Kong authorities, you’re put in a very difficult spot, right? Youi know, what are you going to do?
BOB GARFIELD: It has a kind of Cultural Revolution tinge to it, the forced confessions, the parading of the political criminals for public consumption. China is not heading in that direction, is it?
LOKMAN TSUI: It's hard to say. I mean, we’re getting closer to it, for sure, right? And these are the things that happened 50 years ago exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you about your personal stake in all this, I mean, apart from –
LOKMAN TSUI: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: - teaching journalism and watching with some dismay as freedoms are rolled back, you have a particular interest in a robust Internet culture and the freedom that goes with it. Why?
LOKMAN TSUI: I grew up in Amsterdam in Holland, as a son of two parents from Hong Kong, but I always had close ties to my family here and the culture here. I think I was in the first year of college and, you know I saw this movie by a Hong Kong film director, Wong Kar-wai, called Chungking Express.
[FILM CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
ANNOUNCER: On the streets of Hong Kong, a mysterious woman, a young cop and an innocent dreamer are about to meet where mystery and romance collide.
LOKMAN TSUI: I came out of that film theater thinking, holy crap, you know, this is an amazing movie. I ended up making an unofficial website for the film director, and that way found out that actually a lot of people cared about this movie and, you know wanted to talk about it. And this is why I feel so strongly about free expression. You know when we talk about free expression, it's either about finding out about Truth, with a capital T, right, or it’s important for self-governance. But the third argument for free expression is that it's really important for autonomy. And that’s something that resonates with me very deeply, autonomy being sort of understood as becoming who you are, who you want to be, right? And it includes figuring out who you are.
BOB GARFIELD: Lokman, thank you very much.
LOKMAN TSUI: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Lokman Tsui teaches journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.