Tag Archives: censorship

Hacked off in Hong Kong: the slow painful death of a free press

14 Feb

hackDo you hear that? That’s the sound of 1,000 Old Etonians shouting “I told you so!!” at the top of their over-privileged lungs. Why? Because of what’s happening to Hong Kong’s much cherished press freedom.

This week two reports were published and the verdict was in – this former colony can no longer be said to have a free press. There were always suspicions and concerns that Beijing would come to influence the media here post-97, but it only influences in the way that George Best drove under the ‘influence’ of alcohol – let’s be honest, it’s pretty much rolled up the white flag.

The first report, Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, now puts Hong Kong in 61st out of 180, three points down from last year, below those democratic bulwarks of Burkina Faso, Moldova and Chile. To put this in perspective Hong Kong was 34th in 2010 and 18th in 2002. So what went wrong?

It’s certainly not the fault of the hacks. Well, not most of them. Many still maintain the proud tradition of holding the authorities to account and speaking the truth – which was to be fair  a hangover of the colonial days – or at least they try. Local radio host Li Wei-Ling, who has been described as “critical” of the local SAR government, was sacked this week after nine years in her role in what she claims was a deliberate attempt to muzzle her.

No, the problem lies with vested interests. Reporters Without Borders had this to say:

The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its “Liaison Office” is increasingly compromising media pluralism there.

The problem is that Hong Kong media is owned now almost entirely by businessmen with vested interests in China. In fact, more than 50 per cent have been given seats on major political assemblies, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Add this to the fact no-one wants to piss off the big bucks advertisers from the mainland and you’ve got a recipe for a fourth estate not fit for purpose.

It’s not that the media is always Beijing’s lapdog – the SCMP today reported, for example, that the Town Planning Board is about to give the Chinese PLA a piece of prime harbour front land on which to build a “military berth”. However, the issue is that as readers we don’t know how much self-censorship goes on. This is the most insidious form of censorship, not like the blatant stuff that goes on the mainland, where this week the Ministry of Truth issued an order for all websites to censor the Reporters Without Borders story. This Register headline neatly sums up the irony: the censors effectively censoring a report about censorship.

Another scathing report out this week, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, quotes award-winning former SCMP hack Paul Mooney on the issue of self-censorship.

“The problem is that people on the outside can’t tell what’s being censored on the inside. What outsiders can’t see is what is being ignored, spiked or rewritten in order to play down critical stories,” he said.

The CPJ continues:

Mooney built his career on investigative and human rights reporting but during the last nine months of his employment, he had only two news stories in the newspaper, and one of them was about pandas. “I don’t believe the China editors rejected all my story ideas. I think [Wang] Xiangwei told them not to take anything from me,” he said. 

Wang Xiangwei, for the record, was the SCMP’s new editor at the time, the first mainlander to be put in charge of the venerable old rag in its history, in itself an ominous statement of intent.

Hong Kong’s press freedom is enshrined under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution drawn up as part of the UK handover deal. However, it very soon won’t be worth the paper it’s written on, and thousands more former colonisers will have the self-satisfaction to know that it was they, not the current shambles, who were in charge during Hong Kong’s true glory days.

From opium to pig jizz: Cameron turns on the charm in China

6 Dec

david cameronDavid Cameron has been in China this week on the “can you spare some change?” tour. Along with an enormous entourage of business leaders, ministers and other hangers-on, he whored his way around the Middle Kingdom trying to promote a free trade agreement with Beijing and broker more lucrative financial deals for the UK.

He managed to do all of this, of course, in a spectacularly obsequious and utterly humiliating manner. No mention of human rights, Tibet, online censorship or even the increasingly vulgar attempts by the Communist Party to intimidate journalists over here. When US Veep Joe Biden is making you look wilfully out-of-touch by raising the matter with Beijing, it’s probably time for a strategy rethink. You kowtowing cock.

So what was the highlight of the week? A contender was surely China’s subtle attempt to assassinate our PM via air pollution in Shanghai that topped 400 on the AQI today – literally off the scale. But no, my top pick was Wheeler Dealer Dave shaking on a £45 million contract to export pig semen to China. Yup. Apparently the Chinese have an insatiable appetite for the stuff – pork not pig wank – and this high quality jizz will go some way to sustaining the largest pig population on Earth. Apparently Dave joked that is was like “selling coals to Newcastle”. Given that my home town hasn’t exported coal for over one hundred years, we should probably update this phrase for the 21st century. How about “like selling pig spunk to China”? Yeah, that’ll do.

In a related story – bear with me – Hong Kong’s female population is positively crying out for jizz, although presumably with the caveat it must be human, according to The Atlantic. The gender imbalance in the SAR has apparently reached epic proportions, with over 200,000 women living alone according to the 2011 Census. The depressing reality is that one in five born today will apparently stay single for the rest of their lives. Sorry girls.

My advice: go out and get drunk once in a while. Going shopping with your parents every weekend is not normal behaviour for anyone past puberty. We all know the first step towards a stable, loving relationship is getting twatted almost to the point of blindness and then pulling a random in a bar. Never did me any harm anyway.

Mooning the Party this Mid-Autumn Festival

20 Sep

mooncakeIt’s Mid Autumn festival in China: a lunar holiday where families get together over a healthy dinner of seafood, offal, chickens’ extremities and pig anus to complain why their youngest sons/daughters/nephews/nieces aren’t married yet, while their kids fire up the Galaxy Note for the 71st time that day.

I’m being flippant of course. The lanterns bedecking every house, block of flats and public building in Hong Kong at this time of year are actually quite lovely, especially at night, and the giving of thanks to the moon – in years gone by to celebrate the harvest – is a lot more spiritually nourishing than the veneration of a magic Jewish baby.
It’s also nicknamed the “moon festival” and locals eat mooncakes – a traditional Chinese food (danger team) which usually consists of a round pastry-wrapped pie filled with a disgusting slurry of lotus seed paste, red bean paste, or something equally offensive to my delicate western pallet. Imagine tasting a selection of lovingly prepared mooncakes and you’ve just imagined eating a pack of Revels with all the nice ones taken out.
Still, legend goes that back in the 14th century, the humble mooncake helped China topple the mighty Mongols, after Ming revolutionaries communicated  by baking secret messages In the pastry. Mmm delicious revolution .
Sticking the Vs up to the Party

The festival this year has also coincided with more online unrest in China, this time concerning the so-called the Big Vs. These are weibo’s verified account holders, or at least, some of its most popular users, many of whom have accrued followers in their millions and become pretty influential as opinion movers and shapers online.

The problem is that the Communist Party doesn’t much like it when mere mortals start speaking their brains, especially if their thoughts are at odds with Mao, Deng, Marx et al.

Witness the case of poor old Charles Xue, a Chinese American venture capitalist. Now I don’t have much time for VCs, their over-inflated egos and their massive wallets, but Xue has been a powerful voice on Sina Weibo, usually for social good. His campaign against kidnapping in China, and support for Deng Fei’s clean water campaign managed to effect real change in a country where things usually only get done when palms are greased, guanxi tapped and prostitutes exchanged in luxury 5 star hotels.

Unfortunately, rather than let Mr Xue do his thang, the Party decided in its wisdom to make a scapegoat of him. It has been clamping down of late on any online discussions it doesn’t like the sound of, with the increasingly paranoid air of a meth-addled tramp. The great and good of Zhongnanhai call it a campaign to rid the Chinternet of online “rumours” – there’s even jail time promised for popular tweeters whose messages are deemed to fall in this category – but to be honest, it’s just an excuse. I mean, you don’t see Xinhua hauled over the coals for republishing as fact so many Onion stories by now it’s just embarrassing.

Yup, if the Communist Party of China were a person its family and friends would have staged an intervention long ago.

So Xue was arrested the other week for soliciting prostitutes and banged up at His General Secretary’s pleasure to think on his debauched behaviour. Now if it actually happened, he did break the law, fair and square. But quite tellingly, Xue was then paraded before state-run CCTV apologising, not for his filthy whoreing, but for spreading online rumours. Exactly what does his social media profile have to do with his nightime sojourns with ladies of sexy repute? Exactly.

It was such a blatant stitch up it would be funny, if it wasn’t China. The more troubling back story, of course, is that the whole new online rumour clamp down is already stifling debate on an interweb already patrolled by the formidable censorship apparatus of the Great Firewall.

I’ve said it before but once a government creates this kind of a society they can forget about building any kind of cultural soft power to spread throughout the world. Bland TV, bland state-approved movies, awful music and a culture where no one wants to stick their head above the parapet, start an innovative online business, build the next Google.

Already the Big Vs are rushing to have their verified status removed on the country’s microblogs. The rationale is that without the giant letter next to their name they’ll attract less attention. It’s unlikely to work.

Pretty soon they’ll be forced to rely on mooncakes to spread their message.

Bo Xilai and the Jets of Power

29 Aug

bo xilaiThe local press over here has been dominated during the past few days by the sensational trial of Bo Xilai – former Chongqing party secretary and charismatic womaniser, whose estranged wife was recently convicted of murdering British business man Neil Heywood.

Whether you believe, as many Chinese do, that Bo was a victim of a vindictive wife and party rivals who didn’t care for his brand of populist Mao 2.0 politics or, as many other Chinese do, that he ran a Mafia-like operation for decades, swindling, extorting, embezzling and intimidating, it doesn’t really matter.

His trial was all for show – a show of power for Xi Jinping and the rest of the new Politburo who are trying to put clear red water between themselves and the previous administration with a well-publicised crack down on Party corruption.

The unfortunate truth for them – neatly suppressed by the Great Firewall and China’s ubiquitous Public Security Bureau – is that for every Bo there are thousands of others. Some are little Bo’s, others are probably Bo-sized in their corruption, but all share his greed, opportunism and insane Hungry Hippo-like grab for power and wealth.

This, to be brutally honest, is what happens when one political party remains in power for over 60 years. Where’s the alternative?

Well, they drove over it with tanks in 1989, or put it under house arrest till it died.

Corruption is so endemic there’s even a story knocking around that it’s the reason why the government refuses to issue any banknotes larger than 100 yuan – because that would make it easier to physically hand over large sums as bribes.

That said, Bo wasn’t the biggest news story of the week for me in China. Oh no.

Hubei’s Chutian City paper had a corker of a story about a young boy who was hurled two metres in the air by one of those annoying multi-coloured fountains that have started appearing in city centres everywhere.

The kid was apparently playing in the fountain when a high pressure jet blasted him into the stratosphere before gravity brought the unfortunate crashing down to earth (concrete) with a bloodied nose.

I for one am hoping this incident is publicised as widely as possible. Not only to stop lazy urban planners across the friggin’ planet from installing these depressing aqua features in public places, but from stopping screaming little shits turning city centres everywhere into de facto chav-infested leisure centres.

hubei fountain

You can just make out the boy flying through the air upside down in this first pic, and there he is all beaten up in the second. Ouch.

Being as this is China, some unscrupulous fountain manufacturing company with little regard for heath and safety has no doubt signed a nationwide deal for  the fucking things after lobbing a sackful of yuan at the right Party cadre.

As Beijing Cream reports, China has previous when it comes to overly aggressive water features.

In 2006 a 19-year-old Henan lassie had her stomach rearranged by an angry water jet, and just a fortnight ago an eight-year-old in Shandong had to undergo emergency surgery after fountain literally ruptured his rectum.

Parents of China take note: if you don’t want your children subjected to an impromptu colonic, keep them well clear.

Southern Weekly saga: porridge, censorship and hacked off hacks in Xi’s China

10 Jan

chinaflagIt’s been a rather depressing, or optimistic, week in China depending on how you view the Party’s latest not-so-subtle attempts to strangle free speech and the unusually vocal reaction to it.

It all began when propaganda chief of the southern Guandong province, Tuo Zhen, decided he didn’t like an already edited-for-his-pleasure New Year’s message in the liberal-leaning Southern Weekly and decided to re-write it, removing the bits calling for reform and adding his own anodyne intro.

Considering China’s hacks already conform to imposing censorship requirements, the editorial team got rather peeved at this blatant hatchet job and went on strike.

Messages of support from scholars, students – and maybe more importantly, bloggers and celebs with tens of millions of followers on weibo – followed as the stand-off between the hacks and the Party-influenced paper management continued.

An editorial in state-run rag Global Times playing down the dispute was ordered by the Party to be published in papers across the country, forcing the principled Dai Zigeng, editor-in-chief of the Beijing News, to resign after he refused to do so.

Undeterred, the BJ Daily, as it’s called by no-one, ran a fascinating article about porridge in defiance of the Party. Yes. Porridge. Read CMP here for the reason why porridge is now politically dissident (hint: It involves homophones and metaphors).

All of this can be set against the backdrop of incoming Party and national leader Xi Jinping’s crusade for reform and transparency. Xi has made it his mission to root out corruption in the Party and sent some pretty strong signals so far that this isn’t just an attempt to cement his popularity and power base.

So is this a particularly sad day for freedom of speech in China’s admittedly pretty sad history? It depends what you believe is going on here.

To take the pessimistic view one could see the message coming loud and clear from the new administration that no relaxing of the country’s tough censorship laws will be allowed, despite initial hope that the country’s new leaders would be a tad more liberal.

A leaked directive sent to all editors from the Propaganda Department would seem to confirm this depressing take on things, blaming as it did the usual mythical “external hostile forces” for the development of the Southern Weekly situation and stating unequivocally: “Party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle”.

Coming from another angle, however, there are signs of encouragement.

One couldn’t expect Xi to stamp his personal mark too quickly on the presidency and the Party, in fact, he’s not even sworn in as pres until March and Party-wise the incoming leader is usually hidebound for many months and even years before they can really take control.

This whole affair could rather be seen, as Beijing-based scholar Russell Leigh Moses argues, as the result of heavy-handed actions – perhaps even designed to deliberately disrupt Xi’s reformist push – of the old guard of the Party.

In addition, pro-democracy protesters were allowed to gather freely outside the Southern Weeklybuildings – although police took pictures of many in that rather sinister “we’ll be in touch later” way police sometimes do – for several days.

And in defiance of the Party, hugely popular internet portals such as that run by Sina published theGlobal Times editorial with the crucial caveat that it did not represent their views. Acrostics in unrelated headlines were also used ingeniously to spell out messages of support for Southern Weekly.

In short, I’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on in China, as usual, but there are signs, albeit hugely caveated ones, that some things may be changing across the border.

Atmosphere, I love a Party with a happy atmosphere….*

9 Nov

jiang zemin laughingHong Kong is bracing itself for an influx of bewildered mainland Chinese searching for pencil sharpeners, kitchen knives and balloons, if reports about the 18th Communist Party Congress are to be believed.

Yes, it’s the carefully choreographed, once-every-five-years PR exercise this week, and as usual in China, the Party officials are out to stage manage the event down to the last detail.

Even for an institution that’s institutionally paranoid – how else do you rule a land mass the size of China, with a population over 1 billion for more than 50 years? – the Party Congress takes paranoia to a whole new level.

First there’s the obligatory internet clamp down, which has prevented discussion about anything remotely politically sensitive, blocked several foreign media outlets’ web sites, and even interfered with VPNs – which for those in the know is the only way to circumvent the Great Firewall and access banned content.

However, this year’s affair has also given rise to some rather unusual extra precautions.

Taxi drivers in Beijing have been ordered to remove all passenger window handles and keep them firmly locked, and told to keep an eye out for anyone carrying balloons or ping pong balls.

The reason, apparently, is to prevent said items being distributed with reactionary slogans drawn on them. That, as we all know, is how the French Revolution started.

Toy airplanes have also disappeared from the shelves of Beijing stores – presumably to prevent some kind of tiny 9-11 happening to Communist Party HQ, and pigeon fanciers have been told to keep their birds locked up – this was apparently an old school, pre-internet way of sewing political dissent.

The sale of knives has, a little more understandably, been banned for the week – leaving budding chefs in need of a new Sabatier in the lurch – and the edict has been rather excessively applied to all blades, including pencil sharpeners.

Evil bastards, pencil sharpeners, I once saw a man mugged by one in Brixton…

Finally, the inappropriately named Ministry of Culture has reportedly cancelled a US amateur production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Needless to say, the group performed in Hong Kong with no adverse effect on the political stability of the region.

* Yes, this actually happened. We are all responsible.

China’s obsession with porn: what a colossal waste of time

2 Aug

XXXChina is truly a unique nation and no-where is this more evident than its nonsensical attitude to pornography.

Yup, since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, the production, distribution and consumption of any smutty content has been illegal, but why?

If you look at all the countries of the world, the ones which have restrictions on such material 99% of the time do so because of religious reasons – or religion masquerading as morality. Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Iran the list goes on and on for a depressingly long time, with the majority of oppressive regimes located here in Asia.

Then we come to China – a nation where religion is barely tolerated by the Communist Party. Just ask the Falun Gong, a religious sect hounded out of the country as a “heretical organisation”, or the Muslims of Xinjiang Province, who have been told this month that they cannot fast during Ramadan.

The Party’s not keen at all on organised religion yet behaves in a quasi-religious way towards pornography.

Just this week, Chinese police smashed a massive porn site and arrested over 2,000 unlucky punters. Many of them will get let off with a warning but this will mean serious jail time for the site admins.

Ironically, the site, which had been going since 2009, was only discovered after a nosy Mum decided to find out why her son’s high school grades had taken a sudden turn for the worse…

What a colossal waste of everyone’s time. Seriously. Can you imagine the police hours involved in the three-month investigation, which spanned the entire country?

And for what? So the Party can prove once again it is protecting the moral health of the populace?

In reality, it often uses porn – lumped in with internet fraud, gambling and malware – as an excuse to ‘clean up the web’ periodically. The real target in these clean up initiatives is usually political opponents of the Party or just general troublemakers.

Surely the Party is missing a trick here. A wank-happy population with a steady supply of porn is far less likely to rebel against its masters than one deprived, agitated and excluded, seeking out underground forums like the site recently shuttered.

If religion used to be the opiate of the people, then today surely it’s internet porn.

We need to get organised on this people because one day China is going to rule the world, and I for one worry about the future…

Sacré bleu! China’s hacks need to go back to school

24 Jul

tour de franceHere’s another snapshot into the insanity of Chinese online censorship and terrible journalism, courtesy of Illuminant, a PR agency based in the People’s Republic.

As the firm points out in this post, a news story broke all over social media in the country that a whopping 1,832 riders never finished this year’s Tour De France cycle-fest.

No, you haven’t been so drip-fed news by western media of British hero Bradley Wiggins’ epic victory as to have missed this massive story – it is in fact complete and utter bollocks.

What happened, according to Illuminant, is that state-run news wire Xinhua accidentally typed that 156 out of 1,988 riders finished the race. In reality, only 198 took part – the extra ‘8’ being nothing more than a simple typo.

All this would have been forgivable but then the People’s Daily – the Communist Party’s mouthpiece and one of the giant’s of the Chinese newspaper industry – jumped on this stat and put out its own story based on the apparent shockingly low number of finishers.

This in turn was duly cut-and-pasted without any fact-checking by the four biggest web portals in China – Sina, QQ, Sohu and Net Ease – which between them are read by more than the total online population of most nations.

So what do you think happened as a result?

An edict from the Party clamping down on poor standards in journalism? New regulations designed to make journalists more accountable and to force them to source any news first hand?

Well, probably none of the above actually because they have already happened. Last year.

Nothing is likely to be done as a result, however, for one very good reason.

Although the aim of the new regulations, which could even end in prison sentences and a career-ending sacking for erring hacks, was ostensibly to improve standards in journalism, it wasn’t really.

It was actually brought in to control the spread of ‘harmful rumours’ online. These rumours, of course, being harmful to no-one but the Party. A cock-up reporting the Tour de France is not exactly going to cause the collapse of communism in China and so will no doubt be left alone.

By contrast, when rumours emerged online that there may have been a coup in central Beijing all hell broke loose – arrests, web sites shut down and comments suspended on some of the biggest social media sites.

The lesson from all this is pretty clear: China’s a great place to be a terrible hack, just stick to covering meaningless sporting events on the other side of the globe.

Hong Kong turns 15, hacks revolt

3 Jul

Hong Kong colonial flagHong Kong. It’s easy to forget sometimes staring goggle-eyed at the splendorous neon-skyscrapered waterfront or ambling through the whore-infested byways of Wan Chai that this is part of China.

The special administrative region (SAR) turned 15 on Sunday. Well, its new life as an autonomous part of the People’s Republic turned 15 – and like all teenagers it’s getting increasingly riled with its parents.

As new CEO CY Leung was sworn in by Chinese president Hu Jintao hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the appointment of their new leader – done far away from the troubling spotlight of democratic elections – whom they view as an agent of Beijing, despite his claims to the contrary.

Several protestors even carried proudly aloft the old colonial Hong Kong flag – a symbol of “all we have lost”, they said – while another was bundled into a police van after rudely heckling Hu’s speech.

Back in pre-’97 times democratic rights were similarly limited, but personal freedoms, human rights and the rule of law were more securely anchored. Many feel, rightly or wrongly, that Beijing has gradually chipped away at these things which Hong Kongers had come to take for granted.

One thing they could also be more sure of back then was a free press unfettered by direct or indirect pressure from Beijing.

Looking at some of the anodyne stories in the South China Morning Post these days – most notably the reporting of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang – it’s not hard to see why most Hong Kong dwellers now think the press is actively engaged in self-censorship.

The SCMP faced angry protestor at its gates and a petition signed by staff after it downplayed news of the suspicious death of Li a few weeks ago.

In addition, almost 90 per cent of HK journos think press freedom has “deteriorated significantly” under the outgoing administration, with the government accused of tightening its grip on information by restricting the number of events accessible to reporters and increasing off-the-record briefings.

President Hu did nothing to quell any such fears in his speech at Leung’s swearing in ceremony, as the China Media Project blog picked up:

[We must] adhere to and implement a fully accurate ‘one country two systems’ policy, acting in strict accord with [Hong Kong’s] Basic Law, combining the priorities of upholding ‘one country’ while respecting differences in the ‘two systems,’ preserving the authority of the central Party and ensuring a high-level of autonomy in the Special Administrative Region, preserving overall national interests and ensuring various interests within Hong Kong society, supporting Hong Kong in actively developing international exchanges and opposing interference in Hong Kong affairs by outside forces . . .

These ‘outside forces’, according to the Hong Kong Uni-based project, are journalists, web-based loud mouths and any others who say things in public that powerful people don’t like the sound of.

Stuff like this, then, probably.

I’ll get my coat…