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European Voices on China
MERICS Blog

Censorship in China: Why a Hong Kong paper slipped behind the Great Firewall

16 March 2016

By Mareike Ohlberg

Is the crack down on one of Hong Kong’s top newspapers a result of China’s stricter media policy or retaliation for a specific article? Or is it meant to boost the paper’s credibility as an independent news source before the impending takeover by Alibaba?

Sorry, this page is temporarily unavailable: This message has replaced the South China Morning Post's account on Sina Weibo.

A few days ago, reports emerged that the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post (SCMP) has been censored on the Chinese Internet. The newspaper’s accounts on various social media platforms, including Twitter-like Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, and WeChat, are no longer accessible. Web services such as GreatFire and BlockedInChina, which allow users to check whether a particular website is blocked in mainland China, return contradictory results about the accessibility of the SCMP’s English and Chinese web portals. While the English site appears to be blocked entirely, the Chinese version may only be blocked partially.

The South China Morning Post had previously been censored in mainland China at irregular intervals in the past, sharing the fate of Western news organisations from the New York Times to the Financial Times or Deutsche Welle. But the paper has been in the spotlight since last December, when Chinese Internet giant Alibaba announced it would buy its controlling share – leading to speculation that the Hong Kong based publication would now lose whatever limited freedom of reporting it still enjoyed in the Special Administrative Region.

So what do we make of this most recent round of censorship? Why the SCMP, and why now? Here are five considerations that may have played a role in the SCMP’s disappearance. While any of them could have been the main reason, they are also not mutually exclusive:

1. The SCMP was not "surnamed Party"

This was among the first theories that circulated in media in Hong Kong and Taiwan. On February 19, China’s party leader and president Xi Jinping outlined his official media policy, stressing that all media have to be "surnamed Party", i.e. speak on behalf of and absolutely obey the CCP. While Xi follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, authorities and media have bent over backwards to demonstrate their loyalty and obedience to the Party after his pronouncement. So it seems reasonable to assume that Xi’s speech resulted in a closer scrutiny and harsher censorship of media that step out of line.

2. "Internet sovereignty" in action

Since the beginning of 2016, China has issued updated regulations governing web-based publishing and news or information providers. Both sets of rules mainly regulate Chinese businesses. But by formally excluding foreign companies and joint ventures, they also provide a legal basis, at least from China’s perspective, for blocking foreign websites as well as their social media accounts on services like Weibo. Since foreign media organizations cannot obtain an official license, social media accounts such as the SCMP’s can be shut down at will.

While the new regulations change little about actual censorship practice, they have resulted in a more aggressive clampdown of media reports. For instance, the Weibo account of tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who had a staggering 37 million fans, was closed after he criticized Xi Jinping’s media policy. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) told Reuters that under Chinese law, it had the right to close the SCMP’s account.

3. It’s the NPC, stupid!

March is the time when the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are in session. During this period, different – and much stricter – rules apply. Security in Beijing tightens. Media are expected to create a "positive atmosphere" and follow instructions from propaganda departments very closely. The SCMP would not be the only one to fall victim to NPC-related censorship. As every March when the NPC and CPPCC are in session, authorities have blocked a large number of VPNs commonly used by Chinese netizens and foreigners based in China to circumvent the restrictions of the Great Firewall.

4. Retaliation for a specific news item

Quartz has argued that the current round of censorship of SCMP is the retaliation for a specific article by former editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei, which drew parallels between the backlash against tycoon Ren Zhiqiang and the Cultural Revolution. Alternatively, the Macau Daily Times suggested that the deletions could be related to the SCMP’s coverage of the missing booksellers in Hong Kong. Even though SCMP’s English site has been blocked since March 3, three days before Wang Xiangwei’s piece was published, it is still possible that the paper’s social media profiles were deleted in reaction to a particular news item.

5. Boosting the credibility of the SCMP

While this seems counter-intuitive, it is well within the realm of the possible that the censorship is meant to boost the credibility of the SCMP in the eyes of both Chinese and foreign readers. Ever since it was announced that Alibaba would buy the paper in December last year, observers have argued that the move would further erode the paper’s already diminished credibility. If Alibaba continued the trend begun under the previous owners of stifling coverage considered too critical of the Chinese Communist Party, the paper would soon become worthless as a vehicle to influence global public opinion.

China’s authorities view private takeovers of foreign media companies as a way to gain access to new channels for spreading information about China that are viewed as more trustworthy than its own state-run media. With all the talk about the diminished credibility of the SCMP under an Alibaba ownership, what better way to boost its reputation as an independent publication than by giving it a “censored in China” label?

While this is unlikely to be the only reason for blocking the paper in China, authorities may consider this a desirable side effect. 

On Censorship in China, see also: How sexuality became an ideological battleground.

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The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) is a Stiftung Mercator initiative. Established in 2013, MERICS is a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China. As a central forum for engagement with China in Germany, MERICS lays the foundations for people – especially decision-makers in Germany and Europe – to better judge questions and issues relating to China.

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