Murky drama plays out as Xi's clampdown tightens its grip

Murky drama plays out as Xi's clampdown tightens its grip

President Xi Jinping: Tightening control of the Chinese media. (AP photo)
President Xi Jinping: Tightening control of the Chinese media. (AP photo)

China has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. And to a seasoned observer, it looks as though something is afoot.

For a start, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a rare, high-profile tour of the country's top three state-run media outlets last Friday, telling editors and reporters they must pledge absolute loyalty to the party and closely follow its leadership in "thought, politics and action".

"The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name," Mr Xi told the propaganda workers at the meeting during which he demanded absolute loyalty from state media.

"All the work by the party's media must reflect the party's will, safeguard the party's authority, and safeguard the party's unity," Mr Xi said. "They must love the party, protect the party and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action."

Some say this betrays a lack of confidence as Mr Xi faces lurking challenges not only from within different party factions but also from among a disaffected public, grown unhappy with the slowing economy and a recent stock market meltdown.

From my experience spending five years at the China Daily in Beijing, putting the PR into the PRC, things have definitely worsened. Facebook, YouTube and Google were banned but the Great Firewall of China was evaded by using VPNs. Now former colleagues tell me there is a crackdown on this software that enables you to pretend you are in another country.

We were often told to push the red line by some managers but to avoid discussing or reporting on the three Ts and the F: the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet, Taiwan and Falun Gong. In fact, when Google was available in China, it produced no results when the word was typed in.

It was reported thousands of people monitored emails and trolls were paid to counter any anti-China sentiment on social media. "Seditious" comments were removed from domestic social media and TV screens tuned to the BBC went black when "inappropriate" stories were told, showing China in a bad light but, paradoxically, actually showing China in a worse light, a China that could not look at its face in the mirror.

We were encouraged to spy on our co-workers. The editor-in-chief said he only wanted good news about China in the paper.

And if you think that's bad, if you come from a country where the press is encouraged to keep a critical eye on the government as the "Fourth Estate", consider how much worse it is getting in the Middle Kingdom.

China is also taking another step to restrict what can be posted on the internet domestically by issuing new rules barring foreign companies or their affiliates from engaging in publishing online content there without government approval.

The rules, which were jointly released by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said that beginning on March 10, foreign companies or foreign joint ventures will be restricted from disseminating a wide range of content online, including text, maps, games, animation, audio and video.

The wives of three of my former colleagues had a knitting website they developed shut down. How absurd could that be?

Legal scholars say the new rules seem aimed at restricting any type of content that might be considered a threat to the Communist Party, or social stability, with the regulations hinting at a greater effort to bring anything published by foreign entities under Chinese law. That could well extend to explanation manuals for goods.

Then we hear China's top securities regulator will step down following months of turmoil in Chinese stock markets that have battered faith in Beijing's economic management.

The departure of Xiao Gang, a legal expert with decades of experience in the finance industry, may help assuage public anger at the dramatic boom and bust, but doesn't address the market's underlying problems.

A former school friend says Mr Xiao told him he never liked mathematics but preferred poetry. Perhaps he got poetic justice.

Then along comes the story that a Chinese court in Beijing has jailed 15 hospital "scalpers" for allegedly scamming unsuspecting patients by posing as medical staff without qualifications, exaggerating positive effects of treatments and then prescribing expensive drugs.

The court in Beijing's Chaoyang district sentenced the 15 people to jail terms ranging from 19 months to more than two years, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The Beijing court said on its official microblog that the 15 people had illegally rented consulting rooms at large hospitals and then lured in patients with fake credentials and prescribed them expensive traditional Chinese medicines.

It said the people had swindled more than 60 patients and raked in tens of thousands of US dollars in profit through the scheme.

Now we hear that six officials of Chinese megabank ICBC have been placed in detention by Spanish authorities on suspicion of laundering tens of millions of euros.

They were detained overnight and while three of them can be freed if they post bail of 100,000 euros (3.9 million baht) each, the others will remain in custody for the time being, the Madrid Appeals Court said. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is accused of allowing traders to move money earned through smuggling and tax fraud out of the country, to China, "in a way that appeared legal", Spanish police said.

More locally, it is easy to buy counterfeit goods such as DVDs on the streets of China's main cities at incredibly low prices sometimes before their cinema release date or fake branded clothes and fashion accessories in malls.

How I survived five years there I still do not know to this day. There were scandals galore such as very serious pollution, food tampered with chemical growth additions, tainted baby milk that killed, gutter oil containing faeces and HIV spread by doctors using dirty needles. I'm certainly not tempted to return even though Mr Xi has promised salaries are to double by 2020. It's simply an impossibly damaged country and it looks like Hong Kong's resistance will grow violent under new activists, encouraging the frequent protests that go unreported on the mainland by state media.

Mark Hughes spent five years as executive business editor at China Daily from 2009 to 2014. He is now a foreign editor at the Bangkok Post.

Mark Hughes

Foreign news editor

Mark Hughes is a foreign news editor, Bangkok Post. The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bangkok Post.

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