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Hard and Soft Censorship Regimes in China and Hong Kong

The next speaker in this closing plenary at ICA 2010 is Joseph Chan, who focusses on the China and Hong Kong perspective. He notes that freedom of speech, press freedom, and freedom of assembly are guaranteed by many national constitutions around the world - but they are often only partically practiced; especially so in China and Hong Kong. China censors traditional media as well as new media: it persists and remain very effective.

For new media, the censorship system is based on that for traditional media, and orchestrated through state directives as well as direct intervention (mainly through phone calls to avoid leaving a paper trail). China has a government department for social stability which oversees these efforts, addressing any potentially damaging accusations against the central government; local governments make their own efforts as well. Online, there is more room for deviance or dissent, and this is significant.

Joseph has himself experienced censorship - he was required to remove certain sections from an journal article on Hong Kong since the handover (relating especially to the democracy movement, the Tian An Men Square massacre, and the 1 July 2003 demonstrations against Hong Kong's national security legislation); and remove direct criticism of the Chinese goverment from an edited book. The logic here is one of political correctness - language is changed and certain euphemisms must be used.

The Net is also subject to some restrictive controls - only state-licenced news operators (party-controlled mass media) are allowed to gather news; keyword control is excercised to block certain terms and topics; and any detection of sensitive messages leads to a deletion of content. At the same time, the inherent properties of the Internet (greater anonymity, networked communication patterns, greater interactivity) provide a basis for the Net to be treated as a freer media form, and the Net can serve as a platform for the building of agendas for the media and government - especially in the context of unfolding events, where the netizens' discussion puts pressure on the mainstream media and the government to address emerging issues.

The Net also serves as a gathering-place for like-minded people from all political perspectives; it provides a space for discussion along more dissenting and controversial lines. Genuine public opinion begins to emerge here, separate from official state and media opinion. While overall information control is still effective, and state censorship has been internalised by journalists, there is nonetheless a slow diversification of opinions, then.

Self-censorship is a more subtle process through which journalists omit certain information to appease power centres, out of their fear of authorities. This is the case also in Hong Kong, where in principle there is a high degree of press freedom - since the handover to China, there has been a greater degree of self-censorship in the press; this is not an honorable phenomenon, and few journalists will openly admit to it.

Hong Kong's TVB television station is a notable case; it has increasingly covered establishment voices and backgrounded dissent (and largely downplayed the 2009 Tian An Men Square commemorations in its coverage, for example), and been accused of turning into a Chinese mainland-style 'CCTVB' channel. This created significant pressure on TVB to lift its game, which appears to have happened.

Such self-censorship occurs not through direct pressure, but through more subtle social and economic pressure. There is a general expectation for Hong Kong media to present a 'united front', and media operators are only allowed to do business in China if they toe the party line; journalists have quickly learnt the rules of the game, but keep arguing for a higher degree of freedom in their work.

All of this is related to the distribution of power within society, of course - if that distribution is uneven, censorship pressures can be brought to bear more easily. Where it is more even - as in Hong Kong - and where there is a genuine people power as well, there is better hope for genuine freedom of speech.

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