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An internet email symbol and a group of people are separated by a red prohibitory symbol No. restrictions on access to the global Internet. Censorship. Information control, society isolation policy
An internet email symbol and a group of people are separated by a red prohibitory symbol No. restrictions on access to the global Internet. Censorship. Information control, society isolation policy
Adobe Stock China censorship

Can a Totalitarian State Be an Information Society?

Beijing’s clumsy social media campaigns against democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan have failed but attempts to control local media are ramping up

Taiwan’s recent presidential election (January 11, 2020) featured the largest voter turnout in its history as a democracy. Incumbent Tsai Ing-wen (right, courtesy 蔡英文官方元首肖像照), a pro-democracy progressive gained a clear victory. Tsai supported the Hong Kong protests and takes a hard line against Beijing and the reunification of China.

The events in Hong Kong helped mobilize voters because the government of China wants Taiwan to adopt the “one country, two systems” structure Hong Kong has had since Britain handed it over in 1997. To the Taiwanese, Hong Kong demonstrates that “one country, two systems” results in the erosion of freedoms, particularly a free press and free speech.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power, press freedom has diminished in China. Recently, I wrote about the tactics the Chinese government uses to ensure that local reporters, as well as foreign correspondents, portray China in a good light. Xi believes that the Western values of a free press, free speech, and separation of powers contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and that China must avoid them so as not to succumb to the same fate. But the Soviet Union fell just before the internet became today’s information superhighway. The battles are fought differently today.

An “accelerating squeeze” in Hong Kong

Hongkongers can access social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Google as well as news sites typically banned by mainland China’s Great Firewall. Hong Kong media outlets can report news that reflects poorly on the government, ignoring the Central Propaganda Department’s growing list of banned words and subjects. However, the Chinese government has found other ways to control Hong Kong’s press. Thus, freedom of the press in the special autonomous region has eroded, particularly in the last decade: “From the period before the handover to Chinese rule in 1997 until today, press freedom in Hong Kong has come under a gradual and now accelerating squeeze, despite China’s pledge to maintain Hong Kong’s open society” (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2019).

According to the Committee, open societies can be particularly vulnerable to the influence of totalitarian countries like China. Hong Kong and Taiwan provide case studies for how China uses subtle ways to control the media in places that ostensibly have a free press. Two of the ways are economic pressure and technological surveillance.

About half of Hong Kong’s news outlets are owned by companies with headquarters in mainland China. One of the largest papers in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post, was bought by billionaire and co-founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, in 2015. Ma is also a member of the Communist Party. The paper maintains that the sale to Ma has not affected its content, but critics point to the removal of stories critical of the government and downplaying the evidence of corruption:

Fast forward to today, and the paper retains a curious mixture of often quite outstanding reporting, including some brave and insightful pieces providing news about what’s going on in the Mainland. This is mixed in with a relentless diet of front-page stories portraying China’s growing prowess in the world both on the economic and political fronts.

Most of the critical voices have been purged from its comment pages leaving a stodgy residue of required reading for insomniacs. Sprinkled on top are some “brave” critics whose licence to criticise is conditional on their readiness to disparage Hong Kong’s home-grown democratic forces.

There are a couple of significant exceptions, but they would understandably not wish to be named as it would jeopardise their positions.

Stephen Vines, “Why I will no longer write for the South China Morning Post” at Hong Kong Free Press

Other outlets, such as Next Digital’s Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s second most popular paper, have lost ad revenue because the Chinese government pressures advertisers to boycott the pro-democracy paper. Apple Daily tells controversial political stories that would be censored in mainland China though its reporting sometimes reads like tabloid fare. Consequently, its reporters have been doxed online and owner Jimmy Lai has had his house firebombed twice, along with his Next Digital headquarters. Other, smaller pro-democracy papers have faced DDoS attacks, which overwhelm their servers with “traffic” so that legitimate readers cannot access their sites.

On January 12, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, was denied entry to Hong Kong for a press conference. Roth pulled no punches in his subsequent interview with TIME, saying that China poses an “existential threat to international human rights.”

In the past, China resorted to denying visas only to journalists reporting on the mainland, relying on more subversive tactics in Hong Kong. But that changed in 2018 when Victor Mallet of the Financial Times was denied a visa when he tried to enter in order to chair a Foreign Correspondents Club talk with Andy Chan. Chan is a member of the Hong Kong Nationalist Party which calls for independence from China. Many saw this incident as an emblem of waning press freedoms in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association reported that public perception of press freedom in Hong Kong dropped to a new low that year, partly in response to Mallet’s visa denial:

One out of five journalists interviewed said they have come under pressure from seniors not to report or to reduce reporting about Hong Kong independence. Both the public and the media said the Central Government is the major factor in the decline of press freedom.

Public see new low in Hong Kong’s press freedom; Beijing viewed as the major factor in decline” at Hong Kong Journalists Association (April 16, 2019)


Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index put Hong Kong at 70 out of 180 countries at the end of 2018, a significant drop from 58 in 2013. By the end of 2019, Hong Kong had dropped 3 more places.

In December 2019, eight journalists from several Hong Kong news outlets, including the South China Morning Post, were denied entry into Macao to cover President Xi’s visit to the region in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the handover of Macau to China. All but one of the journalists had registered with the Macau government.

Violence toward journalists has also escalated since the 2014 Umbrella Movement,when over thirty journalists were attacked or injured. The recent protests have seen several journalists attacked, largely by police, but also by gangs and protesters. One of the most high-profile cases was that of Veby Mega Indah, an Indonesian reporter working in Hong Kong, who was permanently blinded in one eye last September, after she was shot by police with a rubber bullet. She had been wearing a yellow journalist’s vest and goggles at the time.

China also monitors Hong Kong media via surveillance. For example, in 2018, the Media and Journalism Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, whose program produces many of Hong Kong’s journalists, was broken into in the middle of the night. Video footage showed the perpetrator doing something with the computers and the server room. The director of the Centre believes that the servers were likely bugged and assumes that the group is under surveillance.

Western media working in the area are not exempt. In a 2016 case, the documents from a meeting between Chinese and Malaysian officials showed that China offered to bug the homes and offices of reporters working for The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, a fact admitted by the head of China’s domestic security force in January 2019:

In January, The Wall Street Journal, following a change in government in Malaysia, was able to review minutes of meetings between Malaysian officials of the previous government and Chinese officials, who offered to help use their influence to get other countries to drop a corruption probe involving Malaysia. According to the minutes, China offered to bug the homes and office of Journal reporters in Hong Kong, the Journal reported. “At a meeting the next day [June 29, 2016], Sun Lijun, then head of China’s domestic-security force, confirmed that China’s government was surveilling the Journal in Hong Kong at Malaysia’s request, including ‘full scale residence/office/device tapping, computer/phone/web data retrieval, and full operational surveillance,’” according to a Malaysian summary of that meeting. “Mr. Sun says that they will establish all links that WSJ HK has with Malaysia-related individuals and will hand over the wealth of data to Malaysia through ‘back-channels’ once everything is ready,’” the summary reads. “‘It is then up to Malaysia to do the necessary.’”

One Country, One Censor: How China undermines media freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan” at Committee to Protect Journalists (December 16, 2019)

Jamil Anderlini, Asia Editor at Financial Times, predicts that Hong Kong will come under the same censorship rules that the mainland adheres to in the near future.

Flooding Twitter in Taiwan

Aside from tactics to pressure Hong Kong’s media into uncritical coverage of its activities, the Chinese government also engages in social media propaganda campaigns. For example, it tried unsuccessfully to flood Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube with anti-protester propaganda, to sway public opinion in other countries about the Hong Kong protests:

“These accounts were deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation.”

Rob Price, “Facebook and Twitter say they’ve detected a Chinese propaganda campaign targeting Hong Kong protesters” at Business Insider

While these attempts were, by most measures, remarkably unsophisticated, the Chinese government engaged in a more targeted campaign to influence the Taiwan elections. Taiwan enjoys even greater press freedom than Hong Kong, ranking 42 out of 180 countries, (compared to the United States at 48) on the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index. This ranking stands in stark contrast to thirty years ago when Taiwan was still a military state and its state-run media published mainly propaganda. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, today,

Most of the mainstream newspapers and news broadcasters have their own political allegiance or ideology and almost every political faction has its own media outlet and online platform. But a shadow hangs over this otherwise lively and diverse scene: fear that the Chinese government has taken openness and freedom as an opportunity to use hidden means to influence public opinion in Taiwan.

One Country, One Censor: How China undermines media freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan” at Committee to Protect Journalists (December 16, 2019)

In Taiwan, as elsewhere, propagandists working for Beijing flood social media with pro-Beijing rhetoric, most recently to install a pro-Beijing president in the most recent election:

Michael Cole, a Taipei-based policy analyst, said social media manipulation has become more sophisticated. ‘At first, they were using Chinese citizens, but the audience quickly realized it because they were using simplified Chinese and phrases,’ Cole said. Now, he said, the content appears to be produced in Taiwan, based on the language and presentation.

One Country, One Censor: How China undermines media freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan” at Committee to Protect Journalists (December 16, 2019)

Beijing’s campaign failed but Taiwan’s digital minister is still concerned over its concerted effort to exploit Taiwan’s free press and influence public opinion.

A country with a free press must balance free speech with protection from misinformation and disinformation. Perhaps the best protection is well-informed readers. The fact that China’s social media campaigns about the Hong Kong protests and the Taiwan elections largely failed outside the mainland testifies to the role that a free, multi-partisan press plays in upholding accountable government.

But the failed campaigns raise a question: Can a totalitarian state, dedicated largely to the control and suppression of information, succeed for long as an information society? The decades to come will provide the largest and most dramatic test in history.


See also: Serious media in China have gone strangely silent. With a compulsory new app, the government can potentially access journalists’ phones, both for surveillance and capturing data.


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Can a Totalitarian State Be an Information Society?