Censorship and threats after newspapers publish joint editorial about hukou

Published on 9 March 2010

Reporters Without Borders urges the Propaganda Department to lift the censorship imposed on a joint editorial in 13 Chinese daily newspapers calling for the elimination of the internal passport system known as the “hukou.” The press freedom organisation has learned that journalists working for news media that published the editorial have been threatened with punishment.

“Initiating a debate about the hukou on the eve of a session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing was a very positive move,” Reporters Without Borders said. “But, as usual, the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department reacted with censorship and repression. This insult to common sense is yet another example of the tension between Propaganda Department conservatives and pro-reform media.”

The press freedom organisation added: “We urge Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and National People’s Congress chairman Wu Bangguo to order the lifting of all press censorship, a Chinese disease that prevents useful debates from getting under way.”

Published by 13 newspapers in such places as Guangdong, Henan, Fujian and Chongqing on 1 March, the joint editorial called for the end of the hukou, a system introduced during the Maoist era that prevents many Chinese, especial rural residents, from moving to other parts of the country. “China has long suffered from the Hukou system,” the editorial said. “We think that citizens are born free and should have the right to freedom of movement. We urge delegates to do everything possible to propose a hukou reform timetable.”

The editorial was removed from websites within hours of its appearance. The special pages dedicated to hukou reform which the Economic Observer, one of the newspapers responsible for the editorial, had created on its website (www.eeo.com.cn) were quickly suppressed. Even the very official People’s Daily was forced to take the editorial down shortly after posting it. The foreign press was meanwhile hailing the courageous initiative.

Censorship continues to be a “Chinese disease” because of the Propaganda Department and local authorities. Editors often receive written or oral directives forbidding them to cover a national or international story. Sometimes the order instructs them to limit themselves to using the official version of the events. Here are some recent examples:

Another tainted milk scandal hushed up

When a new tainted milk scandal erupted at the start of this year, the Propaganda Department in the southern province of Guangdong prevented the publication of independently-reported articles on the subject. Previously, in September 2008, a Propaganda Department directive told media to restrict the publication of articles or comments about baby formula contaminated with melamine that had caused severe renal lesions in hundreds of Chinese babies. Censorship of a TV series about housing problems

The TV series “Place to live,” showing the everyday lives of young people trying to find accommodation, was censored last November. A Beijing TV station was forced to terminate the series after broadcasting just two episodes. This act of “self-censorship” was reportedly the result of complaints by real estate developers and government officials who felt offended. The series highlighted the difficulties of “housing slaves” forced to allocate much of their salaries to paying off mortgages. Some extracts from the series:


Reports of a suspicious death censored in Hubei province

Irate residents of Shishou, in the central province of Hubei, refused to believe the official version that the death of a Yonglong Hotel cook, Tu Yuangao, was a case of suicide. Their suspicion was due in part to the illegal activities that reputedly took place in the hotel, in which Shishou’s mayor has shares. More than 200 people were injured in clashes with the police when demonstrations were staged outside. The Propaganda Department ordered the media to report only the official versions of the cook’s death and the protests.

Official violence protected by censorship

When two local government officials in a district of Hubei province sexually assaulted a young waitress, Deng Yujiao, last year she defended herself and killed one of them. Accused by the police of intentional homicide, Deng received a lot of support on the Internet. A court finally convicted her of using excessive force in legitimate self-defence and she was released. The Propaganda Department initially censored coverage of the case.