Chinese Government Increases Censorship by Restricting "Extra-Territorial" Reporting

August 28, 2005

In recent months, Chinese authorities have closed down or tightened restrictions on the few forums where private Chinese citizens could express themselves without government restraints, including academic conferences, electronic bulletin boards, and personal Web sites.

In recent months, Chinese authorities have closed down or tightened restrictions on the few forums where private Chinese citizens could express themselves without government restraints, including academic conferences, electronic bulletin boards, and personal Web sites. Hong Kong news media reports that officials have moved to silence "extra-territorial reporting," which one Chinese media professor called "the best hope for liberalizing the news media." Extra-territorial (yidi) reporting refers to the practice in which a newspaper from one area publishes critical investigative reports about another area, about matters that officials in the investigated area are preventing their local news media from reporting.

On June 7, the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that the Party Central Committee had issued a document directing that state-run news media first report to the Party central committee with jurisdiction over the organization or individual to be criticized before publishing a "critical extra-territorial article."

A tightening of government controls on once relatively open forums has been impending for several months. In October 2004, the government forwarded two directives from the Party Central Committee:

  • Chinese Communist Party Central Propaganda Department Regarding Current Situation of Ideological Theory Domains and Working Measures That Need To Be Adopted (Document Number 29)
  • Opinion Regarding Further Strengthening Internet Administration Work (Document Number 32)

According to Party and government officials, the purpose of these directives was to require local and provincial Party committees and government agencies to adopt measures to consolidate the Party's control over ideological discourse in the news media and on the Internet.

As more Chinese citizens have access to the Internet and e-mail, and as more news media establish online editions, the ability to read extra-territorial reports critical of government agencies and officials is no longer limited to the geographic area where the reports are first published. In November 2004, an official with China's General Administration of Press and Publication portrayed this increase in the free flow of information as an attack on the Party and the government: "Various enemy forces strongly coordinate with each other, and take those things that cannot be published domestically abroad to be published, and then these once again infiltrate domestically."

In January 2005, a provincial Party propaganda official not only said that extra-territorial reporting was not an aspect of "public opinion supervision," but also said that all newspapers sponsored by Party papers "must accept the supervision and leadership of local propaganda departments," and increase oversight of "freelance writers, stringers, and private organizations that provide photographs and articles."

Finally, as recently as May 31, a People's Daily editorial called on China's state-run media to emphasize "positive" and "constructive" reporting, rather than focusing on "exposes and scandals."


A professor of media studies at People's University described extra-territorial reporting this way

In order to avoid directly criticizing examples of local corruption and cause media and reporters to run into various contingencies, local mass media usually only exposes the problems of other areas, and the other area's media then goes through this unfortunate but effective method to achieve their supervision goal.

As a Chinese lawyer with experience defending publishers put it: "Guangdong's media can supervise Beijing, Beijing's media can supervise Tianjin, but whether or not Guangdong's media can supervise Guangdong, that depends on the circumstances. An editor at one of China's largest newspapers has referred to extra-territorial reporting as one of the methods that editors have been forced to adopt in order to circumvent local censorship and "achieve something meaningful."

In an article on the new orders entitled "Closing of Loophole to Further Gag Media," the South China Morning Post cited unnamed editors and analysts as saying: "The ban on 'extra-territorial' reporting deals a serious blow to investigative reporting and weakens the so-called 'oversight by media.'" This is likely a reference to "public opinion supervision" (or "yulun jiandu"), a Communist Party initiative which allows China's state run news media to engage in investigative reporting of the Party and the government, provided it is done "in a manner that benefits the Party's line, direction, and policies . . . and encourages the strengthening of the people's faith in the Party and the government." One of the reasons for this initiative is that it allows central Party and government authorities to use journalists to investigate provincial and local officials, and designate stories they deem too critical or politically sensitive to be published in the media as internal intelligence reports to be forwarded to relevant officials.

By requiring that critical articles be reported to the Party prior to publication, the Party appears to be attempting to reduce pubilc critical reporting, while continuing to use the state-run media as an investigative arm of the government. Because Chinese authorities are increasingly requiring Chinese state-run news media be operated as commercial enterprises, however, editors are unlikely to expend resources on investigative reporting unless they are reasonably sure that a story can get published. This was possible under the extra-territorial reporting system, but has become more unlikely, however, now that notification of the Party where the investigation is being conducted is required. That the Party is willing to weaken its ability to supervise provincial and local governments at a time of widespread official corruption demonstrates that it views extra-territorial reporting as an even more serious threat to its political leadership.