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Examining Chinese Censorship in Australia

Australia's Chinese-language newspapers rarely mention protests, human rights, or anything political. Why is this, and does it matter?

by Leo Van Der Plyum
Nov 17 2014, 12:00am

​Of the many things the Chinese Communist Party (C​CP) is known for, political transparency isn't one of them. This was highlighted earlier this year when they ruled out open elections in Hong Kong, leading to the massive ​Occupy Central Movement. And while Australians may feel insulated from the growing world power's influence, we too are occasionally affected by Beijing's push for control. Here, Chinese-language media outlets often follow an editorial line approved by the CCP, which means that if you're a Chinese national who wants news from home, you'll never read about protests, human rights, or anything political. Compared to mainland China the scale here is tiny, but let's take a look at its effect.

For most Australians, local censorship by the CCP was made first a​pparent in November 2012. China's National Congress had just ​elected its elusive seven-member committee to the top of the government hierarchy, and the ceremony was broadcast around the world. Media question time was held at the end, but only international journalists could ask anything unvetted, which was a responsibility that fell on a Melbourne woman named Andrea Yu. She could have asked anything, but decided on a suspiciously soft query about Chinese/Australian cooperation. As it turned out, Yu's last name was actually Hodg​kinson and she worked for a company named Glob​al CAMG Media International which is an indirect arm of the CCP. Her whole purpose was to absorb time, and thus protect the Chinese government from answering anything outside their control. Several Australian outlets repeated the story, including the ABC who ran the headline China Uses Mysterious Australian to Rig Congress Coverage.

So who are CAMG International? CAMG, along with another company named Austar, run a number of Chinese-language newspapers and radio stations in Australia. The issue is that both are partially owned by the CCP owned Chinese Radio International (C​RI), which instructs Australian subsidiaries to tow the party line.

According to ​Wanning Sun, who is the professor of Chinese Media and Cultural Studies at Sydney's University of Technology, "Chinese-language media may not be directly controlled by the CCP, but they play it safe as they are in business to make money." She explains that a cornerstone of Chinese business involves pleasing the CCP, and this is the same in Australia, where in order to get investment from back home, Chinese news companies don't publish anything here that they wouldn't in China.

Shuting Dong was a Chinese student who discovered this when she received an internship with the Chinese magazine, 3C​W. She recalls being shocked by how they self-censored their stories, right from the start. "On my first day at work I was told about the five golden rules," she explains. "One was you could never say or write anything political, controversial or critical about the CCP. You don't even have to do any research. You just translate, copy and paste, and find sponsors for events such as the Chinese Beauty pageant. When I got there I felt totally disappointed, and in the end I quiet media." As she explains, she's now studying business.

Ash (who chose not to reveal his last name) is another former journalist for the Austral​ia News Express Daily. He had similar issues as Dong, but like Wanning Sun, he argues that the reasons for self-censorship aren't about manipulating China's image here. He explains that the company's editor, Wenky Chow, was careful to not criticise the government in case it affected her father's business. "It's not mandatory," he says. "There are so many Chinese newspaper in Australia that often attack the communist party. But those who work closely with them will certainly receive some favourable treatment." Tellingly, Chow's father is C​hau Chak Wing, who is involved in construction and politics in both China and Australia. Understandably his business depends on "favourable treatment."

On surface level, the argument seems flawed because "favourable treatment" exists because the CCP does seek foreign image control, but Wanning Sun claims that there's a factor being overlooked. "Chinese-language readers are quite aware that they're probably not getting the full picture," she says. "They're not actually reading it to get that anyway. Chinese people are much more likely to turn to the Internet, probably social media, for comprehensive news." According to her, the notion that all press should be objective is a uniquely local value, and not one that Chinese media never aspired to pleasing. "They never claimed to be objective in the first place," she says. "They're just here to make money."

As a Chinese national, Shuting Dong is unsurprised by this opinion although she argues that local companies should operate by local values. She enjoys political transparency here, she says, and doesn't miss the culture of self-censorship back home. "In China with my family, if I talk to my father about the Tiananmen Square Massacre or anything political, my father would stop me and say, don't say anything about this." The self-censorship happens everywhere and people are really aware of it." According to Dong, the notion that businesses can wipe their hands clean of social responsibility for business can be summarised by the Chinese phrase: Be silent and make money.

Follow the author on Twitter at:​ @DerPluym