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Professor explores media, censorship in China

| Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In a lecture Tuesday titled “Journalism and the Coercive Power of the Chinese State,” associate professor Timothy Weston of the University of Colorado Boulder discussed the status of the press in modern China.

Weston, who serves as associate director of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said recent protests in Hong Kong reveal a deep-rooted tension between the paternalistic actions of the Chinese government and the press.

“The Beijing government’s approach to the press, as seen in the Hong Kong case but also in a myriad others in contemporary times, comes to be seen as the latest iteration of a longstanding feature of Chinese political culture rather than an expression of a sharp moment of communist censorship, pure and simple,” he said.

Despite the government’s censorship of the media, the ideal of a free press is alive in China today, he said.

“Article 35 of the Chinese constitution states clearly that ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly of association, of procession and of demonstration,’” he said. “The normative ideal of press freedom is enshrined in China’s highest legal document.”

However, he said, tension exists between the stated ideal of freedom of the press and the practices of the government — namely, censorship of events and “routine arrests of journalists in China, often on trumped-up charges.”

Weston said the government’s censorship of the media arises from a distinct understanding of the nature of free press. The government does not condemn freedom of press, he said, but rather takes a paternalistic approach in regarding the press as a means of molding society.

“No modern state is going to take a stand against the idea of press freedom any more than it will take a stand against the idea of human rights,” he said.

He said the recent events in Hong Kong have prompted the government to adopt an offensive and defensive approach, consisting both of censoring the press and presenting an “alternative narrative” of events to Chinese citizens.

This alternative narrative, he said, depicts the protesters in Hong Kong as “petty criminals engaging in illegal behavior.”

Weston said the government has not been entirely successful in its efforts to suppress the dissemination of reports of protest in Hong Kong.

“In the digital age it is impossible to enforce a total information embargo,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said, the average Chinese citizen is unable to view internationally popularized images legally, such as the one of a protester holding an umbrella to shield himself from tear gas.

He said the government’s treatment of the events in Hong Kong has focused international attention on the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ — so christened because of the image of the protester with the umbrella. The response of the Chinese government to the international spotlight has been to accuse foreign agents such as the United States of manipulating naïve students to incite rebellion, Weston said.

“Blaming conspiring foreign agents also has the complicit effect of treating the Hong Kong protesters — of which there were tens of thousands in the early stages of the movement — as gullible children,” he said.

Weston said although China maintains the ideal of a free press, the actions of the government undermine its realization.

“The logic of the paternalistic state with regard to question of freedom of the press then is that the people are free to know everything, except when they are not,” Weston said.

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