China To Create Database of Blacklisted Journalists, But Could It Backfire?

State media reported this past Friday that China plans to create a "database of [Chinese] media professionals with a bad record," this according to Business Week..  While on the surface this might look like a step up in censorship technology on the part of the Chinese government, there might be more to it than that.

Beijing has already put significant effort into its censorship system, employing at least 35000 internet police and various advanced monitoring technologies to make up its Great Firewall. So in my mind, it's hard to imagine that such a complex system did not have a database of this kind in place already. But China's censorship technology is elastic, and changes according to the social climate. So going on the presumption that they already have such a database established, it's quite likely that the real motivation behind Friday's announcement is to remind journalists around the country that they better stay in line, and report only stories that are not critical of the Party.

So why remind the journalists of this now?

China's internet censorship did relax somewhat leading up to last summer in order to put a pretty face on the Motherland during the Beijing Olympics. But now that the honeymoon is over and the spotlights of the international media have gone home, China has reverted to its old ugly ways.

A Chinese Internet CafeA Chinese Internet Cafe

A quick review of history tells us why. The Chinese authorities greatly fear two important anniversaries coming up in 2009:

  • March 10th will mark the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan rebellion that saw the Dalai Lama's flight into exile. It also marks the one-year anniversary of last year's deadly riots.
  • June 4th will mark the 20th anniversary of the Tian'anmen massacre.
Combine these two anniversaries with an economic recession, a severe drought in Northern areas, and the recent publication of Charter 08 and it makes 2009 especially ripe for unrest.

So in the eyes of the some in power, now is a perfect time to remind journalists that reporting "disharmonious" news will get them blacklisted. According to one official, being blacklisted would mean journalists' "names will be entered into the list and they will be restricted from news reporting or editing work".  Their career would be essentially over.

Chinese Internet Police a Hot Topic in US SenateChinese Internet Police a Hot Topic in US Senate

But this new blacklist database could possibly backfire for China's ruling party, from a few different perspectives.

China's news outlets and television stations are going to hesitate before running a story, now more than ever. Chinese authority structures in media companies are hierarchical and slow, and this will bring them to a veritable crawl. Last week when the CCTV building burned, there was outrage online over the fact that CCTV - the nation's biggest television station - did not report it until 3 hours later. If Chinese media becomes even slower, and if citizen journalism on the internet beats them to the punch every time, would that not slowly contribute to a growing distrust and suspicion of the government?

Media and journalists types were key participants during the 1989 protests, and if the Chinese authorities really knew what they were doing, they would stay clear of threatening them as they did this past Friday. In the end, this new database could very well turn out to be a self-inflicted punch in the mouth.

Rick Martin
Guest Blogger

Our guest blogger, Rick Martin, has spent years covering the tech scene in China, and now lives in Japan writing about all things Asia.