Chinese state visit: Five times China has proven it doesn’t value free speech

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

With UK-China relations warming, the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will pay a state visit to the UK from 20-23 October. The UK government hopes the visit will help finalise multi­billion-pound deals for Chinese state-owned companies to contribute to the building of two British nuclear power plants.

Many — including the Dalai Lama — are concerned that Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are putting the desire for profit above concern for human rights.

Xi may be staying in luxury at Buckingham Palace during his visit, but here are just five examples of how respect for free speech in China doesn’t get past the front door:

1. Locking up artists

The soccer-loving Chinese president is due to visit Manchester City Football Club’s stadium with Cameron during his visit. But will he make time for the new exhibition by Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei in London? We won’t hold our breath.

The major retrospective of the artist’s work is currently on show at the Royal Academy of Arts. Ai — whose work is famous for addressing human rights abuses and corruption — has been harassed, beaten, placed under house arrest and imprisoned.

The current London exhibition almost didn’t go ahead as the British Embassy in Beijing turned down Ai’s request for a business visa in connection with his criminal conviction for tax fraud — an accusation he denies. British Home Secretary Theresa May eventually overturned the embassy’s decision, but only after a mass public outcry. This shouldn’t be the height of the British government’s efforts to address Chinese human rights abuses.

2. The use of online “opinion monitors”

China’s Terracotta Army, the 8,000-strong force of sculptures depicting warriors and horses, was purpose-built to protect emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, in his afterlife. In the modern day, China’s army of “opinion monitors”, which has been purpose-built to protect China’s current leaders from criticism and dissent, dwarfs anything the Qin dynasty could muster.

Last year, Index on Censorship reported that the Chinese government is expanding its censorship and monitoring of web activity with a new training programme for an estimated two million flies on the firewall.

China’s hundreds of millions of web users increasingly use blogs to condemn the state, but posts are routinely deleted by government employees. In 2012, monitors banned more than 100 search terms relating to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 and even shut down Google services.

3. Banning books

Often overshadowed by China’s internet censorship, we shouldn’t forget that Chinese authorities have a rich history of restricting free expression in literature. In 1931, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals for fear children would regard humans and animals as equal. During Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, all aspects of arts and culture had to promote and aid the revolution. Libraries full of historical and foreign texts were destroyed and books deemed undesirable were burned.

The country’s post-Mao transition has been marked by a commitment to “modernising”. While the Chinese populace has access to more information than ever before, their leaders’ continuation of banning books on grounds of non-conformity and deviance are anything but modern.

Publications which are still banned — often for perceived politically incorrect content — include the memoirs of Li Rui, a retired Chinese politician and dissident who caused a stir in the CCP by calling for political reform; Lung Ying-tai’s Big River, Big Sea about the Chinese Civil War; and Jung Chang’s best-selling Wild Swans, a history that spans a century, recounting the lives of three female generations in the author’s family.

4. Detaining activists

Recent years have been marked with an intensification of the crackdown on dissent. On 6 March 2015, just days before International Women’s Day, the Chinese government detained a number of high-profile feminist activists. They were accused of creating a disturbance and, if convicted, could have received three-year prison sentences.

The women had been linked to several actions over the years which highlight issues such as domestic violence and the poor provision of women’s toilets, obvious embarrassments to the authorities.

As a result of their detention, China’s small, but increasingly vocal feminist movement was dealt a heavy blow. Demonstrations were cancelled and debate was effectively silenced. Five of the activists were released fairly quickly, but five more were in prison until 13 April, with two being denied treatment for serious medical conditions while in custody.

5. Repressing Uyghur Muslims

China continues to persecute the largely Muslim minority Uyghurs of Xinjiang. A tough system of policies and regulations deny Uyghurs religious freedom and by extension freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The abuse of national security and anti-terror laws to persecute Uyghurs and further deny them freedom of expression was highlighted in the recent ban by the Chinese authorities on 22 Muslim names in Xinjiang in an apparent attempt to discourage extremism among the region’s Uyghur residents. Many children were barred from attending school unless their names were changed.

Ryan McChrystal is the assistant online editor at Index on Censorship

Osborne defends Coulson appointment

Chancellor George Osborne has defended his party’s decision to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as the Conservatives’ communications chief.

In a seemingly well-rehearsed appearance before the Leveson Inquiry afternoon, Osborne stressed that it was Coulson’s “enormous amount of professional experience” editing a major national newspaper that made him a strong candidate for the job of communications director for the Conservative Party in July 2007.

Coulson told the Inquiry last month that he was personally approached by Osborne just months after his resignation following the jailing of former News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire on phone hacking offences.

Osborne conceded it was “controversial” to hire Coulson given the nature of his resignation, but downplayed the former editor’s links to News International. “What we were interested in hiring is someone who was going to do the job going forward. We thought he had the experience and the personality to do that,” Osborne said.

He added that he sought assurances from Coulson on phone hacking: “I asked him [Coulson] in a general sense (…) whether there was more in the phone hacking story that was going to come out that we needed to know about and he said ‘no’.”

Strenuously denying claims of a conspiracy between the Tory party and News Corp, the Chancellor referred to the media giant’s bid for the takeover of BSkyB as a “political inconvenience”, stressing he did not have “a strong view on the merits or demerits of the merger.”

“It was what it was, and was causing trouble with varous newspaper groups,” Osborne said, adding that he was also unaware of primer minister David Cameron or culture secretary Jeremy Hunt‘s views of the bid, which was eventually abandoned last summer in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

He said that the December 2010 decision to hand over responsibility for the bid to Hunt — following the revelation of business secretary Vince Cable being secretly recorded as having “declared war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch — was a “good solution” to keep Cable in government while passing over the responsibility of media plurailty to the department of culture, media and sport (DCMS). He said the decision, suggested by Number 10 permanent secretary, Jeremy Heywood, was settled in under an hour.

“The media department was the obvious place to look [to] when it came to the reallocation of  responibilities for media policy within government,” Osborne said.

“The principal concern was that this was not something that should lead to the resignation of Dr Cable,” Osborne added, noting it would take a “real fantasist to believe we had knowingly allowed Cable to be secretly recorded”.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow with evidence from former prime minister Sir John Major, Labour leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Leveson Inquiry reveals Jeremy Hunt congratulated James Murdoch on BSkyB progress

Jeremy Hunt texted George Osborne shortly before he was handed control of News Corp’s £8 billion bid for full control of BSkyB, telling the chancellor he was “seriously worried” the government would “screw up” the bid.

In evidence disclosed to the Leveson Inquiry this morning, it was also revealed that the embattled culture secretary texted James Murdoch on the same day, congratulating him for receiving approval from the European Commission on the company’s bid.

This text message was sent just hours before the BBC revealed that business secretary Vince Cable — at that point in charge of adjudicating the bid — had told undercover Telegraph reporters he had “declared war” on News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch, remarks that were seen as proof of bias. Cable was later stripped of his responsibility, which was passed over to Hunt and announced by Downing Street at around 6pm on 21 December 2010.

At 12:57pm on 21 December, Hunt texted James Murdoch: “Great and congrats on Brussels. Just Ofcom to go”, shortly after the European Commission’s approval of the bid.

At 2:30pm the BBC published Cable’s comments, which Hunt said were discussed in a phone call with James Murdoch at 4pm.

Eight minutes later Hunt texted Osborne, noting he was “seriously worried we are going to screw this up” regarding the bid. In a second message to the chancellor, he noted that Murdoch was accusing Cable of “acute bias” over the bid.

Osborne later texted Hunt: “I hope you like our solution”, shortly before Downing Street’s announcement that Hunt had been given charge for the bid.

Such revelatory messages place further pressure on Leveson to call the chancellor to give evidence before the Inquiry.

Elsewhere in an intense morning of evidence, Hunt defended his handling of the bid, saying he was .”sympathetic” to it rather than “supportive” of it”, and repeated his defence that he did not feel it presented a “major plurality” issue.

Hunt confirmed he received legal advice in November 2010 urging him that it would be “unwise” to intervene. Yet, explaining a memo he sent to David Cameron in the same month, in which he told the PM that it would be “totally wrong to cave in” to the bid’s opponents, Hunt said he had concerns about a situation “where we had a significant merger in my sector” that was encountering obstacles, adding that he sought to be “absolutely proper” in his approach.

“I had an absolute duty to be across the most important issue in that industry,” Hunt said.

He also defended as “appropriate” his 16 November phone call with James Murdoch, despite having received legal advice to avoid becoming involved in News Corp’s bid. Hunt told the Inquiry he “heard what was on his [Murdoch’s] mind.”

“I probably gave him a sympathetic hearing but I probably said I couldn’t get involved in that decision because I had taken legal advice that I couldn’t,” Hunt said.

A meeting between the two was cancelled the day before, following the legal advice, with Hunt explaining he did not see the telephone call as a replacement. “My interpretation of the advice was that I should not involve myself in a quasi-judicial process that’s being run by another secretary of state [Cable].”

Discussing the high level of contact revealed by the Inquiry last month between Hunt’s former adviser Adam Smith and News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel, Hunt said his department was not prepared for the “barrage” of messages from Michel.

“I doubt there’s a minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith,” Hunt said, explaining that Smith, who resigned in the wake of the revelations, was aware of his views but this did not mean he spoke for him.

He added that Smith was never given instructions on how to deal with News Corp. He repeatedly referred to the adviser as an “official point of contact” to answer questions on the bid process. He rejected counsel Robert Jay QC’s suggestion that the Michel-Smith contact — which included over 1,000 text messages over the course of the bid — was an “extra layer”.

The Labour party has since upped the volume on its calls for Hunt to resign, arguing he was not the “impartial arbiter” he was required to be.

Hunt has maintained he acted properly and within the ministerial code. David Cameron said last week he did not regret handing the bid to Hunt, stressing he acted “impartially”, but has said he will take action if evidence to the Inquiry suggests Hunt breached the code.

The Inquiry continues with further evidence from Hunt this afternoon.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Andy Coulson gives evidence at Leveson Inquiry

Anyone looking for a lesson in deadpan testimony could have done worse than tune into Andy Coulson’s appearance at the Leveson Inquiry today.

It was an unedifying session with the former News of the World editor and ex-Number 10 communications chief, who was protected from having to discuss the phone hacking scandal due to his July 2011 arrest and subsequent bail as part of Operation Weeting.

Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay QC trod particularly heavily on his meeting with George Osborne in March 2007 to discuss the communications role with the Conservative party. “Did it not occur to you — why are they asking me?” Jay asked.

Coulson, who said he entered into the conversation with a “degree of reluctance” and that he “wasn’t thinking about politics at all”, reiterated that he had been in the newspaper industry for a long time, running campaigns and managing a team. Given the “electoral mountain” the party had to climb, these were seemingly useful credentials.

“The conversation was very much, ‘What do we need to do to get elected?'” Coulson said, clarifying that his role was to build relationships across media (he stressed more than once the “fundamental” role of television in explaining policy).

Pressing him further over his News International background, Coulson said his time at the media organisation might have been “considered useful” by the Tory party when considering him for the position, but “was not specifically discussed as being an advantage.” He also any refuted any suggestion that former NI chief executive Rebekah Brooks — due to give evidence tomorrow — had any influence in his recruitment.

Coulson was keen to stress that contact between the party and the media was above board. In his witness statement he wrote that “there was no quid pro quo” between them and NI or any other media organisation.

“I would certainly have taken every opportunity, to the point of becoming a bore, to sing the praises of David Cameron and the Conservative Party and to encourage them to support us. That was my job,” Coulson wrote.

He conceded that he was “not minded to disagree” with David Cameron that the relationships between some of the media and the government had become too cosy. Yet he warned Leveson against erecting more barriers, arguing that the public was already disengaging with politics and further restrictions would exacerbate “what is already a difficult process.”

Coulson ended his terse but lengthy afternoon session by noting the Inquiry has suggested that “a friendship is always based on some ulterior motive”. On the contrary, Leveson responded, arguing that the key was to maintain clarity in relationships.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson