A Closed-Off Regime:

On September 24, rumors spread on social media about a coup in China and the overthrow of President Xi Jinping. The rumors were debunked when the Chinese president appeared on state television on September 27, visiting an exhibit at the Beijing Exhibition Hall, entitled, "Forging Ahead in the New Era," showcasing the achievements of China’s new era. While this particular rumor was dispelled by Xi’s appearance, periodic rumors emerge involving political infighting or coup attempts in China, which some attribute to China’s opaque regime. The rumor of a coup against the Chinese president, his absence from the scene, and the failure to deny or confirm the rumor’s veracity for several days, raises discussion of China’s closed regime and how Chinese authorities control information about their country’s domestic affairs in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to follow and confirm exactly what is happening.

Control Mechanisms

The Chinese regime uses various tools and mechanisms to control the outside world’s information about China and its political conditions, including:

1. Protecting the privacy of Chinese users’ data: The Chinese government realizes the importance of Chinese user data for protecting the country’s national security, and it is working to protect that data from being used by major foreign corporations and the governments of other countries. Beijing has worked to limit the operations of some major technology and services companies, especially those whose incorporation in the US exacerbates China’s fears about personal data and their vulnerability to control in a way that may service American interests. These concerns were reflected in a campaign launched by the Chinese government against DiDi Corporation for its mishandling of sensitive user data in China. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) also accused DiDi of serious violations of law and regulations in its collection and use of personal data. This campaign led Beijing to remove the company’s app from app stores in China.

2. Blocking global internet sites and social media: China has blocked several major foreign internet sites and social media platforms and established alternative local sites overseen by the CAC, in order to prevent Chinese society from being exposed to the social media of other societies. Thus, the exchange of data and news is largely between Chinese users themselves and not at a global, open level. For example, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google do not exist in China, and there are several alternatives to those sites.

Beijing has replaced Facebook and WhatsApp with WeChat, DingTalk, and the chat site, Renren. Twitter and other blogs are supplanted by sites such as Caixin, Sina, Tencent, and Weibo, while Google has been by replaced Baidu. Chinese alternatives to YouTube for movies and videos include Todo and Yoko. Beijing has also banned applications like Instagram, Signal, and Snapchat, as well as Club House because it is an uncensored forum for discussion of sensitive topics, such as Taiwan and Muslim minority issues, with foreigners.

3. Multiple agencies monitoring the internet: China censors the internet within its borders, where full digital freedom is not recognized, as a reflection of the reality of the regime in China and the issue of freedoms in general. Beijing has introduced several key controls over internet use, especially at the Chinese Internet Summit held in 2013 in Guangzhou, Hunan. These controls ensure that it is impossible to be exposed to crucial issues, such as socialism, the political system, the interest of the state, and social systems.

Multiple entities monitor the internet in China, most notably the Chinese government, in addition to the role played by the internet companies themselves. At the community level, reports indicate that citizens themselves are partners in this process, with the emergence of several community groups and movements to help the Chinese government monitor websites. Press reports also refer to the existence of more than two million public-opinion analysts responsible for reviewing internet posts using keyword search terms and compiling reports. These analysts are appointed by the state and private companies to continually monitor the internet in China.

In 2017, the Chinese government issued regulations tightening its control over internet news content, requiring companies that publish, share, or modify news online to obtain a government license, subject their employees to government training and evaluation, and obtain government accreditation. Unlicensed organizations are not allowed to publish news or comments about the government, the economy, the army, foreign affairs, or other areas of public interest. Online news providers must follow "information-security protocols," including "emergency response" measures, such as increased scrutiny in the aftermath of disasters.

Likewise, the CAC has made efforts to tighten the regulation of online media, especially since live streaming and videoblogging have become a common means of publishing and disseminating news. Beijing has established user rules for the full-time monitoring of live-streaming platforms and has announced that all live-stream users need a permit.

4. Increasing media censorship: Aside from controlling online platforms, Beijing is tightening its monitoring of media, especially traditional media. Since President Xi Jinping officially took over as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012, and as President of the People’s Republic of China in 2013, Beijing has seen extensive and intensive tightening of censorship over traditional media, along with regulations governing the work of Chinese media that allow the authorities to block news by claiming that it reveals state secrets and endangers the country—with the definition of "state secrets" remaining ambiguous. This facilitates government censorship over any information the authorities consider harmful to their political or economic interests. In general, the Committee to Protect Journalists notes that private and state-owned media are subject to the oversight of Chinese authorities, and media that fail to comply with the directives of the CCP are subject to suspension or punitive action.

This censorship has aimed to strengthen official control over information at its source and to make state media channels and platforms the main source of information by limiting the information being circulated to that published by reliable, official sources, such as Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television.

5. Complaints of violations against Chinese journalists: In the framework of controlling Chinese news content, reports indicate that Beijing has taken several steps to restrict and control the work of Chinese journalists. For the third year in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2021 count of imprisoned journalists found that China imprisons more journalists than any other country. According to the committee’s December 2021 report, 50 journalists are imprisoned in China. Furthermore, the government uses a variety of methods to urge journalists to censor themselves, including firing, demotion, defamation suits, fines, and even arrest and detention.

6. Controlling foreign news through international agreements: China has sought to monopolize the export of its news abroad, not only through restrictive measures but also through foreign cooperation and coordination. Beijing works to promote its media content abroad and pays the costs of supplements and full pages in prominent foreign newspapers in order to circulate its narratives. China has also launched media platforms in various languages and signed bilateral cooperation agreements to use Chinese government sources in news coverage of China in other countries.

For example, in 2019, China signed a series of media agreements with Italian media entities. The Italian state news agency, ANSA, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese state news agency to launch a joint service under which ANSA would publish 50 articles from the Chinese agency a day in its newsletters. Under the agreement, ANSA would have editorial responsibility for the content and Xinhua would be the distributor. In addition, Italian public broadcaster RAI reached several agreements with China Media Group, under which China Central Television (CCTV) and China Radio International (CRI) operate. China’s growing presence in Italian media has given Beijing a platform to publish its official views, while largely preventing criticisms from appearing on those platforms. China has established similar relationships with other countries, such as the Philippines, Serbia and the Czech Republic.

7. Restricting foreign journalists’ activity in China: International reports point to efforts by the Chinese authorities to restrict the work of foreign correspondents in the country. For example, in a 2021 statement, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China noted that Beijing expelled at least 20 foreign journalists in 2020, froze new entry visa approvals for journalists, and took legal steps against foreign journalists.

Meanwhile, a 2020 report on China by the International Federation of Journalists noted that the dwindling number of foreign correspondents had led to a vacuum in news coverage of the state’s internal affairs. The report observed a lack of journalists from certain countries resident in China, which affected the transmission of Chinese news to those countries and forced those reporters to resort to state-run sources dominated by positive coverage. Likewise, the July 2014 directive on journalistic passports prevents correspondents from releasing information from interviews or conferences on social media without permission. China requires foreign correspondents to obtain permission before filing reports, and it has used that administrative barrier to prevent journalists from reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption and economic and financial developments.

Strategic Ambiguity

The tools and mechanisms of Chinese control over information and media contribute to the creation of a state of "strategic ambiguity" used by Beijing to achieve several goals:

1. Covering up major disasters in the country: By controlling media content, Chinese authorities seek to cover up major disasters that may affect domestic satisfaction levels or China’s image abroad, as well as to block investigative questions about major incidents, as was the case in the coverage of the sinking of the Oriental Star cruise ship in 2015, with 454 people aboard, of whom only 12 survived. The media coverage was marked by government control of information, and there was no real opportunity to investigate safety procedures, distress calls, or emergency responses. The Central Publicity Department imposed major restrictions on coverage of the sinking, and within 12 hours of the incident, a directive was issued to the media telling them to withdraw their reporters, leave the scene, and rely only on official news releases.

2. Preventing the undermining of political legitimacy: The Chinese government’s efforts to restrict press coverage of major disasters and crises is linked to the CCP’s fear of the destabilizing effects of such events. For example, Chinese leaders consider disasters a security and political threat because they provoke human emotions that can explode in a way that can erode political legitimacy.

This relates not only to disasters. Unofficial reports that discuss coup attempts or political disputes may prompt some people to think about those matters, may cause citizens to doubt the government’s ability to control the reins of power and manage the state, or may push foreign countries to give more political, material, media, or other support to certain groups.

3. Banning foreign criticism of the Chinese government: Chinese concerns are not limited solely to the domestic context; rather, an important concern is related to avoiding exposure to foreign criticism that may be picked up by domestic actors. Beijing restricts foreign media platforms’ access to news that may attract foreign criticism, whether with regard to the mismanagement of disasters, crises, and epidemics, or to Western standards for human rights and freedoms and criticism of the CCP’s political performance. At the same time, media restriction itself fosters one of the most serious foreign criticisms of China. Media restriction increases such criticism from the human rights perspective and invites the exploitation of ambiguous information to launch criticism, even if it is based on faulty information whose accuracy is refuted only after the political effects have already occurred.

4. Controlling China’s foreign image: Media is a very important tool in forming a country’s mental and foreign image. Beijing uses several means to control the media content published about it and the foreign image of the state itself, including, as mentioned previously, restricting the publication of negative content, controlling news publication platforms, and taking over the news publication process abroad through official or paid platforms to disseminate Chinese narratives that promote China’s desired image abroad. Ultimately, this serves the Chinese agenda at various political, economic, military, and other levels that are a major aspect of China’s image and conditions in these spheres.

5. Weakening the credibility of Western media: The Chinese government’s use of strategic ambiguity confuses Western media, especially given the latter’s inability to freely track sensitive Chinese news. While Western media platforms pursue an editorial agenda critical of China, they work to publish reports and news that serve their political and media objectives. With their work restricted, they sometimes resort to relying on anonymous, poorly sourced, or unverified information, especially related to political affairs and disputes within the Chinese political elite. Indeed, China sometimes deliberately choose not to deny certain news reports for a time to allow them to be disseminated across Western platforms. The subsequent debunking of the reports then weakens the credibility of Western media’s China coverage and casts doubt on other news and reports, even those that rely on strong sources or reveal actual events inside China.

6. Limiting and confusing Western predictive capabilities: Any political, intelligence, or media analysis relies on information and news. China largely pursues a strategy of controlling at its source the news disseminated about it, which limits and confuses Western predictive capabilities, especially with the proliferation of unconfirmed, distorted, or confusing information. In the absence of accurate information about what is going on inside China, assessments may be inaccurate, which makes it difficult to forecast with a high level of certainty. In doing this, China aims to confuse Western calculations, and the limited supply of verified information and the distorted images of what is happening inside China weaken Western predictive capabilities for the future of those interactions and conflicts. China’s strategy also presents the West with multiple scenarios for what is actually happening and, by extension, may happen.

In conclusion, by forming a closed information system, China seeks to control the circulation of information about its internal affairs. The difficulties surrounding the process of ascertaining the truth about what is happening inside China are rarely a coincidence. Rather, they can be seen as strategic features of the ambiguity, uncertainty, and information control that Beijing is working to consolidate, on one hand, and which it uses to achieve several political goals, on the other hand. China’s temporary silence on some rumors, as happened with the rumor about the coup against the Chinese president, reflects an approach that seeks, on one hand, to damage the Western propaganda system and weaken confidence in what it publishes about Beijing, and, on the other hand, to attract the world to Chinese media platforms as the only reliable outlet to learn the truth about what is happening in China, as well as feed the state of strategic ambiguity in general.