Bottom line: The latest blockage of Reuters sites in China is probably temporary and related to coverage during the recent National People’s Congress, but still reflects the very real risk of doing business in the tightly controlled media market.
China’s latest crackdown on foreign media has just netted global news giant Reuters (Toronto: RTR), in a potentially worrisome trend that has seen Chinese censors block a growing number of websites operated by big multinationals. Despite longer-term crackdowns on big names like Bloomberg and the New York Times, Reuters had managed to largely steer clear of China’s censors and its websites have remained largely accessible in China for most of the last 2 years.
But I couldn’t access any of Reuters sites in Shanghai starting last Thursday, and later reports confirmed the company’s Chinese- and English-language websites have been blocked throughout the country since then. (English article) Before I go any further, I should disclose that I previously worked at Reuters for a decade, and maintain contact with many of my former colleagues 4 years after leaving the company. Reuters Chinese site also is a regular user of my work, though apparently none of that has been viewable in China for the last few days.
There’s not a lot of detail in the latest reports, which say Reuters confirmed that users in China first experienced difficulty accessing its sites starting on Thursday. Reuters pointed out that access to its sites has been blocked at times in the past, most often when it publishes articles on topics like politics that are considered sensitive by Beijing. No one ever knows how long such blockages will last, since Beijing is highly opaque about its criteria for blocking certain sites.
Reuters certainly isn’t the only site that’s currently inaccessible in China. The Hong Kong-based English-language South China Morning Post has also been blocked for the last few weeks, and many believe it has angered Beijing with its regular coverage of Chinese politics. The paper’s extensive coverage of the Occupy Central movement last year may have particularly irked Beijing, since the movement’s leaders were highly critical of China’s efforts to control the selection process for Hong Kong’s next leader.
Nowadays it seems the number of outside media accessible in China is rapidly shrinking. Google News, one of my favorite news sources, has been largely blocked since last fall, as part of a broader Chinese campaign that has seen many of Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) sites and services become mostly inaccessible. Both the New York Times and Bloomberg have been blocked for more than 2 years, and Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) was also briefly blocked last year.
Foreign-operated Chinese-language sites are even more problematic since they are easily accessible to average Chinese. The Wall Street Journal (Nasdaq: NWSA) and Britain’s Financial Times both considered themselves lucky when they won permission to operate China-based local language sites several years ago. But since then they’ve discovered their Chinese sites are periodically blocked whenever they publish sensitive stories. The New York Times Chinese site has been blocked for years now, even though the site itself remains active.
Opinions vary on the cause for the latest trends, and whether this kind of new blockage even represents a trend at all. My personal view is that the 2-year-old administration of President Xi Jinping has bigger items to pursue on its agenda, and hasn’t given very high priority to a major overhaul of previous censorship policies.
Instead, this particular round of censorship is probably related to timing, since China has just wrapped up its late session of the National People’s Congress, the annual meeting of the country’s legislature, when it discusses priorities for the years ahead. Negative reports in domestic media are largely forbidden during that time, and foreign media that publish such reports during that time may also face some backlash from Beijing censors.
I do expect the blockage of Reuters site will be temporary and probably end in a matter of weeks at the most. The South China Morning Post is smaller and less influential, so it may get shut out a bit longer. It’s anyone’s guess how long the New York Times will be banned, as it hasn’t shown any repentance since publishing an article more than 2 years ago about the wealth of family members of one of China’s top leaders. But industry gossip says Bloomberg may be showing more contrition, and that the company’s China websites may be finally unblocked in the near future after a freeze-out that is fast approaching 3 years.
At the end of the day, companies like Reuters, Bloomberg, the New York Times and Financial Times are aware of the risks of operating in China, including the high risk of having their sites blocked when they publish articles on sensitive topics. Some companies seem better at managing that risk than others, which often seems related to how important the China market is to their broader business plans.
(NOT FOR REPUBLICATION)