The Media Today

Q&A: Xiao Qiang on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the right to information in China 

June 5, 2024

Thirty-five years ago this week, the Chinese Communist Party sent troops into Tiananmen Square, in central Beijing, to suppress a student protest. With global media present and filming, soldiers opened fire on a crowd of activists that had amassed in the same location where Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Armored vehicles drove over barricades, crushing protesters; Jeff Widener, of the Associated Press, captured iconic footage of one man’s momentary stand against the might of the military. The protesters demanded political liberalization and freedom of information. The “June Fourth Incident,” sometimes called a massacre, became a symbol of authoritarian control trouncing public freedoms—broadcast live for the world to see. 

That spring, Xiao Qiang was a graduate student in the US, studying physics, but he flew home to China two days after the massacre; he felt compelled to go back as a personal statement of solidarity with the protesters. When he returned to the US two months later after what would be his last visit home, it was as a full-time activist. Throughout the nineties, he ran Human Rights China, an information network collecting and publishing details and stories about political prisoners; later, he joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he initially taught in the school of journalism and is now a research scientist in the school of information. In addition to teaching, he is the founder and editor in chief of the China Digital Times, a bilingual news site that documents and curates information on Chinese social media, focuses on censorship and the resistance to it, and aggregates human rights reporting. Much of Xiao’s research is dedicated to circumventing the “Great Firewall”, a government-backed internet blockade that ensures, among other things, that what really happened at Tiananmen is scrubbed from people’s browsers. 

It is because of this work that Xiao joined Circle 19, a group of independent media experts dedicated to fostering freedom of information within China, in 2020. Supported by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the group has collaborated over the past year on a “Statement of Principles for the Right to Information in China,” a succinct manifesto that was published yesterday to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. The document states that the right to information is an integral part of Chinese history; that the one-party state exerts a malign influence on the free flow of information; and that the scarcity of reliable information poses a threat to China’s future. It also pledges Circle 19’s support to the people of China and urges the international community to support them, too. 

Xiao Qiang. Courtesy photo.

Xiao describes these points as “common sense,” and yet such ideas are forbidden within China. RSF ranked China 172nd out of 180 countries and territories worldwide in the latest edition of its World Press Freedom Index, in part because the CCP jails more journalists than any other government in the world. Chinese officials have also harassed students studying abroad and pushed to rewrite laws in Hong Kong enforcing repressive media controls. Jimmy Lai, a media mogul in Hong Kong, has been on trial since last December for publishing pro-democracy news. Just last week, officials in the territory arrested six people under recently reinforced national security laws. 

On Monday, ahead of the Circle 19 manifesto’s release, I spoke with Xiao about the launch, the threats of speaking openly against the Chinese regime, and the country’s desire, never fully realized, for freedom of information. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KL: Can you tell me how Circle 19 came to be and how the statement of principles was written? 

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XQ: This idea of a campaign to promote the rights of information came into discussion among many Chinese colleagues in the diaspora and my staff before the pandemic. There were a number of issues considered, including responding to how the Chinese state uses “cultural relativism”—this idea that freedom of information is not the Chinese people’s inherent practice or desire. That’s certainly wrong; that desire is not obvious only because of repression. It’s important to remind the world that this effort still not only exists, but that the underground momentum is still going strong. Circle 19 is a strategic coordination for all these efforts—everybody’s approach is different—trying to express a common message. 

At the Circle 19 launch meeting, you referred to the principles in your remarks as “common sense.” Yet, in this context, these fairly straightforward suggestions come across as radical. How can this be? 

When I use the words “common sense,” or you say “straightforward,” it’s because they are really not new. They are not groundbreaking. This message as a Chinese political statement started almost a century and a half ago. Chinese intellectuals started looking at the encounter between traditional China—including the political regime, society, and culture—and the socially modern world, and wondering what China needs to do to change: What does Chinese society need? From that, freedom of information naturally comes. But if you look into the Chinese Communist Party in the forties, its ideological work battled against the KMT dictatorship [the governing party of China before the revolution]. At that time, the Chinese Communist Party was a kind of rebel and, to mobilize mass support, adopted language supporting democracy and freedom of expression. Freedom of media was written into its documents—articles handwritten by Mao himself. But after they took power? They become dictators, an autocracy. They became another dynasty. And they crushed the rise of freedom. So this desire in Chinese society is genuine. But the political power was always repressive and still is today. Chinese people deserve what we call “liberal values” but are essentially universal values. Circle 19 is just another effort in this continuous spectrum.

The first principle is that “the right to information is an integral part of Chinese legacy.” Why did you and the other authors feel it was necessary to place these rights in a historical context?

That is a response to the Chinese state: it’s forbidden; it’s a dangerous thing to say in China. The difference between today’s China’s ruling party and the dynasties is that they had some kind of coherent legitimacy narrative: Why is the next emperor an emperor? Because he’s a son of the first emperor. Today’s China—or any modern autocracy—cannot just say that. North Korea is inherited by blood, but they don’t say it; it has to call itself something of a democracy. China is the “People’s Republic of China” even if it’s not a people’s republic. They must construct a narrative to support legitimacy, but the narrative cannot really survive in an open information environment. These straightforward, nothing-new principles are a fundamental threat to this gigantic authoritarian regime. No matter how many missiles they have or how much GDP, they cannot afford to let the Great Firewall dysfunction. These principles are that dangerous. They have the potential to transform Chinese society.

Why is taking down the Great Firewall such a threat to the ruling party? 

For the past twenty years, [I have followed] what’s happening in Chinese social media. Is there a pattern of what’s being expressed? What’s being suppressed? They don’t delete everything, but they do certain things. What kind of things? It’s all about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Why are you ruling China without an election? Who do you really represent? Who makes those decisions? Does that decision come from the people affected? Do people participate? In a modern society, you don’t need to argue about what a government is: government makes decisions based on taxpayers’ money. But China never structured it that way. Any challenge—Tiananmen is the most visible example—leads to a military crackdown. If you take down the Great Firewall, the first thing you’ll see is Tiananmen Square footage everywhere. The next thing you’ll see is the people’s disagreement with Xi Jinping staying in power as a permanent leader—there is plenty of criticism and opposition to it. It’s not just the Great Firewall; it’s the entire censorship and propaganda mechanism inside of China controlling the media, controlling social media, every institutional agency. But if the Great Firewall comes down, all this suppressed content could potentially be accessible to the Chinese public. I think the regime’s judgment is correct—the Great Firewall is an essential component of what it calls “regime security.” 

Not every member of Circle 19 has listed their name. What kind of risks are you taking by speaking so freely and critically and in support of freedom of information? 

Today’s China is dangerous. That’s why so many people do not use their real name as a spokesperson. The few of us who put our names have been in this field for a long time—but, of course, we’re living overseas. That does not mean the Chinese regime does not go beyond its borders, exerting its power and targeting individuals that it sees as a threat. We have [seen] many incidents: from oppressing your family all the way to harassment, to more severe threats to the individuals that raise their voices.

Have you ever experienced anything specific that you’d be willing to share?

Of course, I can’t go back to China. There’s a price for my family members, who are under close surveillance and the harassment of the Chinese security apparatus. I have been approached many times—explicitly or in a sort of hidden [way] on behalf of the Chinese government. The messages [reached] me, whether it’s the manipulating ones or the threatening ones. Or the real attacks, including cyberattacks. The more visible you are, the more you become a target. But in China, you can die in prison for something like this. Most of the time, you have to privately talk to people and they will agree, but it cannot be open. Therefore, someone has to do the job of bringing this message out into the open. 

What does Circle 19’s statement of principles most hope to achieve? 

The most important thing to achieve is to keep this message alive. That is its own achievement. Concretely, to get the people in China more access to information blocked by the Great Firewall. The individuals in China actually number in the millions who are using VPNs or proxies to keep that information flowing between the inside and outside of China; that resistance continues, and many of us are archiving articles [that are] being censored, identifying individual journalists who need to be supported, or writing articles about themes in Chinese society that cannot be openly discussed. 

The basic perspective is to look at this as a form of resistance. It’s the small effort aggregating to some sustainable movement. What you’re up against is the world’s second-largest GDP—a one-person dictatorship with every state capacity that you can have. It’s not measured by a symmetrical power measure; it’s measured as a symbolic voice. As long as it continues to exist [and be] visible, then this movement will never die. China’s desire for greater freedom of information has been expanding. The desire of Chinese people for fundamental human rights has never been truly crushed, but it’s never been fully realized.

How does Circle 19 plan to help facilitate access to information behind the Great Firewall? 

Mainly through each participant’s own work. They all have their own projects: some people are doing this documentation of censored materials; others are developing circumvention technologies; and some are commentators outside of China. There’s a network of efforts, and some cannot [talk about] theirs explicitly as they would be too easy to target. This is also a nature of political resistance—it’s not a matter of the specific achievement until you look back someday. 

Your colleague Chang Ping made an impassioned reference to presidents Kennedy and Reagan speaking out against authoritarian Communist regimes at the Berlin Wall, and hoping that similar statements might be made against Xi Jinping. Do you feel that such positions could be adopted by world leaders in today’s geopolitical space? 

Chang Ping is absolutely correct to make a comparison between the visible symbol of freedom and non-freedom which is the Berlin Wall, and today’s invisible, but no less substantial, information wall that is the Great Firewall. Without the physical Berlin Wall, the people of the Eastern Bloc would have just crossed the border; if [repressive institutions] cannot stop people from walking across the street, people will leave and people will choose freedom. It is the same on the internet and in people’s minds: people will leave, people will choose freedom, people will come to the conclusion that China deserves a different political system. Whether today’s political leaders in different states are willing to openly make that their central message to Chinese leaders—they are in a different context. But the Chinese Great Firewall is certainly today’s Berlin Wall in this new geopolitical era.

Do you have any parting thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?

Your readers must have great concern for the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism in American society. To look at what’s happening in China, at people being deprived of those rights, that should give the American people and your readers more reason to protect theirs. In American society, so many factors make up democratic governance, including the quality of journalism, the quality of information. That is a never-finished, ongoing effort. Americans cannot fail that challenge. 

Other notable stories:

  • President Biden—who has been criticized for his apparent reluctance to do formal interviews with major mainstream news outlets—sat down with Time magazine at the White House. (The same publication recently interviewed Donald Trump; both interviews were promoted on its front page under the same headline: “If He Wins.”) Among other newsy remarks, Biden took a few shots at the media, including over what he sees as insufficient coverage of Russia’s “freaking decimated” military. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal published a major story, based on forty-five interviews, focused on Biden’s age and mental acuity. (The headline: “Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping.”) Politico notes that the White House and other observers pushed back strongly on aspects of the story; the Journal said that it stands behind it.
  • The Earth Journalism Network is out with a new report, completed in collaboration with researchers at Deakin University in Australia, assessing the global state of climate and environmental journalism based on input from journalists in a hundred and eight countries. “Journalists reported that the volume of coverage of climate change and the environment is increasing in most places—though this is set against a backdrop of shrinking newsrooms, reductions to media freedom in some jurisdictions, and an expansion of misinformation and disinformation,” the report concludes. Among other findings, 70 percent of those surveyed said that they were most likely to approach their climate coverage through the lens of health. You can read the report here.
  • And Ben White—a veteran economics journalist for outlets including Politico, CNBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Posthas died following a short illness. He was fifty-two. Politico’s editor in chief, John Harris, credited White with “spreading wisdom into every corner of Washington and Wall Street.” Speaking on air last night, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle paid an emotional tribute to White, who had been a regular guest on her show, calling him a “good man, a proud father, and an accomplished reporter.”

ICYMI: The Brits are coming. Again.

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.