The welcome committee for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was leaving nothing to chance: from the color of lettering on signs to orders on how to cover the deal that secured her return, state media were under strict instructions.
One directive from authorities instructed companies to display the slogan “Welcome home, Meng Wanzhou!” on buildings to greet the communication giant’s chief financial officer, who had been under house arrest in Canada for three years.
Others ordered media to report objectively and accurately, but in general to adopt a “low key and watered-down” treatment of the circumstances of Meng’s return.
Meng returned to China in late September after reaching a deal in which the U.S. Justice Department agreed to defer prosecution in a financial fraud case. The deal resolved a long legal and political case involving the U.S., Canada, and China.
The minute detail contained in the directive for state media on her case was revealed by China Digital Times. Since 2010, the U.S.-based, independent news site has published hundreds of directives issued by Chinese authorities to state media outlets.
From coverage of July’s Henan floods – “Shift the focus of reporting to post-disaster recovery” – to the street vendor trade in 2020 – “Please do not hype further” – and pandemic efforts at home and abroad, the leaked directives underscore the strict and sometimes strange nature of state censorship, according to analysts.
“The directives are really helpful because so much censorship is unknown,” Angeli Datt, a China analyst for Freedom House, told VOA. “The Chinese Communist Party still wants to try and make it appear as organic and natural as possible. It doesn't want to show the heavy hand of the state, even though it's there, and people know that it's there.”
Beijing’s focus on granular details carries significance, analysts said. It demonstrates the government’s control over all aspects of the media, even when it comes to seemingly harmless topics.
China’s embassy in Washington told VOA that freedom of speech is protected in the country.
“Chinese media, committed to objective, impartial, true and accurate coverage, has played an active role in enhancing mutual understanding between China and other countries,” an embassy spokesperson told VOA via email. “Chinese citizens' freedom of speech, a Constitutional right, has been fully protected.”
Human Rights Watch China analyst Yaqiu Wang described the directives published by China Digital Times as “an inside look at how the system works.”
That system has two main domains: self-censorship and government-enforced censorship, according to Wang.
Still, suppression tends to function on an ad hoc basis, she told VOA, adding, “There are no clear rules.”
That vague approach is likely by design, said Datt of Freedom House.
“Political red lines are always kept deliberately vague, because if you don't know when you've crossed it, you'll probably be more hesitant to do anything that potentially might cross it,” Datt said.
Journalists who worked at China’s state-run outlets shared a similar view, saying often staff steer clear of issues they believe may be sensitive, to avoid running into trouble.
And while they had some freedom to cover less politically sensitive news, overall the journalists said that control appears to have increased in recent years.
Tony Cheng, a British Chinese journalist, worked for CGTN from 2011 to 2020. When he first joined the network, the former Al Jazeera English and BBC correspondent said he had a lot of freedom.
“I traveled widely in the Middle East, did a lot of great stories I was very proud of,” Cheng told VOA’s Mandarin service earlier this year. “But in the last four years, I felt the editorial control tightening.”
When China began its huge infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road policy, “suddenly Southeast Asian stories became much more prone to sensitive issues.”
Cheng, who more recently worked as a freelance journalist in the Thai capital, Bangkok, said the channel deliberately omitted some stories from Southeast Asia.
Human rights issues including the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, unrest in Thailand, the development of China’s e-commerce site Alibaba in Thailand, and protests in Hong Kong, were all off limits.
VOA sent emails to two CGTN press contacts for comment but received no response.
Journalist Michael Ottey says he spent two years working as a China-based editor at the state-run China Daily from 2014 to better understand how state media operates.
During that time, he worked alongside a Chinese editor, whom the journalist described as a “handler” or someone he had to defer to on whether certain topics were too sensitive.
"You can criticize the enemy all day long, but you can’t criticize your friends,” Ottey, who is now an assistant editor at the Los Angeles Times, told VOA.
However, Beijing’s friends and enemies lists often changed, so the China Daily tended to censor itself on an ad hoc basis.
The outlet often looked to the upper levels of the Communist Party for signals on what or whom they could and could not criticize depending on the government’s stance at the time, Ottey said.
“It was almost like working for a public relations firm, to be honest,” Ottey said. “It wasn't really honest journalism. It was more ‘Let’s make the Chinese government look good.’”
China Daily did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Steven Lee Myers, the New York Times Beijing bureau chief, said Chinese authorities “set a narrative — and that's the truth that they're talking about.”
The journalist pointed to how Beijing refers to a "war on terror" in Xinjiang. The U.S. and other countries have accused China of mass human rights abuses in the region, where it has detained more than a million of Uyghurs.
“It’s a rigid orthodoxy that they’re asking people to accept,” Myers told VOA.
He is one of around a dozen American journalists who were expelled from China in 2020 as part of a tit-for-tat with the U.S. over media visas.
China has issued directives related to allegations of its treatment of Uyghurs, including in March 2020 when media were told to avoid reporting on “Xinjiang’s organization of work positions for Uyghurs and other ethnic minority members.”
The order came after an Australian think tank alleged an estimated 80,000 Uyghurs were being used as forced labor in factories that supply foreign companies.
As well as acting as a show of power, the directives and China’s strict censorship demonstrate Beijing’s anxieties, according to Datt of Freedom House.
“These leaked directives are really helpful to illustrate how the state is controlling media, and restricting what is being reported on,” Datt said. But, she added, “It illustrates the insecurity of the Communist Party.”
VOA’s Mandarin service contributed to this report.