As Trade Fight Looms, China Turns Censors on Its Own Policies

As Trade Fight Looms, China Turns Censors on Its Own Policies

SHANGHAI — China’s government, which tirelessly suppresses critical voices, unwanted ideologies and subversive memes, has turned its censors against an unlikely target: its own economic policies.

As Washington and Beijing spar over trade, news outlets here have been ordered not to mention “Made in China 2025,” an industrial master plan that aims to turn the country into a high-tech superpower, according to two people at Chinese news organizations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the censorship authorities’ secretive workings.

The Trump administration has repeatedly singled out the campaign to show that Beijing is using unfair means to acquire cutting-edge American technology. Despite months of talks, the two countries remain at an impasse.

The White House is moving ahead with tariffs on China, and Beijing has refused to back down, raising the specter of a full-blown trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. Overall, the Trump administration has threatened penalties on as much as $450 billion worth of Chinese goods, nearly equivalent to the total value of goods imported into the United States from China last year.

All the scrutiny may be making China’s leaders nervous.

In an apparent attempt to avoid drawing more attention to the Made in China 2025 campaign, news media have been told simply not to mention it. It is not clear how broadly the orders were issued across Chinese media outlets. The instructions were reported earlier by Reuters.

News organizations in China have little choice but to comply with such directives, which can include both targeted orders to remove specific articles as well as guidance, often delivered over the phone, about the tone and content of coverage. Articles critical of the government are deleted outright, even at influential outlets such as Caixin Media. Censors regularly take down images and posts from social media as well.

Even before the latest orders, however, the media coverage in China of the recent economic tensions with the United States has been largely free of nationalistic or inflammatory rhetoric. Absent official guidance against covering certain issues, Chinese media organizations often self-censor, wary of drawing the ire of authorities.

Made in China 2025 is not being scrubbed from the Chinese internet entirely. A speech mentioning the plan was published on a high-level government agency’s website on Monday. Local government websites have continued to refer to it.

More important, there is no indication that Beijing is preparing to compromise on the policies, such as financial support for local players and assistance in buying overseas competitors, that undergird the modernization plan.

But China’s leaders might not want the domestic media to whip up excessive public outrage, lest it constrain their ability to negotiate with Washington.

“These days, restrictions on information by the Chinese Communist Party are predominantly strategic and contextual, and not ideological or necessarily about judgments of the intrinsic sensitivity of a story or topic,” said David Bandurski, who is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong, and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

“That means just about any story, fact or image can instantly become sensitive given the right extrinsic factors, like too much online attention and speculation,” Mr. Bandurski said.

Western companies have long protested Chinese policies that privilege local firms over foreign ones. Made in China 2025 has drawn particular attention, though.

The campaign was first announced in 2015. But a year later, reports by American and European business groups highlighted unfair advantages Chinese companies could gain in overseas markets, and the initiative began to receive wider attention in the West.

At the time, the Chinese government seemed eager to downplay certain controversial aspects of the plan, such as targets for domestic firms’ share of the Chinese market in specific industries.

Lance Noble, a senior analyst in Beijing at the research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, said that in 2016, when foreign business groups raised concerns about a technical road map for the plan’s implementation, Chinese officials responded by saying that it was “just a think tank exercise,” with no formal standing in policy.

Beijing has used state media to try to hit back at criticism of the campaign, too.

Just last week, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China released a survey in which many respondents said they had seen “increased discrimination” in the country as a result of Made in China 2025.

In response, Global Times, a state-run tabloid known for its nationalistic bent, published an article arguing that the survey results reflected a misunderstanding of the plan.

Follow Raymond Zhong and Li Yuan on Twitter: @zhonggg and @LiYuan6.

Raymond Zhong reported from Shanghai, and Li Yuan from Hong Kong.

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