The first time 27-year-old Ong Mei Ching* came across the Chinese online magazine, Sixth Tone, it immediately caught her attention.

For years, Ong had been interested in Chinese current affairs and had stayed updated about news from China, but she found that much of the coverage revolved around similar topics.

Sixth Tone, which is published in English, was different.

“I found it refreshing because it was not about Chinese business or economics or politics – it was about people,” Ong told Al Jazeera.

She was captivated by the way the publication’s journalists ventured beyond the usual spaces into lesser-known cities and provinces to report about social dilemmas such as the country’s ageing population or its marginalised groups like single parents and children left with their grandparents by parents who had left for work in faraway cities.

“I felt they were doing something quite meaningful, that they were changing the narrative of how an international audience saw China,” she said.

Ong wanted to be a part of it. So, when she got the opportunity to work at Sixth Tone in 2019, she jumped at the chance and moved her life to Shanghai where the magazine has its headquarters.

She became a part of an editorial team that she described as upholding high journalistic standards and whose members were passionate about their work.

Journalists working during the Two Sessions in Beiijing. Some are discussing issues in groups. Some are filming.
Journalists covering last month’s National People’s Congress in Beijing. The traditional end-of-congress news conference was cancelled [File: Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo]

However, the work could often lead to clashes with Chinese censors who objected to certain topic choices and story angles, which sometimes resulted in pieces getting killed before they were ever published or taken down just a few hours after they went online.

“We were testing the waters with many stories to see whether they would pop the censors,” she said.

Regardless of the scrutiny, Ong found that Sixth Tone, which was geared towards a Western and internationally-minded audience, often had more leeway than media for more local audiences.

But its room for manoeuvre now appears to have shrunk.

Former and current employees at Sixth Tone have recently given accounts of how articles have been removed and phrases censored on a massive scale across the outlet’s archives. Editors have also been required to check in with censors every few hours and certain terminology has been changed to align with the preferred narrative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) including referring to Tibet as “Xizang”.

Al Jazeera reached out to Sixth Tone for comment but did not receive a reply.

Ong is not surprised that the grip appears to be tightening around Sixth Tone.

“As Sixth Tone has grown, it has attracted a bigger audience making the government want to increase its control over the content this audience is getting,” she said.

“At the same time, there is a lot of pressure on Chinese media today to portray China in a solely positive manner.”

A controlled experiment

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has called for “telling China’s story well” and spreading “positive energy”.

Such mantras have not always been reflected in Sixth Tone’s many articles about the socioeconomic issues facing common people in China.

The irony is that while Sixth Tone’s reporting has drawn the attention of Chinese censors, the outlet is also considered state media because it is part of the state-controlled Shanghai United Media Group.

According to Shaoyu Yuan, a scholar of Chinese studies at Rutger’s University in the US, state media in China serve as a mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with less emphasis on editorial independence and more focus on aligning content with party ideology and government policies.

“This means that state media operate under the auspices of the CCP and contribute to the promotion of government objectives, enhancing national unity and supporting China’s image domestically and internationally,” he told Al Jazeera.

But although Sixth Tone had to balance credible reporting for an international audience with CCP ideology, Yuan is not convinced the magazine was doomed to lose its edge.

Instead, he argues that allowing Sixth Tone to pursue its own journalistic style was akin to a controlled experiment by the CCP.

“Chinese citizens interested in such reporting most likely already knew how to bypass censorship and access foreign news outlets that already cover some of the same issues,” he said.

“The Chinese government’s support for Sixth Tone allowed for a subtle control over the tone and framing of such issues.”

Additionally, when Sixth Tone was founded in 2016, China was still transitioning from the less assertive governing style of Hu Jintao, who was China’s president from 2003 until 2013.

“Compared to eight years ago, it would be more unusual to see a media like Sixth Tone be founded today,” Yuan said.

Shrinking space

Since Xi came to power in 2013, the media environment has tightened. Internet freedom has also declined.

In Freedom House’s 2023 report on internet freedom around the world, China was rated “not free: with a score of only nine points out of 100, one point less than the year before.

In RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, meanwhile, China fell four spots compared with 2022, ranking second to bottom and just above North Korea. More journalists are currently in jail in China than anywhere else in the world.

“There has been a very clear development towards greater state control over the media in China in recent years leaving very little space for media,” Alfred Wu, a scholar of public governance in China at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera.

This development has also affected state media, according to Yuan at Rutger’s University.

“Under the rule of President Xi Jinping, state media in China have been consolidated and aligned closer with the ideology of the CCP,” he said.

“This involves regular ideological education and training, aiming to make sure that reporting reinforces Xi Jinping Thought [Xi’s ideology] and the objectives of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and this is why we are witnessing foreign staff members resigning from media outlets like Sixth Tone.”

One of those staff members is former editor Bibek Bhandari who allegedly landed himself and several other employees at Sixth Tone in “hot water” last year after publishing a media project that criticised Beijing’s zero-COVID policy.

On X, Bhandari wrote a long thread explaining how the list of prohibited topics was growing and had come to include migrant relocation, the Shanghai lockdown, LGBTQ-related stories, women’s issues and the zero-COVID protests.

Bhandari attended the biggest of the zero-COVID protests in November 2023 along with other members of the editorial team.

By May 2023, none of them were left at Sixth Tone, he wrote in a series of posts.

“I resigned. Demand for ‘positive stories’ was growing. Censorship getting worse. And the place has been utterly mismanaged. Space for stories that we previously published without any hiccups is shrinking. It’s not the same place I joined.”

Walking a tightrope

But it is not only journalists in more outspoken media such as Sixth Tone who have come under pressure.

When a reporting team from Chinese state television CCTV began a live interview close to the scene of a gas leak explosion that had claimed the lives of 27 people in a city outside Beijing in the middle of March, members of the local authorities reportedly blocked the camera while others engaged in pushing and shoving to physically remove the journalists.

Even this year’s annual news conference at the end of the annual political gathering of the Two Sessions was cancelled.

Yuan warns that the incident near the gas leak explosion, the cancelled press event and the tightening controls over media outlets like Sixth Tone suggest more difficulties ahead for journalists in China.

“These developments underscore the precarious nature of media freedoms and the tightrope that journalists must walk within the regulatory and political landscape of the country,” he said.

Despite recent crackdowns and restrictions, former staffer Ong believes that Sixth Tone still has a role to play in China’s media landscape.

“I don’t think they will be shut down completely because I think they are still useful as a tool to promote China to a Western audience,” she explained.

“And even if it is not the same as before, a lot of it is still real stories, real people and real issues.”

Yuan noted that the future of outlets like Sixth Tone is not set in stone.

“I consider Sixth Tone’s journey to be reflective of the evolving strategies within China’s media ecosystem,” he said.

“Should there be a shift towards a more open governance approach, there’s the possibility that Sixth Tone could once again rise to prominence.”

*The source’s name was altered to respect a wish for anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic.

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