Five Predictions for Chinese Censorship in the Year of the Sheep

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Senior Research Analyst for East Asia

This blog was originally published by Foreign Policy. To read the original, click here.

Blocked websites, jailed journalists, and nationalist rhetoric have long been features of the Chinese Communist Party’s media control strategy. During the Year of the Horse, which just ended on China’s lunar calendar, President Xi Jinping and his colleagues ramped up the intensity of their control methods, while relying on revived or new tactics (like airing dissenters’ televised confessions and promoting centrally controlled social media news feeds) in an effort to dominate the information environment.

In the Year of the Sheep, which began on Feb. 19, China’s censors will inevitably take new steps to advance the government narrative and constrict the space for dissent. Below are five media and Internet developments likely to take place:

  1. A tightening Chinese firewall. Chinese Internet users are increasingly referring to their Internet as a “LAN,” or “local area network” — effectively a type of intranet — as it becomes more isolated than ever before. The combination of recent upgrades to the “Great Firewall” filtering system, new restrictions on virtual private network (VPN) services employed by users to reach blocked overseas websites, and a policy narrative extolling the principle of “internet sovereignty”— the right of each state to regulate its own cyberspace — has taken a toll. In 2014, Gmail, other previously available Google services, and Yahoo’s Flickr photo-sharing service joined social networks Facebook and Twitter as internationally-used web tools that are blocked in China. Expect revamped regulatory entities like the Cyberspace Administration of China to tighten controls at home while working with other authoritarian regimes to promote “internet sovereignty” and change the rules of global Internet governance. That doesn’t mean hope is lost; technologists will also continue their arms race with the Great Firewall, developing new tools to meet the demands of Chinese users determined to reach blocked services.
     
  2. The first WeChat arrest. After a sweeping crackdown on the popular Weibo microblogging service, Chinese authorities have turned their sights to Tencent’s WeChat, an instant-messaging program used by hundreds of millions to which many Weibo users had migrated. During 2014, government took particular aim at public accounts used by journalists, activists, and Internet portals to disseminate articles on current affairs. In March, 39 such accounts were shut down or suspended. In May, Tencent reportedly intensified efforts to verify the identities of users behind public accounts. And in August, these restrictions were formalized when the government prohibited instant-messaging accounts from posting political news without official approval. In the likely event that the continuing crackdown on WeChat follows the script of past censorship campaigns, expect to see the first high-profile arrest for sharing politically sensitive information over the platform, as well as more closures of activists’ personal accounts and stronger enforcement of real-name registration.
     
  3. High censorship around Xi’s first U.S. visit as president. In September, Xi Jinping is scheduled to make his first state visit to the United States as president of China. The excursion into the unpredictable world of a free media and vibrant civil society will inevitably lead to some incident or event prompting censors back home to take action amidst otherwise glowing state media saturation. It might entail blacking out Tibetan and Falun Gong activists protesting abuses along the route of Xi’s motorcade. Or it might reprise an incident during Hu Jintao’s visit in 2011, when he acknowledged human rights shortcomings during a press conference, prompting state media to censor their own president.
     
  4. Jail time for more prominent free speech advocates. Three internationally renowned advocates of media freedom will face potentially long prison sentences in the coming months – and their odds are not good. Dissident journalist Gao Yu was arrested in 2014 and forced to give a televised confession in May; she has been detained for “leaking state secrets” for allegedly sharing a high-level party document urging tighter ideological control with overseas contacts, and now faces possible life in prison. Leading activist Guo Feixiong was tried in November, but no verdict has been announced; he has been in detention since August 2013 and is facing punishment for calling publicly for free speech during protests to support a journalist strike against censorship in January 2013 at the well-known Southern Weekly. He could face up to five years in jail, especially given an earlier stint in prison as punishment for his activism. Then there’s attorney Pu Zhiqiang, who himself represented high-profile free speech advocates like artist Ai Weiwei, and who has been in custody since May 2014 after attending a private gathering to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square prodemocracy protesters. With the authorities repeatedly changing the nature of the charges against Pu, his potential punishment is unclear, but if he is convicted of “inciting to subvert state power,” one set of charges filed in November, he could face up to a decade in prison. In China’s politicized legal system, the cases against all three are rife with irregularities and there is a strong chance they will be convicted. Domestic and international pressure on a given activist’s behalf could yield leniency, but it’s a good bet that the regime comes down hard on at least one of the three.
     
  5. New attacks on Hong Kong media. The past three years have featured a growing number and increasingly violent series of physical assaults against independently minded journalists and owners in the autonomous territory. These attacks have occurred alongside a sharp decline in media freedoms as major businesses have withdrawn advertising from critical outlets, cyber attacks disrupt coverage by independent media, and reporters acknowledge growing self-censorship. The trend began before a prodemocracy protest movement challenged Beijing’s decision to restrict nominations for future chief executive elections, but it intensified during and after the demonstrations. Even as some perpetrators of attacks on journalists have been arrested, Hong Kong authorities have avoided investigating possible masterminds or links to the central government. In a political atmosphere of impunity, and efforts by Beijing to curb what it sees as antigovernment activism, new physical and cyber attacks on journalists and other threats to media freedom are almost certain.

Should all or most of these predictions come to fruition, the resulting state of affairs will not merely be destructive for the families directly affected or for the cause of free expression. Chinese citizens and the international community at large will be deprived of vital news and information, and global news consumers will have to contend with a party better equipped to extend the reach of its information control apparatus beyond mainland China’s borders.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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