China Media Bulletin: Expanding surveillance, app crackdown, Confucius Institute closures (Issue No. 128)
A monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China
This is one of many images circulated by Chinese internet users on platforms like Sina Weibo expressing their mourning for humor app Neihan Duanzi after regulators shuttered it on April 10. The application had garnered as many as 200 million users at the height of its popularity. Avid fans formed an underground community of shared memes, car honks, and bumper stickers featuring the iconic smirking cartoon face. Other examples of memorials for the app—including an animated video of a funeral—were trending on the Chinese internet before being deleted by censors. Credit: Inkstone News/Weibo.
- Analysis: China’s Ever-Expanding Surveillance State
- In the News:
- New crackdown targets popular news apps, humor and video platforms
- Censorship updates: Kim Jong-un, the Bible, #MeToo, Weibo gay ban, Instagram study
- New report examines abuses behind televised confessions
- Hong Kong: Public survey on press freedom yields worst results yet
- Beyond China: Man Booker prize, UK theater, Texas Confucius Institutes, UN rights resolution
- Featured Prisoner: Jiang Tianyong
- What to Watch For
- Take Action
Recent developments shed light on the phenomenon’s immediate and long-term implications.
China’s authoritarian regime is taking systematic steps to expand its surveillance of people and communication channels within the country, and the tentacles of the apparatus are slowly extending far beyond China’s borders. A series of revelations and activist arrests over the past month provide insight on this project and what it means for the future of China and the world.
Xinjiang as incubator
As other observers have noted, the western region of Xinjiang is ground zero for the Chinese government’s expanding surveillance program. A dense network of video cameras, checkpoints, and human informants keep close tabs on most residents, especially those of Uighur or Kazakh ethnicity. This system is constantly being upgraded with new technologies. Some hotels in Urumqi now have facial recognition software to verify the identity cards of visitors. When the region’s new subway opens in June, ID cards will apparently be needed to purchase tickets.
Last July, authorities in Xinjiang demanded that residents install a special application on their mobile phones—Jingwang (“Clean Net”)—that scans devices for certain files like photos and videos deemed “dangerous” or overly religious and reports back to authorities. A technical audit of the app published on April 9 by the Open Technology Fund confirmed its intrusive capabilities, finding that “any user with this app installed will have every file stored on their device sent to an unknown entity for monitoring.” The analysis also noted extremely insecure channels used for relaying the data to remote government servers, rendering it vulnerable to interception and manipulation by almost anyone.
While surveillance remains especially vigorous in Xinjiang, it is also expanding throughout China. This is particularly true regarding the use of facial recognition technologies, social media app monitoring, and the emerging contours of a social credit system. One artificial intelligence (AI) company, SenseTime, whose investors now include the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, has gained attention in recent weeks. Founded in Hong Kong, the firm specializes in facial recognition and has a variety of commercial clients who use its products for payment or app logins. But according to Quartz, its clientele also includes local governments and public security bureaus in places like Guangdong and Yunnan, and at least one prison in Inner Mongolia. The Washington Post reported that this type of technology was used on April 7 to catch a man suspected of “economic crimes” at a concert in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, which had 60,000 people in attendance.
Social media penetration
With regard to social media apps, it has long been clear that police have unfettered access to user communications and personal details on popular services like QQ or WeChat once an investigation is opened. A newly proposed police implementation plan for last year’s Cybersecurity Law may expand that access even outside the criminal context. Meanwhile, as tech firms in China come under increased pressure to cleanse their networks and communities of “harmful” information, recent weeks have featured a spate of new cases involving users punished or interrogated by police for communications that were ostensibly shared privately with friends.
On April 3, detained activist Huang Qi filed a legal complaint claiming that Tencent, the parent company of both QQ and WeChat, had given his data and private communications to police as they attempted to build a case against him for his work related to a human rights news website. ChinaChange reported the next day that members of several politically liberal “Rose Group” chats have been questioned and threatened by police since February, as authorities seek to pressure them to abandon their online discussions. Since April 11, at least eight people involved with a WeChat group that attempted to organize support for the families of prisoners of conscience have been detained. And in a sign of how thoroughly these applications have been penetrated by the surveillance apparatus, China Digital Times published a leaked directive dated April 10 from an internet policing department in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. It orders an investigation into an individual who criticized Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a WeChat group with only eight members. The instructions identify the person by his real name, address, and phone number, even though he used a pseudonym for the offending post.
Individuals caught in the surveillance dragnet in China can face arbitrary detention and harsh prison sentences, among other repercussions, but the phenomenon also has effects on the wider world.
First, foreign companies operating in China or working with Chinese firms increasingly risk accusations of complicity in politicized arrests or violations of user privacy. In February, the U.S.-based note-taking app company Evernote announced that Chinese users’ data would be transferred to Tencent Cloud by mid-2018 to comply with data localization rules in the Cybersecurity Law. Airbnb recently alerted its hosts that starting on March 30, “Airbnb China may disclose your information to Chinese government agencies without further notice to you.” And in addition to Alibaba, one of the biggest investors in the AI firm SenseTime is U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm.
Second, some of these tactics and technologies are being deployed remotely against members of the Chinese, Tibetan, and Uighur diasporas, extending the repressive reach of the Chinese Communist Party far beyond China’s borders.
Third, China’s surveillance innovations are apparently being shared with other undemocratic governments. On April 13, Reuters reported that Yitu, a Chinese AI firm and competitor of SenseTime, recently opened its first international office in Singapore, and is preparing a bid for a government surveillance project that will include facial recognition software deployed in public spaces. Last week, Nikkei reported that Yitu had supplied “wearable cameras with artificial intelligence–powered facial-recognition technology to a local law enforcement agency” in Malaysia. Both countries are rated only Partly Free in Freedom House’s global assessment of political rights and civil liberties, and their governments have a long track record of suppressing political opposition and peaceful protesters.
Rising concern at home and abroad
Despite their relative secrecy, the Chinese authorities’ growing surveillance capabilities have not gone unnoticed even within China, as people become more aware of and sensitive to privacy rights. In Wuhan, artist Deng Yufeng created an art installation with the personal information of 346,000 people that he had purchased online for a mere $800 to raise awareness about the insecurity of personal data. Authorities shut down the exhibit in early April after just two days and are reportedly investigating Deng for obtaining the data, but news of the project spread through text messages and media reports, including in The Legal Daily, a state-run publication. More broadly, a recent survey found that 76.3 percent of Chinese respondents see AI as a threat to their privacy.
Internationally, the risk of surveillance has hurt Chinese tech firms’ efforts to expand to new markets. Last month, Australia’s Defence Department instructed military personnel not to use WeChat on their mobile phones due to security concerns. In the United Kingdom, the Financial Times reported on April 16 that the director of the National Cyber Security Centre had sent a letter to British telecom companies warning them not to use products from Chinese supplier ZTE, as it would “present risk to UK national security.” More recently the United States has moved to clamp down on telecom hardware from both ZTE and Huawei, another major Chinese manufacturer.
Nevertheless, these companies will continue to grow in tandem with their most important customer, China’s surveillance state. Indeed, the regime’s voracious demand for AI policing capacity and the data it provides to train the companies’ algorithms will only render their products more effective and attractive to foreign autocrats.
In the meantime, Chinese citizens and foreigners alike would be well advised to enhance their understanding of digital security and the risks that come with exposure to Beijing’s unblinking and increasingly intrusive gaze.
State censors this month forced the suspension of several popular news and video platforms, and a humor application with a loyal following of millions across China was shuttered entirely, spurring fans to memorialize the service.
On April 4, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) announced its decision to take “rectification measures” against the news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and the live-streaming app Kuaishou, including freezing video uploading services pending a review. The decision followed an April 1 exposé by the state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV) that criticized Kuaishou and several other video platforms for allowing teen mothers to live-stream their daily routines through pregnancy and motherhood. However, Kuaishou has also been used frequently by protesters and striking workers, and “was arguably the most popular app for recording Beijing’s mass evictions last year,” according to the Hong Kong–based China Labour Bulletin. Kuaishou is now seeking to hire 3,000 more internal censors alongside an existing team of 2,000 to monitor user content.
On April 9, Jinri Toutiao and three other news apps—NetEase News, Tiantian News, and Phoenix News—were suspended from various Android app stores in China. Jinri Toutiao, the most popular of the four with an estimated 120 million users, was suspended for three weeks. The crackdown appears to be punishment for “inappropriate” video content. Chief executive Zhang Yiming of ByteDance, the parent company of Jinri Toutiao, issued an apology on April 11 for allowing content “that was incommensurate with socialist core values” and “that did not properly implement public opinion guidance.”
Neihan Duanzi, a humor site also owned by ByteDance, was forced to shut down on April 10. “In accordance with the request of the relevant authorities, ‘Neihan Duanzi’ will permanently shut down its client software and public accounts,” the company announced on WeChat. “We will uphold correct value guidance and build a clear and positive internet environment.” Fans of the site, who call one another duanyou, expressed their sorrow on the social media services Weibo and WeChat with images of mourning and acerbic words for the government censors. “There’s a grave in my heart for everyone at SART,” one Weibo user wrote, referencing the soon-to-be new acronym for the regulator under a bureaucratic restructuring effort. Videos have surfaced of duanyou greeting each other on the road with their signature honk or by reciting lines from coded couplets, though journalists have noted that these videos of honking and protest may combine footage from both before and after the Neihan Duanzi shutdown. Still, the circulation of the videos itself points to real support for the late humor platform.
Launched in 2012, Neihan Duanzi started as a platform for GIFs, written jokes, and internet memes. As video streaming grew in popularity across the Chinese internet, so did Duanzi’s streams, eventually becoming its mainstay. Users tended to be working-class men in their 30s. The “Reddit-like” platform at one point claimed to have 200 million users, though news sources put the figure at 4 million just before its demise. Journalist-activist Michael Anti told the South China Morning Post he was “shocked to find that such an enormous [internet-based] community had existed for years outside the watch of the mainstream media.” It is precisely this shared sense of community, based on content far removed from official propaganda messaging, that may have sealed the app’s fate.
- Kim Jong-un nicknames blocked: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing at the end of March was kept secret until he had already left. In the meantime, a variety of nicknames for Kim were blocked from search results on the social media platform Weibo, among them “Kim Fatty III” (a title invented when Kim’s father Kim Jong-il died in 2011), “Kim Pig,” and “the obese patient.” Even the vaguest of references, such as “he has arrived,” and social media comments about the “neighbor” and “visitor from the northeast,” were censored.
- Bibles pulled from e-commerce platforms: The central government has banned e-commerce sites from selling copies of the Bible, and as of April 5 searches for the holy book returned “no results” on major retail platforms, including Taobao and Amazon.cn. It has long been illegal for bibles to be sold commercially, but until now online retailers had taken advantage of a loophole in the law. The ban highlights the intersection between increasing religious controls and online censorship in recent years.
- #MeToo defies censorship: The case of a student’s rape and suicide in April 1998 has become the latest rallying cry for the #MeToo movement in China, outpacing censors on the 20th anniversary of her death. Friends of Gao Yan, who killed herself soon after her Peking University professor reportedly forced her to have sex, have enabled her story to go viral, being shared millions of times. Peking University and other universities are now making public statements condemning sexual harassment and drafting new institutional regulations.
- Weibo walks back ban on gay content: On April 13, Weibo announced a three-month “clean-up” of violent and pornographic content, including “comics, images of text, and short videos on homosexual topics.” Internet users responded with outrage, and millions tagged themselves #iamgay before that hashtag, too, was blocked. Just three days after the campaign began, Weibo walked back its ban, and the popular account Gay Voice (@同志之声) resumed posting 48 hours after it had announced its own demise. The reversal also came after commentary published in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, reaffirmed the importance of avoiding discrimination based on sexual orientation. The outcome has been widely viewed as a rare victory for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community and for all internet users in China.
- Sudden censorship spurs circumvention, greater awareness: Internet users are motivated to circumvent censorship when a website or app is blocked without warning, according to a new article by William Hobbs and Margaret Roberts published in the journal American Political Science Review on April 2. Based on a study of Chinese Instagram users in September 2014, when the app was blocked during the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong, the authors found that users learn to circumvent censorship specifically to access the platform that has been blocked, but in the process they discover other censored content, a phenomenon the researchers call the “gateway effect.” Hobbs and Roberts conclude that sudden censorship “can politicize previously apolitical citizens, and can accumulate collective action potential that it often seeks to suppress.”
A new report published on April 11 by the rights group Safeguard Defenders provides the first in-depth look at a trend that has emerged since 2013—televised confessions by prisoners of conscience and other victims of state repression. The report, Scripted and Staged: Behind the scenes of China’s forced TV confessions, details 45 confessions recorded between 2013 and 2018, 60 percent of which featured journalists, bloggers, publishers, lawyers, or activists. The case studies point to the highly choreographed nature of the recordings, the use of deception and pressure to coerce detainees, and the collaborative role played by media outlets—especially the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV)—in producing, editing, and airing the confessions to the authorities’ satisfaction.
Each confession entails calculated costuming, careful staging, multiple takes, tight scripting, and in some cases, heavy editing. The report highlights a change in presentation beginning in 2015, from mostly jailhouse attire and locations to more civilian alternatives, in a possible effort to soften the impression of clips geared toward foreign audiences. Many detainees report being asked to read lines provided by police verbatim, or to repeat their words until a satisfactory take is recorded.
The report notes the use of sleep deprivation, torture, drugging, and other physical coercion to force detainees to cooperate, as well as threats against loved ones should they refuse to comply. The researchers also describe repeated deception on the part of police or television crews. In many cases, detainees were told that the footage would not be aired on television but was rather for the benefit of judges, “higher ups,” or the public security bureau. In other instances, an amateur camera or webcam was used, and the detainee was assured that if the comments were to be aired on television, then professional cameramen would be in attendance.
Such professionals were indeed present, in many cases. The report provides a plethora of examples in which CCTV was knowingly complicit in the recording, editing, and airing of coerced confessions. CCTV journalists and camera crews were often present, but police asked the detainee questions or dictated the questions that a journalist should ask. In one instance, lawyer Wang Yu was taken directly to CCTV’s studios for filming, though she refused to cooperate and was returned to the detention center. In addition to the on-site recording, CCTV was active in “producing a sophisticated news package with graphics and interviews with police and commentators to paint the suspect as guilty.” Although CCTV has been the outlet most closely associated with recording and distributing the confessions, various Hong Kong news outlets are also implicated, including Phoenix TV, the Oriental Daily, and the South China Morning Post.
The report concludes with a series of recommendations, including for foreign governments to consider sanctioning high-level CCTV executives, just as Iranian state television officials have been sanctioned by the European Union after airing forced confessions by jailed activists.
Hong Kong residents feel that media freedom is more threatened now than in the past five years, according to the annual Hong Kong Press Freedom Index. The report, published by the Hong Kong Journalists Association on April 11, found that the general public’s perception of press freedom in the territory fell to 47.1 out of 100, the lowest score since the survey began in 2013. A separate score based on journalists’ views rose slightly to 40.3 due to a decline in physical violence and threats against them over the past year, but they also reported increasing pressure from the central government.
More than 93 percent of the journalists surveyed cited three events in the past year as serious blows to press freedom: the retraction of a South China Morning Post column related to Chinese president Xi Jinping, TVB’s airing of a Xi speech instead of its regular programming from Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, and neighboring Macau’s refusal to let Hong Kong reporters into the city after Typhoon Hato hit last August. The Post column, written by veteran financial commentator Shirley Yam, suggested that a Hong Kong investor is benefiting from ties to one of Xi’s advisers. Yam, convener of the Press Freedom Subcommittee that worked on the survey, quit the Post after her article was axed. This was but one example of a trend reported by journalists in which editors are increasingly deleting articles, omitting news reports, or killing story ideas for fear of offending the central government.
Yam told reporters that the survey results would likely have been even worse if the study had been conducted after the recent wave of verbal attacks on Benny Tai, a law professor and 2014 Occupy Central protest leader who—at a recent academic discussion in Taiwan—mentioned Hong Kong independence as a hypothetical possibility should the Chinese Communist Party no longer control China in the future. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has denied pointing a finger at Tai for his remarks.
- Man Booker seesaws on nationality of Taiwanese author: When the organizers of the prestigious Man Booker literary award first announced their list of nominated novels in translation in mid-March, they identified Wu Mingyi’s country as Taiwan. The author of The Stolen Bicycle was pleased, until the award foundation received a complaint from the Chinese embassy in London and changed his listed nationality to “Taiwan, China.” Wu and his supporters balked, and Man Booker’s Facebook page was bombarded with one-star reviews. Finally, the foundation restored Wu’s place of origin to “Taiwan,” but also relabeled the heading for all authors as “Country/Territory,” a compromise that has satisfied Wu and his supporters but still placates Beijing.
- UK theater hid reasons for pulling Tibet play: The Royal Court Theatre in London cited “financial reasons” when it canceled its production of Pah-La. But, according to an April 4 report in the Guardian, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the British Council had advised the theater to drop the play because it would have coincided with “significant political meetings” in Beijing during the fall of 2017 and jeopardized a joint project the two British institutions are running with writers in China. The Royal Court Theatre has issued an apology and now plans to produce the play in 2019. In Pah-La, Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar incorporates the personal stories told to him by Tibetans in Dharamsala. Such efforts by Beijing to stifle theatrical productions it deems objectionable are not uncommon, as indicated by dozens of instances of pressure surrounding Shen Yun, a New York–based classical Chinese dance show that tours internationally and includes pieces related to the persecution of Falun Gong and historical events like the Cultural Revolution.
- Sweden charges Tibetan spy suspect: Dorjee Gyantsan was indicted on April 11 for allegedly spying on the Swedish Tibetan community—which numbers just 140 people—for Beijing. He was accused of gathering information on families, living arrangements, and travel and relaying it to Chinese officials in Finland and Poland. In one instance Gyantsan was paid 50,000 krona (nearly $6,000) for his efforts. He had lived in Sweden as a refugee since 2002 and reported for Voice of Tibet. “We are living in a democratic country but still you are not allowed to practice the democratic way,” said Jamyang Choedon, president of the Tibetan Community in Sweden, describing the fear that Gyantsan’s case had provoked.
- Two Texas Confucius Institutes to close: Two schools in the Texas A&M University system will end their contracts with the Chinese government’s Confucius Institutes in response to an open letter from Congressmen Henry Cuellar (D-TX) and Michael McCaul (R-TX). “We are terminating the contract as they suggested,” said Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp in an April 5 statement, marking the first time a university representative has attributed such a closure to concerns raised by elected officials. McCaul and Cuellar also urged Texas Southern University and two University of Texas campuses to close their Confucius Institute facilities. Members of Congress from both parties have been pushing universities in their home constituencies to abandon the Chinese educational programs amid concerns about foreign influence and possible intelligence gathering at U.S. schools. This national security focus represents a shift from initial debates about Confucius Institutes, which primarily centered on academic freedom and integrity.
- UN rights council passes China-led resolution: The UN Human Rights Council adopted the second of two recent Chinese resolutions on March 23, this one titled “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.” The resolution passed with 28 votes; 17 countries abstained, and only the United States voted against. The U.S. vote was accompanied by a strongly worded statement criticizing the resolution and its underlying motives: “The ‘feel good’ language about ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated, as States, to respect.” Critics worry that China is chipping away at human rights principles by shifting the focus from protecting the individual toward promoting “mutually beneficial cooperation” between states. An analysis of the resolution by Andrea Worden notes, “There is not even one mention of the word ‘individual’ in the resolution, nor do the terms ‘human rights defender’ or ‘civil society’ appear. But ‘cooperation,’ appears 19 times, and the words ‘mutually’ or ‘mutual,’ are mentioned 13 times, ‘dialogue’ makes 6 appearances, and ‘constructive’ is used 5 times.”
Jiang Tianyong, 46, is a well-known human rights lawyer serving a two-year prison sentence for reportedly helping to expose a fellow attorney’s torture in custody. Hunan’s Intermediate People’s Court announced the sentence on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” on November 21, 2017 via social media platform Sina Weibo. For over a decade, Jiang has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s human rights record and rule of law shortcomings online and in interviews with foreign and overseas Chinese media.
Police detained Jiang in November 2016 when he was en route to visit attorney Xie Yang. Authorities revoked Jiang’s license to practice law in 2009 in retribution for his defense of activists like Chen Guangcheng and persecuted religious believers like Falun Gong adherents, but he continued to aid fellow lawyers informally. Xie’s detention gained international notoriety in January 2017, when detailed allegations of torture he suffered in custody were publicized online. These reports became a focus of prosecutors’ case against Jiang, although Jiang was detained before Xie’s abuse was made public.
During an August 2017 trial, portions of which were aired on television, Jiang was shown pleading guilty, claiming the torture reports were fabricated, and asking for mercy. His confession was widely seen as forced and likely induced by abuse he suffered during almost a year of secret detention, which included a ban on seeing his own lawyers.
Jiang is one of the most prominent attorneys sentenced to prison in a crackdown on rights lawyers that began in July 2015. The campaign has sought to punish attorneys not only for their legal work but for their use of media and internet outreach strategies to publicize cases and pressure authorities to protect the rights of their clients. Since his sentencing, Jiang has been held at Changsha No. 1 Detention Center rather than being transferred to a prison and his health has reportedly deteriorated. Jiang’s wife resides in California and has been unable to contact her husband since his arrest; on April 19, 2018, the detention center cancelled an expected visit by Jiang’s family in China, reinforcing concerns over the state of his health.
Long-term impact of latest app crackdown: As suspended news apps come back online, watch for shifts in their coverage, including greater inclusion of state media content or party propaganda. Also watch for ongoing netizen protests surrounding deleted humor app Neihan Duanzi and any reports of increased circumvention of the Great Firewall by users seeking greater access to uncensored information or social media applications.
Updates on free expression cases: The cases of three people detained or placed under house arrest in recent months for exercising their right to free expression are likely to move forward: Zhen Jianghua—a well-known blogger—was charged with “inciting subversion of state power in late March, journalist Zou Guangxiang from Inner Mongolia was detained in Beijing on March 28, and Li Wenzu, wife of detained lawyer Wang Quanzhang was placed under house arrest on April 10 as she was trying to complete a 100 km protest walk to where she believes her husband is being held incommunicado. Watch for information about prosecutorial cases against these activists or news of reduced restrictions.
Increased Hollywood restrictions and self-censorship: Under restructuring announced at the March meeting of the National People’s Congress, responsibility over film regulation will shift to the supervision of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department alongside a state regulator. Although the party’s red lines have long governed decisions related to films shown in Chinese cinemas, Isaac Stone Fish points out in a March 30 article, “the most likely outcome is that U.S. studios will have to jump through higher ideological hoops to get their films approved — and thus will more carefully scrub their films of elements that Beijing deems sensitive.” Watch for how such dynamics unfold as the restructuring is implemented.
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