China Media Bulletin: Holiday crackdown, Beijing netizen outcries, Skype app removal (Issue No. 124)
A monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China
This photo, taken from a longer video posted on Twitter by Agence-France Presse correspondent Rebecca Davis, shows the demolished homes of migrants in the Xihongmen section of Beijing. The city authorities have used the aftermath of a deadly fire to evict and destroy the homes of tens of thousands of migrants. Images of families left out in the cold circulated widely online, drawing an outcry from middle-class netizens, but soon censors began deleting posts en masse. According to a censorship index by Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope project, the pace of Sina Weibo deletions on November 26 and 27 related to the evictions and a kindergarten abuse scandal exceeded that on October 18, the opening day of the 19th Party Congress. Credit: Rebecca Davis
- Analysis: China’s Stealthy Holiday Crackdowns
- In the News:
- Netizen outcry over mass evictions, child abuse scandals
- Propaganda, censorship, and tweets during Trump’s visit to China
- Censorship and surveillance updates: Skype app removal, probe of ex-internet czar, video surveillance, ‘Coco’ release
- Hong Kong & Macau: National anthem, threats to journalists, Macau lawmaker’s suspension
- Beyond China: Pressure on publishers, Apple chief in China, Ghana cartoonist, Katy Perry visa ban
- Featured Prisoner: Lee Ming-Che
- What to Watch For
- Take Action
Dissident convictions and acts of censorship seem timed to avoid lumps of coal from international observers.
As families across the United States were preparing for their Thanksgiving feasts last month, a Chinese court in Changsha sentenced prominent rights attorney Jiang Tianyong to two years in prison. His alleged crime was trying to “overthrow the socialist system” by publishing articles online, speaking to foreign news outlets, and publicizing his clients’ cases via social media. At first glance, the timing of the decision may appear coincidental. But the Chinese government has a long history of sentencing free expression activists or ramping up censorship while observers in leading democracies are distracted with major holidays. This year may be no different.
Just two years ago, Guo Feixiong, another well-known activist, was sentenced to six years in prison on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and one of the biggest holiday shopping days in the United States. Guo was punished for protesting in support of newspaper journalists who had gone on strike in 2013 over increasingly heavy-handed censorship. He was held in custody for more than two years, and had been the subject of numerous international appeals, reinforcing the suspicion that his sentencing was planned with the U.S. holiday in mind.
Such cases have occurred around Christmas and New Year’s Eve as well. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo received his 11-year prison sentence for online writings and a prodemocracy manifesto on Christmas Day in 2009. Prominent attorney Pu Zhiqiang—who had defended dissident artist Ai Weiwei, among other clients facing reprisals for criticizing the Chinese government—was handed a three-year suspended sentence on December 22, 2015.
On December 30 of that year, Lee Bo, one of several detainees linked to a Hong Kong publishing company known for salacious books about China’s leaders, mysteriously disappeared from the territory, only to reemerge in custody in China. He was apparently abducted and smuggled across the border by Chinese security agents in an unprecedented move that sent a chill throughout Hong Kong society.
The Chinese authorities have also chosen holiday periods to carry out acts of censorship against foreign news organizations or technology companies, which may respond less quickly or robustly when executives are trying to spend time with family.
For example, under pressure from Beijing, Apple removed the New York Times mobile phone application from its online store in China on December 23, 2016. The paper chose not to report on the change until January 4, perhaps realizing that it would get more attention from the media and policymakers after the New Year. Two years earlier, on December 28, 2014, Google’s Gmail email service was blocked in China—especially for mobile phone mail applications. The service had suffered months of disruptions, but tools tracking Google traffic showed a sharp drop that day.
To the credit of international news organizations and foreign governments, despite the awkward timing, these incidents do get coverage and official responses, such as expressions of concern from the U.S. State Department. Still, with reduced staff during holidays, embassies may not have the manpower to send observers to a sentencing hearing or issue a statement as quickly as they might otherwise. And even if news organizations report on the unjust jailing of people like Liu Xiaobo and Jiang Tianyong, readers and viewers naturally pay less attention to these and other stories during their time off.
Looking ahead to this holiday season after a year of intensified online censorship, several prominent human rights lawyers remain in custody. Most notably, Wang Quanzhang has been held incommunicado for over two years, and his lawyers were again denied access to him last week. He may be put on trial soon. Gao Zhisheng, a Christian who suffered horrific torture in the past, was taken back into custody in August.
All those who care about the fate of these men, as well as the tens of thousands of other political and religious prisoners languishing in Chinese prisons or detention centers, would do well to watch for and respond to any further penalties or restrictions in the coming weeks.
The apparent holiday pattern suggests that Chinese authorities are more sensitive to international pressure than they would like to admit. Even if a public outcry fails to improve prisoners’ situations (though it often does), the Communist Party leadership should at least be put on notice that it cannot hide its shameful decisions behind celebrations of peace, joy, and gratitude.
Chinese social media exploded with anger in November as low-income laborers in Beijing were made homeless by rapid demolitions in the name of “safety.” Adding to the online uproar, the sweep was bookended by separate child abuse scandals at daycare centers in Shanghai and Beijing. Despite swift censorship, the public response to these events reached a scope rarely seen since the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, when millions of enraged Weibo users forced the state to address the disaster and its botched cover-up. A period of tightening internet controls had followed those events.
The mass evictions and demolitions began after a November 18 fire in a structure housing migrant laborers in Daxing, Beijing that killed 19 people. Beijing mayor Cai Qi immediately ordered citywide fire-safety inspections. Under this pretext, tens of thousands of migrants and low-income residents were evicted in short order, given just days or even hours to vacate their homes. Photos circulating online showed families wandering the streets of the capital city in below-freezing temperatures, carrying all their possessions on their backs or in cardboard boxes. The images conjured up a term that has been used in official discussions of efforts to thin out cities: “low-end population” (低端人口). First employed by the People’s Daily in a 2010 op-ed, “low-end” is supposed to refer to the type of work people do, not to their intrinsic value as human beings. But the distinction is often blurred; one netizen uncovered official documents across Beijing districts that described measures to “clear away” and “control” the “low-end population.”
Middle-class netizens have taken up the term for themselves as a statement of solidarity with the displaced workers, as industries ranging from restaurants to e-commerce delivery have felt the ripple effect of the evictions. A sweatshirt emblazoned with “low-end population” even went on sale on Taobao for a time, before it and many other references to the “sensitive word” were censored. Over 100 intellectuals, lawyers, and artists signed a petition that circulated online, urging the Beijing authorities to stop the evictions. Following the outcry, state media seemed to pick up the criticism of the city government, and the mayor appeared to soften his stance.
Meanwhile, the two child abuse scandals have shaken the entire country. On November 9, surveillance videos leaked onto Weibo from the childcare center at the Shanghai offices of Ctrip, one of China’s leading travel agencies. In one, a staff member shoves a little girl, who bangs her head into a table and falls backwards. In another, a boy cries inconsolably after being force-fed wasabi. The online furor over the scandal overshadowed the U.S. president’s state visit to Beijing. The second scandal, which erupted online on November 24, centered on RYB Education, a publicly traded company that operates kindergartens and other learning centers. Parents in Beijing alleged that their children had been molested, that they had needle marks on their arms, and that their teachers had made them take “white pills.” This time, though, the police said the surveillance footage had disappeared due to a damaged hard drive. On November 29, the police accused two parents of fabricating the stories, while another woman was detained for “rumor mongering” after she claimed online that military personnel were involved in sexually abusing RYB students. Again, despite official efforts to suppress the story, related videos and posts spread widely.
During Donald Trump’s November 8–9 visit to China, his first as U.S. president, the Chinese government rolled out the red carpet for what it called a “state visit plus,” which included an evening of dining and performances within the Forbidden City—something previous U.S. presidents had not been privy to. Chinese state media coverage of the visit and of Trump was overwhelmingly positive, though it was especially focused on the display of hospitality by a confident China; media outlets received specific orders to post news of the welcoming ceremony in prominent places on their websites and mobile phone news apps. For his part, Trump avoided remarks on topics that would have upset his Chinese hosts, like democracy and human rights, and went so far as to state during a press conference that he did not blame China for the trade imbalance with his own country, despite having denounced Beijing over the issue as part of his 2016 campaign.
State media coverage of the visit dominated the Sina Weibo social media platform, and the comment function was disabled on many posts. For others, only “carefully chosen” comments saw the light of day. Keyword filtering and other censorship removed posts on Weibo and the WeChat messaging service that were critical of Trump, ranging from backhanded remarks about Trump’s effect on Beijing traffic to reposts of an article about the $253 billion in trade deals Xi and Trump signed on November 9. Among the posts removed were two from the U.S. embassy’s official account, one of which quoted Trump telling Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe that in dealing with North Korea, “the era of strategic patience is over.”
Trump agreed not to take questions from the media at a joint press event with Xi. The last three U.S. presidents had taken questions at press conferences or town hall meetings during their state visits to China, although President Barack Obama did not take questions during his first visit to China as president. The Trump-Xi press appearance was not broadcast live in China.
Chinese state media welcomed Trump’s shift away from his earlier tough talk on China. A November 9 Global Times editorial incorporated the U.S. leader’s deep mistrust of the American media, blaming such outlets’ “fake news” for duping the Chinese public into believing that Trump was unpopular and stupid. The same article noted that the president “hasn’t used the issue of human rights to make trouble for China so far,” a break from the approach of past U.S. presidents on state visits to China.
In many ways, Trump and Xi are polar opposites, not least in their use of social media. Xi has only posted once to Weibo, and the occasion was clearly choreographed. Meanwhile, the U.S. “tweeter-in-chief” kept up a steady pace during his visit to Beijing, and updated his account banner with a photo of himself, Xi, and the two first ladies at the Forbidden City. In response to a question about the legality of Trump using the banned U.S.-based service Twitter while behind China’s Great Firewall, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying explained that Chinese people simply “communicate in different ways” and that “you should have no reservations about Mr. President’s ability to keep in touch with the outside.”
Censorship and surveillance updates: Skype app removal, probe of ex-internet czar, video surveillance, ‘Coco’ release
- Skype disappears from app stores: In early November, Skype went missing from the app stores of Chinese companies Tencent and Qihoo 360, as well as from Apple’s Chinese app store. “We have been notified by the Ministry of Public Security that a number of voice over internet protocol apps do not comply with local law. Therefore these apps have been removed from the app store in China,” an Apple spokeswoman told the media. Skype services are still accessible to Chinese users who installed the app before the ban. Microsoft, which owns Skype, ended its partnership with Hong Kong–based TOM Group in 2013 in response to scrutiny of TOM-Skype’s censorship and surveillance of its users; it also improved privacy protections for users of the application. Microsoft’s new partner, Guangming Founder (GMF), was cofounded by the Communist Party mouthpiece Guangming Daily and the Peking University venture Founder Group, but apparently those official connections could not prevent the app’s removal.
- A former chief censor in the crosshairs: On November 21, news emerged that former Cybersecurity Administration of China (CAC) head Lu Wei is under investigation for “serious violations of discipline.” Lu was suddenly replaced last year by Xu Lin, who has continued his predecessor’s work of throttling speech and expanding surveillance of China’s digital ecosystem. A leaked propaganda directive dated November 22 instructs websites and social media platforms to disable commenting on Lu’s case and to delete any related “negative comments attacking the system.” Party officials accused of “violations of discipline” are generally those who have fallen out of favor with President Xi Jinping and become caught up in his anticorruption campaign.
- Cameras everywhere: A November 12 report from IHS Markit estimates that the Chinese market for video surveillance hardware and software was worth $6.4 billion in 2016, making it the largest market in the world for these products. Moreover, the sector is expected to more than triple in China by 2020. Chinese and overseas investors, including the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, are bolstering Chinese tech companies that build surveillance products. The manufacturers export widely, including to the United States. One company, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, is 42 percent owned by the Chinese government and has over 20 percent of the global market share in video surveillance equipment. As the Chinese government builds its national network of security cameras with facial, speech, and even gait recognition software, Chinese tech giants such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are also developing surveillance technology. Chinese law enforcement agencies work with such companies to monitor citizens, and use related data to detain potentially innocent people in the name of counterterrorism.
- ‘Coco’ uncensored: The Disney-Pixar animated film Coco opened in Chinese theaters on November 24 and was an instant box-office hit. Technically, a film centered on Mexico’s Day of the Dead shouldn’t have made it past the censors unscathed, given its ghostly characters. Article 4 of the 2008 censorship guidelines issued by China’s main media regulator explicitly lists “ghosts and the supernatural” among content that “must be cut or altered” from any film. It seems that common values of honoring ancestors overcame the rules this time. Netizens are passing around a story that censors from the Chinese Film Bureau were moved to tears by Coco and thus let the film pass without any cuts. This is not the first time such censorship rules have been bent, as demonstrated in 2011 by the release and popularity of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
- Beijing pushes ban on booing anthem: Hong Kong soccer fans have been booing during the Chinese national anthem since the Umbrella Movement three years ago, and pending legislation that would make doing so a crime has not stopped them. Jeers drowned out the “March of the Volunteers” at a November 9 exhibition game against Bahrain, and again at an Asian Cup qualifier against Lebanon on November 14. On November 4, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee had inserted a new mainland National Anthem Law—passed in October—into Annex III of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, effectively requiring Hong Kong to enact a local law to implement the new provision. Macau is on a path to adopt similar legislation, as the anthem law was also added to its Basic Law. The mainland law calls for prison terms of up to three years for those who disrespect the anthem in public.
- Threats to journalists: Threatening letters were sent to the homes of Hong Kong Free Press editor in chief Tom Grundy and commentator Tim Hamlett, as well as to the home of Grundy’s family in the United Kingdom, between August and September. One letter listed 50 foreign journalists and activists, some of whom are current or former HKFP staff, as “Foreigners [who] have been deemed Guilty of spreading hatred and dividing Hong Kong, China society” and suggested that they would be deported in January 2018. Hamlett was warned that “in politics, when one does not know ones enemies clearly, one could get hurt,” going on, “I and many people would really regret if something happened to Tom in the next few years.” Grundy’s letter was less restrained, calling him “the master of illusion” and portending an end to the nonprofit online newspaper’s operations. The Hong Kong police opened an investigation on October 4. On the same day, the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong released statements of support, urging authorities to find those behind the threats.
- Macau democrat suspended from assembly: Sulu Sou, a newly elected lawmaker and president of the prodemocracy New Macau Association, was suspended from his position in Macau’s Legislative Assembly on December 4. The move reduces the influence of democrats in the assembly and removes his immunity from prosecution. Sou faces a charge of “aggravated disobedience” for his participation in a May 2016 demonstration in front of Chief Executive Fernando Chui’s residence, which was organized to protest possible irregularities involving a RMB 100 million (US$15 million) donation from the semiofficial Macao Foundation to Jinan University in Guangzhou. (Chui reportedly has links to both the foundation and the university.) When police asked protesters to disperse, they made paper airplanes out of protest letters and threw them over the fence before leaving peacefully. Sou was only permitted to answer legislators’ questions during his suspension hearing. At 26, Sou is the youngest person ever to serve in the assembly. He is also the first legislator to be suspended since the founding of the Macau Special Administrative Region in 1999. His case echoes those of several prodemocracy or proindependence legislators who have been removed from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council over the past year.
- Pressure on publishers: On November 2, Australian publisher Allen & Unwin informed Professor Clive Hamilton that it would delay the release of his book Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State until “certain matters currently before the courts have been decided.” Based on a November 8 email from Allen & Unwin’s chief executive, Hamilton believes that the publisher is concerned about two ongoing China-related defamation cases against Fairfax Media and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation following their investigative reporting into Chinese political influence in Australia. The author asked the publisher to return publication rights to him so that he can seek a new outlet for his book. Separately, on November 21, U.S. academic publisher Sage stated that it has been put on notice by Beijing that it may have to leave China if it does not comply with censorship demands. The threat follows at least temporary capitulations to Chinese censorship by Cambridge University Press and Springer Nature earlier this year.
- Apple chief speaks at Wuzhen conference: “The theme of this conference—developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits—is a vision we at Apple share,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said on December 3 at the opening of the fourth annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China. Cook made his remarks not long after responding to questions from Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) about Apple’s removal of virtual private network (VPN) apps from its Chinese app store over the summer. Cook said Apple removed 674 apps—far more than the 60 to 80 initially reported—while also asserting, “We believe that our presence in China helps promote greater openness and facilitates the free flow of information.” Many China experts begged to differ. “By dancing onstage at the World Internet Conference, furnishing his hosts with golden soundbites about shared visions and common futures, and by endorsing hollow official rhetoric about ‘openness,’ Cook has crossed a line,” writes China Digital Times editor Samuel Wade.
- Ghanaian cartoonist resists pressure: Bright Tetteh Ackwerh, a political cartoonist in Ghana, satirized his government’s response to harmful illegal gold mines supported by Chinese companies in his April cartoon “We Dey Beg.” It featured an unflattering portrayal of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Beijing’s ambassador to Ghana, Sun Baohong. The Chinese embassy sent a letter to the Ghanaian government complaining of “a number of distorted or biased reports and stories on Chinese people, especially some reports and cartoons that are defaming Chinese leaders and senior officials.” Ackwerh then lampooned the embassy’s complaint with “Them Threaten.” The ambassador apparently gave up and changed tack, attending an exhibition of Ackwerh’s work in July and even posing for photos in front of his caricature of her.
- No visa for Katy Perry: According to a letter circulated on Sina Weibo, American pop star Katy Perry pledged in October to “observe the laws and regulations in China” and “not to say or do anything religious or political” for her planned concert at the Shanghai Victoria’s Secret fashion show at the end of November. Her promises were in vain—she is indefinitely banned from entering China. The ban is most likely punishment for her 2015 concert in Taipei, where she draped herself in Taiwan’s flag and wore a sunflower dress in an apparent nod to the 2014 Sunflower Movement, in which protesters successfully postponed passage of a cross-strait trade bill that many feared would give Beijing more political leverage in Taiwan. Gigi Hadid, Irina Sharipova, and several other models slated to be at the Victoria’s Secret show were also denied visas. The show went on, but police broke up the after party after 9 p.m.
On November 28, a Chinese court sentenced Lee, a 42-year-old Taiwanese human rights activist, to five years in prison for discussing democracy and information about the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre on Chinese and foreign social media platforms. He had reportedly also spoken online about Taiwan’s democratization and tried to assist the families of Chinese political prisoners. Lee was charged with “subverting state power,” a provision often used to jail mainland Chinese activists for expressing views critical of the Chinese government and Communist Party. Lee, however, is the first Taiwanese citizen to be convicted of the crime. Jailed alongside him was a Chinese national Peng Yuhua, who was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Lee traveled to China in March and soon lost contact with friends. Ten days later, news emerged that he had been taken into police custody. He was charged with “subverting state power” and put on trial in September in Hunan province. He was denied his own choice of a lawyer and granted limited access to his wife. At the trial, which was televised, he was shown confessing to the charges levied against him for having engaged in online conversations that “attacked” the Chinese government and promoted “Western-style democracy.” This follows a trend in recent years of Chinese and Hong Kong activists, lawyers, and booksellers taken into custody making apparently coerced televised confessions.
International human rights groups and the Taiwanese government were quick to condemn Lee’s harsh sentence. His wife expressed pride in her husband, reflecting that when “pursuing a dream, one must be ready to pay a price.” Observers also noted the broader implications of Lee’s punishment for civil society not only in Taiwan but also elsewhere in the world, whose members may find themselves in danger when traveling in China if they have engaged in efforts online to support democracy and human rights in China. Lee’s case has reportedly had a chilling effect in Taiwan and ignited a debate about the dangers for its citizens traveling in China, where the Chinese government typically treats them as its own nationals.
Holiday trials and online censorship: Watch for news of charges, trials, or sentences for activists like lawyers Gao Zhisheng and Wang Quanzhang—or for blocks on foreign media or technology platforms—around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, following a pattern described in this issue’s feature article.
National anthem and security legislation in Hong Kong: Following the Chinese legislature’s addition of a new National Anthem Law to Hong Kong’s Basic Law and defiance by football fans jeering the Chinese anthem, watch for initiatives by pro-Beijing members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council to introduce a bill that would fully incorporate punishments for disrespecting the anthem into Hong Kong law. Also, following renewed calls from Chinese officials last month for Hong Kong to enact security legislation that was shelved in 2003 due to mass protests, watch for efforts to reintroduce such a law, which would further reduce freedoms in the territory.
Proposed rules to counter foreign political interference in Australia: Last week, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced plans to introduce new laws that would ban foreign political donations and create a “transparency scheme” requiring agents of foreign governments to report their ties, a plan modeled on the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act. The initiative comes on the heels of numerous media investigations into Chinese Communist Party interference in Australian politics, media, and universities, though the proposed laws would not focus solely on China. Watch for the details of the legislation as they are introduced, as early as this month.
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