China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 102 | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 102

Freedom House's biweekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People's Republic of China
Issue No. 102: March 25, 2014

Censors bar coverage of activist Cao Shunli's death
WeChat news-sharing accounts shuttered in latest crackdown
Seeking U.S. IPOs, Alibaba and Weibo tackle counterfeiting and censorship risks
NSA accused of spying on Huawei
Michelle Obama extols freedom of speech during China trip

Regulator tightens online video oversight, decentralizes some film censorship 
Citizen journalists, website operator detained after reports on Tiananmen protests
Chinese netizens frown on Taiwan protest movement
Media executives beaten in Hong Kong
Amid rising visa abuses, Bloomberg ‘rethinks’ investigative reporting in China
Research details Microsoft Bing censorship inside and outside China

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Regulator tightens online video oversight, decentralizes some film censorship 

In a March statement, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) announced that it would decentralize censorship work on domestic films in April. Movies intended for theatrical release would require content approval from the SAPPRFT branch in the province where their production companies are located. The decision raised questions on whether censorship rules would be less strict at the provincial level. Zhou Jianwei, a council member of the Shanghai Film Critics Society, said the procedural adjustment would not solve the domestic film industry’s problems as long as the censorship standards remained the same. He advocated abolishing censorship and replacing it with a rating system. Separately, in its latest move to manage online video content, which has not been subject to direct state censorship, the SAPPRFT announced new rules for Chinese online video platforms. The regulator said in a March 21 statement that internet video service providers would be required to obtain licenses for video streaming and hire government-approved personnel to manage program content. Previously the companies used their own staff to implement in-house censorship policies. The new regulations also require them to verify the identities of users who upload video and audio files to their sites. SAPPRFT added that violations would lead to warnings and fines. The most severe penalty would be a five-year ban from streaming content. Netizens said the move was meant in part to boost viewership of Chinese television shows, as American television dramas, including House of Cards and The Walking Dead, are highly popular on Chinese streaming sites such as Sohu and Youku (see CMB No. 100).

Wall Street Journal 3/17/2014: China is decentralizing movie censorship. But will it make a difference?
Hollywood Reporter 3/20/2014: China’s censors clamp down on booming internet video sector
* iFeng 3/18/2014: 廣電總局:4月起下放審查職權至省級廣電部門 [SAPPRFT: Censorship work to be outsourced to provincial broadcasting regulators in April]
* SAPPRFT 3/21/2014: 国家新闻出版广电总局关于进一步完善网络剧、微电影等网络视听节目管理的补充通知[SAPRFT: Additional announcement on better management of online dramas, micro-films and etc.] 



Censors bar coverage of activist Cao Shunli’s death

On March 15, Chinese authorities issued a media directive that prohibited coverage and ordered the deletion of any online content related to the death of prominent human rights activist Cao Shunli. Popular search engines operated by Baidu and Tencent reportedly started censoring news on Cao at around the same time her March 14 death was reported; searches for her name on the Sina Weibo microblogging service were blocked as of March 12. Beginning in June 2013, Cao had staged a two-month sit-in along with other activists outside the Foreign Ministry, urging the government to allow civil society participation in a national report prepared for the UN Human Rights Council. She was detained in September after the authorities in Beijing prevented her from boarding a plane to Geneva, where she hoped to take part in the UN review of China’s rights record. She was formally arrested in October for “unlawful assembly” (see CMB No. 95), and in December the charges were switched to “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” She had remained in custody despite her deteriorating health. According to her lawyer, Cao had long been suffering from tuberculosis, liver disease, and other ailments, exacerbated by previous stints in “reeducation through labor” camps. The authorities denied repeated requests for medical parole. Cao died less than a month after she was finally taken to a Beijing hospital, already in a coma. Prominent activist Hu Jia reported that Cao was in a state of dramatic weight loss and muscle atrophy, with severe bedsores, when she died. Human rights lawyer Teng Biao expressed suspicion that she had been tortured during custody, in addition to the denial of medical treatment. On March 17, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman insisted that Cao had received “proactive, conscientious treatment.”

* China Change 3/18/2014: The life and death of Cao Shunli (1961–2014)
Fei Chang Dao 3/14/2014: Hours after Cao Shunli reportedly dies in custody, Baidu and Tencent begin censoring her name
* Reuters 3/17/2014: China denies dead dissident refused medical treatment
China Digital Times 3/16/2014: Minitrue: Cao Shunli’s death
Guardian 3/14/2014: Chinese activist Cao Shunli dies after being denied medical help, says website


WeChat news-sharing accounts shuttered in latest crackdown 

On March 13, at least 39 public accounts on the Chinese social-networking platform WeChat were shut down or suspended in the first known sweep of its kind by the Tencent-owned application. Public accounts are a specific category within WeChat’s instant-messaging service that were introduced in 2012 and allow users to broadcast one message per day to tens of thousands of followers. Nearly all of the accounts shuttered or suspended were known for carrying commentaries or articles on current affairs, including topics such as politics, economics, the rule of law, and foreign policy. Some of the accounts belonged to popular columnists or journalists. Others were operated by online portals or news outlets like NetEase. The account of Xu Danei, a columnist for the Chinese edition of the British-based Financial Times, had an estimated 200,000 followers. Users attempting to access the affected accounts have been greeted with messages stating that the account’s functions were shut down and recommending that they unsubscribe from the de facto news feeds. The account owners reported receiving no explanation for the shutdowns, but the political and news-oriented nature of the sweep’s targets has fueled widespread suspicion that it was ordered by the Chinese authorities. Following a public outcry, a number of feeds, including that of anticorruption activist Luo Changping, reportedly became active again after a few days. Over the past year, as restrictions on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging site have intensified, a growing number of users have turned to the rival WeChat service to share news and information with a smaller, more closed circle of acquaintances (see CMB No. 99). According to the China Internet Information Center, 37 percent of users who quit Weibo last year began using WeChat. Although some censorship of individual WeChat posts had been reported in the past, it was thought to be much less systematic than on microblogging platforms like Weibo, where posts are routinely deleted and accounts are often closed for carrying politically sensitive content. The recent sweep marks the first time the latter tactic has been reported on WeChat.

South China Morning Post 3/14/2014: Fresh China media crackdown hits popular accounts on Tencent’s WeChat
* CNN 3/17/2014: WeChat’s conversations gagged: Are China’s censors behind it?
Tea Leaf Nation 3/15/2014: China’s new media species now endangered
Tech in Asia 3/14/2014: WeChat clamps down on political content, bans several outspoken bloggers
China Digital Times 3/13/2014: Partial list of deleted WeChat accounts

Citizen journalists, website operator detained after reports on Tiananmen protests

The Chinese authorities have detained three citizen journalists, one of them 17 years old, after they published news articles about Tiananmen Square protesters on 64 Tianwang, an independent Chinese rights website. The three volunteers, Wang Jing, Liu Xuehong, and Xing Jian, arrived in the capital during the annual session of the National People’s Congress (see CMB No. 101). Wang reported on and took photographs of a woman’s self-immolation in the square on March 5, the opening day of the NPC. She was arrested in Beijing on March 8 and held at a detention center in her home province of Jilin on charges of “provoking and stirring trouble.” Liu and Xing reported on March 6 about a man who vandalized the square’s large portrait of Mao Zedong. They were detained on March 9 and held in Bejing. On March 13, Huang Qi, the founder of 64 Tianwang, was summoned by police in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. According to his mother, eleven police officers raided their home and confiscated computers and communication devices. Huang was released after an 11-hour interrogation, but he was banned from speaking to journalists. 

* Associate Press 3/13/2014: Chinese police seize activist who runs rights site
* Amnesty International 3/13/2014: China: Police detain website founder in raid
* Radio Free Asia 3/14/2014: 黄琦连日被京警传唤周五傍晚回家事涉天网三记者报道两会访民维权 [Huang Qi returned home Friday after police custody; case linked to Tianwang report on petitioners]
* CPJ 3/18/2014: Three journalists detained after reporting on Tiananmen


Seeking U.S. IPOs, Alibaba and Weibo tackle counterfeiting and censorship risks 

Two of China’s biggest internet firms announced earlier this month that they were planning initial public offerings (IPOs) in the U.S. stock market. On March 14, Weibo Corp., a subsidiary of Sina and operator of China’s most popular microblogging service, filed for a U.S. IPO, hoping to raise $500 million. The filing contains 56 pages of warnings related to government regulations, censorship demands, and the business risks they engender. The document describes how government regulations require Weibo to limit certain content and notes that failure to comply “may subject us to liabilities” or even lead to a “complete shutdown of our online operations.” The company acknowledged that despite an increase in active users in recent years, intensified censorship could adversely affect user engagement and therefore its business operations (see CMB No. 99). Analysts said that despite such risks, there will likely be fervent interest in the company’s stock, as investors seek to profit from China’s 600 million internet users (see CMB Nos. 2757). Two days after Weibo’s filing, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba announced that it would also start the process for an IPO in the United States, though it has yet to set a date for doing so. If undertaken, this would be the biggest IPO yet for a Chinese company and one of the largest in history, with some analysts expecting it to fetch more than $15 billion, rivaling Facebook’s $16 billion IPO in 2012 (see CMB No. 46). Alibaba had cleared a path for a U.S. offering in 2012, when it secured its removal from a U.S. government list of companies known for breaching intellectual-property rules. It had worked to prevent the sale of counterfeit goods by users of its online marketplace. Other risks for U.S. investors in Chinese companies include a general lack of transparency in China; both IPO-bound firms and Chinese authorities have been accused of using dubious means to suppress negative information (see CMB No. 61).

Wall Street Journal 3/14/2014: One big threat to Weibo’s business: Chinese censors
Wall Street Journal 3/14/2014: Weibo, China’s Twitter, files for IPO in the U.S.
* Bloomberg 3/18/2014: Alibaba shakes off counterfeit label smoothing path to U.S. IPO
Wall Street Journal 3/16/2014: Alibaba set for New York IPO
* Securities and Exchange Commission 3/14/2014: Registration statement, Weibo Corporation 
Business Insider 3/19/2014: Weibo, China’s Twitter, files IPO containing 56 pages warning of Chinese censorship


Chinese netizens frown on Taiwan protest movement

A recent student-led protest in Taipei has triggered heated discussion among Chinese netizens, who have long displayed a fascination with Taiwan’s democratic political system. The protest, also known as the Sunflower Movement, was initiated by 200 students in opposition to the hasty review of legislation implementing a trade pact signed by Taiwanese and Chinese representatives in June 2013. Critics of the rushed bill were concerned that it would increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on China and ultimately erode the island’s freedoms. After the students broke into and began occupying the parliament building on March 18, thousands of other students, cultural figures, and scholars, including former Tiananmen Square student leader Wang Dan, joined the sit-in around the government buildings. On March 23, protesters occupied cabinet offices as well, triggering violence and dozens of arrests as police cleared the executive facility, though demonstrators remained encamped in the parliament. Most Chinese netizens expressed disagreement with the protesters’ tactics, calling them “radical” and contrary to the rule of law and democracy. However, a few expressed sympathy or drew a parallel with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, with one writing, “This looks like 6/4 Taiwan version.” Posts referring to the 1989 events were censored on the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo, but users were clearly interested in the Taipei clashes, with “cabinet building,” “legislature,” and “free-trade pact” ranking among the top Weibo search terms on March 24. On other sites, a number of Chinese users took umbrage at those who objected to the trade pact, arguing that it benefited Taiwan more than China. Among long threads of messages on the popular discussion forum Tianya, a blogger nicknamed Mumuzuo 2012 told a Taiwanese user, “Nobody is begging you to sign this with us.” The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party–owned newspaper, adopted a similar attitude in a March 21 editorial: “If Taiwan is so eager to be absent from the mainland market, we can only say ‘whatever.’” Most Chinese netizens focused their ire on Taiwanese celebrities who voiced support for the protesters and disdain for the mainland market. According to online news site Offbeat China, a trending phrase on Weibo was “Kick Taiwan stars who support independence out of China.”

South China Morning Post 3/24/2014: Taiwan student occupation and clashes ‘a failure of democracy’, mainland microbloggers say
Quartz 3/24/2014: To mainland China, Taiwan’s student protests prove that democracy doesn’t work
Offbeat China 3/23/2014: Chinese netizens call for boycott of Taiwan stars who voiced support for student protesters
Tianya Discussion Forum, accessed 3/25/2014



Media executives beaten on downtown street

Two executives at a newly formed independent media company were attacked by men armed with metal pipes on March 18. According to the police, Lei Iun-han, the vice president and director of Hong Kong Morning News Media Group, and the company’s news controller, Lam Kin-ming, were attacked while walking in broad daylight in the territory’s Tsim Sha Tsui East neighborhood. The four assailants, wearing caps, surgical masks, and gloves, fled in a car after they injured the two victims, who were treated and released from a hospital. The media group is preparing to launch a Chinese-language newspaper. James To Kun-sun, deputy chairman of the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s security committee, said he suspected that the attack was meant to dissuade the company from joining the territory’s media market. Lai Tung-kwok, the Hong Kong government’s secretary for security, condemned the “savage” assault, saying, “Hong Kong is a lawful society.” The incident took place less than a month after a brutal assault on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to (see CMB No. 101). Two suspects accused of carrying out the Lau attack were detained in China’s Guangdong Province and sent to Hong Kong on March 17. According to the police, they were believed to be members of a local “triad” gang and allegedly fled across the border to mainland China after committing the crime. 

South China Morning Post 3/19/2014: Media executives behind new newspaper beaten with iron pipes in Tsim Sha Tsui attack
* Committee to Protect Journalists 3/19/2014: CPJ condemns attack on media executives in Hong Kong
South China Morning Post 3/17/2014: Kevin Lau ‘triad’ attack reconstructed as police pore over CCTV footage



Amid rising visa abuses, Bloomberg ‘rethinks’ investigative reporting in China

On March 17, the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published the findings of its latest periodic survey on visa issues for foreign journalists working in China. Based on 162 responses, the survey found that “this year it became more obvious than ever that the Chinese authorities abuse the press card and visa renewal process in a political manner, … punishing reporters and media organizations for the content of their previous coverage if it has displeased the government.” New press cards and visas were withheld until the very last minute without official explanation for all foreign employees of the New York Times and Bloomberg News, which had published articles exposing the finances of the families of leading Chinese government officials (see CMB No. 99). Three Times journalists—Beijing bureau chief Philip Pan, Chris Buckley, and Austin Ramzy—are still waiting for a decision on their visa applications. Pan has been waiting for 22 months and Buckley 17 months, while Ramzy was forced to leave China at the end of January because his June 2013 application had not been processed. The survey found that 18 percent of respondents, or twice as many as in the last survey, experienced difficulties renewing their press cards or visas. Half of those who faced difficulties attributed it to the content of their reporting. The findings were published on the website of the FCC of Hong Kong, as the FCC of China has ceased posting such content on its website to avoid Chinese government reprisals. Separately, during a March 20 appearance in Hong Kong, Bloomberg chairman Peter T. Grauer indicated that his company would focus on business reporting and expanding sales of its financial data terminals in China, rather than the sort of investigative reporting that had led to website blocking and visa problems for its journalists. He said Bloomberg “should have rethought” such stories, given the importance of strengthening its presence in China. Chinese officials had ordered state-owned enterprises not to subscribe to Bloomberg’s terminals—which account for 82 percent of the company’s revenue worldwide, though their presence in China is relatively minor—after it published articles on the wealth of Xi Jinping’s family in June 2012. Bloomberg’s editor at large for Asia news, Ben Richardson, announced his resignation on March 24 to protest executives’ handling of investigative articles. Michael Forsythe, the author of a piece on the financial affairs of Chinese political elites, had left for the New York Times after the story was quashed by top Bloomberg editors in October 2013 (see CMB No. 97).

* CPJ 3/17/2014: FCCC survey finds China abuses press card, visa process
* FCCC 3/17/2014: FCCC visa survey 2013 findings 
New York Times 3/20/2014: Bloomberg hints at curb on articles about China
Politico 3/24/2014: Bloomberg editor quits over China story

NSA accused of spying on Huawei

The New York Times reported on March 22 that the U.S National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. Huawei, whose founder served as an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the 1970s, has become the world’s second-largest supplier of network equipment behind U.S.-based Cisco Systems, and is the third-largest smartphone maker after South Korea’s Samsung and Apple of the United States. Citing classified documents from 2010 that were leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the newspaper reported that the NSA had gained access to servers at Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen and had been collecting information regarding the workings of the company’s routers and digital switches, as well as the communications of its top executives. One of the reported main goals of the operation, codenamed “Shotgiant,” was to find out whether Huawei had connections with the PLA. In addition, the NSA planned to conduct surveillance via Huawei technology in countries that did not buy American network equipment, and lay the groundwork for any offensive cyberoperations that might be required in the future. Washington has long considered Huawei a potential security threat. Even though Shotgiant did not confirm ties between Huawei and the Chinese military, an unclassified report published by the House Intelligence Committee in 2012 concluded that Huawei must be blocked from “acquisitions, takeover or mergers” in the United States, and “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence” (see CMB Nos. 7188). The U.S. administration made no immediate comment on the Times report, though it has repeatedly stated that the NSA breaks into foreign networks only when legitimate national security concerns are implicated. Huawei said it would condemn the invasion of its networks if the Times report was accurate. Company spokesman William Plummer said, “The irony is that exactly what they are doing to us is what they have always charged that the Chinese are doing through us.” However, criticism of Huawei has extended beyond concerns about Chinese spying, with some observers warning that the firm could be enabling domestic surveillance and political repression by authoritarian governments in Iran, Africa, and Central and South Asia (see CMB Nos. 487791).

New York Times 3/22/2014: N.S.A. breached Chinese servers seen as security threat
* BBC 3/24/2014: China wants explanation on allegations of US spying
Washington Post 3/24/2014: China demands U.S. explanation about reports of NSA hacking into Huawei
Global Times 3/25/2014: Chinese FM urges Washington to put an end to alleged surveillance
Financial Times 3/23/2014: NSA accused of breaching networks run by China’s Huawei
Wall Street Journal 3/24/2014: Huawei’s role in internet traffic grows

Michelle Obama extols freedom of speech during China trip

On March 21, the U.S. first lady Michelle Obama embarked on a weeklong goodwill tour of China, accompanied by her mother and two daughters in the first trip to the country by an American first lady without her husband. Most of the trip’s itinerary involved sightseeing at well-known spots like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an. On the first day, while engaging in activities like table tennis and calligraphy, Obama was joined Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while Xi himself made a short appearance before dinner to welcome the first lady (see CMB No. 88). On March 22, Obama gave a speech at the Stanford Center of Peking University, addressing a crowd of American and Chinese students. Alongside comments on education and cultural exchange, she indirectly challenged the Chinese government’s censorship policies by extolling the benefits of free speech and the importance of hearing “all sides of every argument” in order to determine the truth for oneself. “When it comes to expressing yourself freely,” she added, “and worshiping as you choose, and having open access to information—we believe those are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet.” Obama’s comments were absent from state media reports, but they were circulated on social-media platforms, and the Chinese version of her speech was posted uncensored on the websites of official outlets like Xinhua News Agency. Her speech and generally relaxed, affable demeanor were widely praised by Chinese netizens and students who came into contact with her. However, at least one prominent activist, Beijing-based Hu Jia, was placed under house arrest for the duration of Obama’s trip in an apparent effort to prevent any meeting between him and the first lady. Other rights activists expressed disappointment that Obama, as the wife of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, would not try to visit Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo who is herself under indefinite house arrest (see CMB No. 100).

Time 3/22/2014: Michelle Obama defends free internet in China speech
New York Times 3/23/2014: In Beijing talk, Michelle Obama extols free speech
Christian Science Monitor 3/24/2014: What happens to Chinese activists when a US first lady comes to visit?
Financial Times 3/21/2014: Visit of US first lady casts light on Chinese host
Guardian 3/23/2014: Michelle Obama charms Chinese and extols value of free speech
New York Times 3/21/2014: Even with ping-pong, a formal meeting in China
Telegraph 3/15/2014: Michelle Obama tries to take the politics out of US-China relations with family trip



Research details Microsoft Bing censorship inside and outside China

On March 19, published a blog post linking to a detailed analysis of filtering on Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, for Chinese-language users both inside and outside China. The 27-page report, authored by Xia Chu, is dated March 1 and includes a breakdown of different types of censorship on Bing, including a list of “forbidden words” that produce no results, a list of “sunken websites” whose pages do not appear in results, and a list of specific URLs that are filtered from results even though other pages within the same domain or website may appear. Two findings of the paper are especially notable. First, it concludes that the version of Bing within China censors blogs, websites, and URLs hosted by domestic Chinese technology companies. As Xia notes, one would expect that if such pages were sensitive, the Chinese firms themselves would delete them. Several of these links were found to appear in results in the Chinese search engine Baidu but were filtered by Bing, indicating that the international firm is at times censoring more stringently than its Chinese competitor. Second, the paper includes a detailed analysis of query terms that—when entered in the Chinese version of Bing that is accessible from outside the country—reportedly triggered a “some results have been removed” notice on one of the first five pages of results. Although one-third of the terms relate to pornography, the paper includes a long list of politically oriented terms, including the names of prominent activists (like Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo), references to persecuted religious and ethnic groups (like Tibetans or Falun Gong), and a range of websites belonging to both overseas Chinese and international information sources (like Boxun or Human Rights Watch). Though it remains unclear what content was removed from the search results, this finding would point to the artificial suppression of some views that are critical of the ruling Communist Party for Chinese-language users based outside China.

* 3/19/2014: Bing bests Baidu censorship
* Xia Chu 3/1/2014: An audit on Bing’s China Censorship

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