China Media Bulletin Issue No. 112: February 2016
A monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China
Banned Bunny: This image, initially posted on Facebook, was accompanied by a statement affirming a person’s freedom to determine his or her own identity regardless of nationality or descent, followed by the statement “I’m Taiwanese” in English and Chinese. A user of China’s Sina Weibo microblogging service posted a screenshot on January 16, the day of Taiwan’s general elections. It was shared 22,071 times on Weibo before being removed by censors, making it one of China’s most popular deleted posts last month. Credit: Weiboscope.
- Feature: For Families of Political Prisoners, a Shadow Hangs over Chinese New Year
- Chinese media struggle to cover historic Taiwan elections
- Swedish NGO worker, Taiwanese pop star appear in video ‘apologies’
- Popular online TV series deleted in new crackdown on internet video
- Hong Kong: Cross-border abductions of booksellers prompt protests, self-censorship
- Beyond China: Hollywood acquisition, Tiananmen photo sale, hacker attacks on minorities
- What to Watch For
by Sarah Cook
A version of this article was published by the Wall Street Journal Asia on February 4, 2016.
During the Lunar New Year that begins next week—the biggest holiday of the Chinese calendar—over a billion people will gather with relatives to enjoy dumplings, lion dances, and sweet red-bean soup. But in recent weeks, as the authorities announced a series of especially harsh charges and sentences against more than a dozen lawyers and activists, the families of some of China’s leading human rights defenders came to realize that they would be spending this New Year—and likely many future holidays—without their loved ones.
Beyond the personal tragedies they entail, the charges and sentences represent a further escalation in the Communist Party’s efforts under President Xi Jinping to criminalize and punish not only calls for outright political change, but also common forms of legal and internet activism aimed at ensuring fairer enforcement of China’s laws.
Starting on January 9, the six-month legal limit for “residential surveillance in a police-designated location” (a form of detention without formal charges) ended for those detained in a government crackdown launched in July 2015. Within days, the families of six lawyers, paralegals, and administrative assistants received notice that their husbands, mothers, sons, and daughters face charges of “subversion”—a grave political crime that can carry a sentence of life in prison.
Four others were charged with “inciting subversion,” a lesser offense that can draw a 15-year sentence and is routinely used to punish acts like posting criticism of the government online. The families of at least 17 detainees received no news and have been left to imagine what the authorities have in store.
Relatives, friends, colleagues, and foreign observers expressed shock and dismay at the unusually severe charges, the likelihood of long prison sentences, and the implications for human rights, rule of law, and free expression in China. You Minglei, the husband of 24-year-old paralegal Zhao Wei, who has not seen his wife since she was detained last summer, simply said, “That is too big a charge to put on such a little girl.”
Less than a week later, on January 15, a Han Chinese activist from Xinjiang was sentenced to a whopping 19 years in prison. Zhang Haitao was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally supplying intelligence abroad.” In addition to criticizing government policies in online articles, he had given interviews to U.S.-based radio stations, relaying observations of events in a restive region that is mostly off limits to foreign journalists. Zhang’s wife will now be raising their one-month-old son without his father.
The latest blow came on January 29. A Guangzhou court released the verdict for three men—a lawyer, a writer, and a teacher—who had been involved in human rights and prodemocracy activities over the past decade. Tang Jingling, Yuan Chaoyang, and Wang Qingying were sentenced to five, three and a half, and two and a half years in prison, respectively, after already spending 20 months in custody.
These families are among tens of thousands—and maybe more—that have been forcibly separated from loved ones accused of political or religious “crimes.”
The January cases also highlight two important aspects of the party’s authoritarian tactics. First, the regime is reviving its use of crimes like “subversion” to punish activists after a shift to less overtly political charges in the first years of Xi’s leadership. Second, authorities are extensively using Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law to hold activists in incommunicado “residential surveillance” for six months, realizing fears that rights groups expressed when the provision was adopted in 2012. These trends give some indication of how newer legal restrictions enacted in 2015 could be used to punish peaceful dissent and activism.
But even at such a dark time, many of these remarkable individuals and their families remain committed to the cause of freedom and optimistic about China’s future.
“Dear Father and Mother … no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live,” wrote Wang Quanzhang, one of the lawyers charged with “subversion,” in a letter he left to be shared should he be detained. “Wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.”
In the same spirit, when the Year of the Monkey begins on February 8, friends and distant supporters can express solidarity by sending messages, care packages—and even tweets—for the families of China’s human rights defenders (try #HappyCNY to #ChineseHRD).
Even such small gestures can be meaningful, showing that their plight, their loved ones, and the worthwhile cause for which they are sacrificing have not been forgotten.
Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.
Although Taiwanese politics and elections are always sensitive topics in China, the presidential and parliamentary balloting held on January 16 reportedly provoked more media restrictions and warnings than usual. This may have had to do with the outcome. As expected, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) emerged victorious, defeating the more pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) and establishing two historic milestones for Taiwan’s democracy: its first female president and the first non-KMT legislative majority.
Coverage online and in print media was much more muted than in 2012, when the KMT won the elections, writes Yaqiu Wang of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Whereas major Chinese web portals offered specialized online features in 2012, this year there were only a handful of updates from the official Xinhua news agency, and the Sina Weibo microblogging service temporarily censored searches containing the term “Taiwan.” In newspapers, front-page coverage in 2012 gave way to brief reports buried on the inner pages in 2016.
The change reflects both specific restrictions surrounding the elections and a generally more tightly controlled media and internet environment compared with four years ago. The Cyberspace Administration of China reportedly barred publications and websites from sending reporters to Taiwan and prohibited live updates. News outlets that sent journalists anyway kept their coverage low-profile and relegated live updates to mobile applications rather than website homepages, though this too was not without risk. One media consultant who used Tencent’s WeChat app to provide such updates to 50,000 followers via the public account feature reported on January 18 that his account had been permanently shuttered.
The election coverage also highlighted some of the contortions Chinese media must go through to avoid running afoul of Beijing’s “one China” policy. Euphemisms like “leader’s election” were employed to avoid the term “president,” and television broadcasts blurred images of the Taiwanese flag and other symbols of sovereignty in their footage.
State-media coverage focused on a number of themes:
- Warning president-elect Tsai Ing-wen not to push for formal independence for Taiwan lest she “poison” cross-strait relations and hit a “dead end,” rendering her efforts to resolve socioeconomic problems “as useless as looking for fish in a tree.” Still, references to Tsai were not as vitriolic as past portrayals of the DPP’s last president, Chen Shui-bian.
- Downplaying the role that the KMT’s pro-China policies played in its defeat at the polls. State-media commentaries instead stressed explanations including KMT infighting, rising unemployment, and social inequality.
- Emphasizing the stranger sides of Taiwanese politics to make democracy seem less appealing, for example by featuring photographs of candidates dressed up as dogs or traditional gods to attract voter attention. Chinese state media also reported that many Taiwanese suffer from “election syndrome,” a supposed obsession with politics that can lead to insomnia, headaches, and other ailments.
In a repeat of a November incident, tens of thousands of Chinese netizens posted “patriotic” and sometimes hostile comments on Tsai’s Facebook pages and the websites of 10 Taiwanese and Hong Kong media outlets, apparently overcoming the so-called Great Firewall to bypass Chinese authorities’ blocks on those sites. The campaign was organized via Baidu Tieba, a popular message board. The degree of official backing was unclear, and on January 22, censorship authorities reportedly issued a directive attempting to rein in media coverage of the comments and, not surprisingly, “prevent the spread of ‘scaling the wall’ and other harmful technical information.”
Since Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2012, a crackdown on dissent has been accompanied by the revival of a tactic long associated with the Mao Zedong era: televised confessions and “self-criticisms.” Victims of the practice are typically paraded on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), sometimes in prison garb, and shown repenting for an alleged “crime” long before they have been tried, or even charged. The confessions have come under fierce international criticism for undermining the rule of law, and they have even generated resentment among some professional staff at CCTV, who dislike seeing their station used as a weapon against the party’s perceived enemies. Since 2012, a long list of Chinese officials, lawyers, and internet celebrities have appeared in such broadcasts, and over the past two years alone, at least 10 journalists were subjected to the tactic. These Chinese citizens have been joined by a small number of foreign nationals.
Nevertheless, when Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen who cofounded an organization providing assistance to Chinese lawyers, appeared on CCTV on January 19 to admit to so-called crimes, many observers in China and abroad were caught off guard, as he was the first foreign worker at a nongovernmental organization to face such mistreatment. Dahlin had been detained two weeks earlier and was accused of running an “illegal organization” and “encouraging the masses to oppose the government.” He is seen in the video apologizing for hurting “the feelings of the Chinese people” and supporting specifically named Chinese citizens—including Wang Quanzhang—who have themselves been detained and face serious politically motivated charges.
Following international pressure, Dahlin was released on January 25 and deported. Nevertheless, the incident sent a chill through civil society, marking a new extreme in the regime’s efforts to tar the reputation of China’s “rights defense movement” and cut local activists off from international support. On January 21, Reporters without Borders called for the European Union to impose sanctions on officials from Chinese state media, pointing to a similar action in 2013 after confessions aired in Iran were deemed to violate the right to a fair trial.
Separately, on January 15, a more commercially motivated form of video self-criticism made international headlines when Chou Tzuyu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese member of Korean pop group TWICE, released a video on YouTube to apologize for upsetting Chinese nationals by waving a small Taiwanese flag during a television show. In the video, she acknowledges that there is only “one China,” says she will suspend her China activities to reflect on her actions, and bows multiple times before the camera. The band’s management company, JYP Entertainment, reportedly encouraged her to make the video after a pro-China Taiwanese entertainer criticized her for pro-independence views, prompting Chinese netizens to call for a boycott of the group. Some observers argued that the video, released the day before Taiwan’s elections, galvanized opposition voters who were outraged at the apparent bullying of a teenage girl, helping the opposition Democratic Progressive Party to secure victory.
On January 20, Chinese internet users discovered that one of the country’s most popular homegrown online televisions shows had disappeared. All 37 episodes of Go Princess Go!—an offbeat series about a playboy who travels 1,000 years back in time, changes sex, and becomes a concubine—were removed from the web. Later that day, the show’s production company, Leshi Internet Information & Technology Corp. (LeTV), confirmed that it was no longer available. Five other popular programs disappeared soon after, including Lost Tomb, about treasure hunters, and the crime drama Evil Minds. Those shows were produced by iQiyi.com and Tencent. China’s main media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film, Radio, and Television (SAPPFRT), did not comment publicly about the reasons and criteria behind the crackdown, but an industry insider told Caixin that it was a signal for “production companies and video companies that they should examine their content more carefully.”
Each of the shows seemed in some way to violate other SAPPRFT regulations regarding television content, including bans on portrayals of time travel, “superstition,” and police brutality. At least one of the production companies announced that its show will be up again soon after a content review, but the removals will nevertheless hurt viewership and competitiveness with traditional television programming. Feng Jun, an analyst at the consultancy ENT Group, told the Financial Times that regulators had singled out the most popular series as a shortcut for increasing content control across the industry, since they do not have the resources to review all of the many amateur programs being posted. In recent years, media regulators have responded to the decreased popularity of state broadcaster CCTV with a string of new rules that restrict entertainment programming on provisional satellite stations and increasingly on internet-based television. In 2015, new regulations restricted the use of set-top boxes and required prior screening of foreign television series.
Five people linked to a publishing house and a bookstore in Hong Kong that are known for selling titles banned on the mainland have disappeared since October and are thought to be detained in China. The apparent abductions have sparked protests and raised fears of further Chinese encroachment on the city’s freedoms.
Three of the men were reportedly last seen on the mainland near Hong Kong in October. A fourth, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, disappeared the same month while in Thailand. The fifth man, Lee Bo, a dual Chinese-British citizen, disappeared from Hong Kong on December 30. The fact that his permit for crossing the border with China was found at his home and immigration documents show no record of him leaving the city have fueled speculation that Chinese security forces abducted him and spirited him into China. Such behavior would be an egregious violation of the “one country, two systems” agreement that guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 and has secured freedoms and judicial independence that are absent on the mainland.
The detentions of Lee and Gui in particular have sparked protests at Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, inquiries from foreign governments and Hong Kong’s chief executive on their whereabouts, a viral online video, and a chilling effect among other Hong Kong booksellers who typically carry politically sensitive titles. On January 7, media reported that the Hong Kong branch of a Singaporean chain had removed books ranging from the bestselling memoir of former Chinese Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang to tales by alleged mistresses of high-level party cadres. A week later, the Guardian reported that the Hong Kong publisher of a new book on Chinese president Xi Jinping had bowed out at the last minute, saying in his e-mail to the author that “people in the industry … feeling great fear and pressure; they want to stay out of trouble.” (The book will instead be published in Taiwan.)
In response to the backlash, mainland authorities sought to convince the world that the two men went to China voluntarily. On January 17, Gui appeared on China Central Television (CCTV), claiming that he returned on his own to face punishment for a 2003 drunk-driving accident that reportedly killed a college student; he asked the Swedish government not to intervene on his behalf. On January 23, Lee’s wife was permitted to meet him at a guesthouse in Guangdong Province and claimed he was in good spirits and was “assisting in an investigation” as a witness. The next day, Singtao newspaper published a letter reportedly written by Lee in which he stated that he is “free and safe,” and asked Hong Kong police not to continue their investigation. Family members, friends, and outside observers cast doubt on the authenticity of these statements. In Gui’s case, Hong Kong media pointed out that his t-shirt in the CCTV video alternates between black and gray, indicating that his “confession” was filmed on two separate occasions and then edited into a different order.
Observers have speculated about what prompted the detention of these individuals now, after their businesses—the Mighty Current publishing house and Causeway Bay bookstore—have been selling sensitive political titles for years, including both salacious gossip and relatively serious narratives about Chinese leaders. Some have pointed to an upcoming book on Xi Jinping’s personal life, a topic that has gained sensitivity as state media have increasingly tied the regime’s legitimacy to Xi’s personal image. Another worrisome explanation emerged on January 24, when Britain’s Sunday Times published an article claiming to have obtained a copy of a leaked Chinese government document called the Guangdong Action Plan. The document refers to orders from April 2015 and instructs authorities to “intensify the external composite counter-attack on banned books.” It reportedly identifies 14 publishing houses and 21 publications in Hong Kong as targets. No further verification of the document has emerged to date, but a 2013 notice describes a similar plan to limit the entry into China of “illegal” publications from Hong Kong.
In 2014, Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian was arrested on the mainland shortly before the planned release a critical book on Xi Jinping. He was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison on trumped-up smuggling charges.
- Wanda group buys Hollywood production company: On January 12, China’s Dalian Wanda Group announced its purchase of a major stake in Legendary Entertainment, one of Hollywood’s biggest production companies, for as much as $3.5 billion. Legendary had produced blockbusters like the Dark Knight Batman series, Pacific Rim, and Jurassic World. The Dalian Wanda Group is owned by Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man and a member of the Chinese Communist Party with close ties to elite cadres. The acquisition follows a series of other moves in the entertainment industry by Wang, who already owns AMC, one of the largest movie-theater chains in the United States.
- Tiananmen images sold to Chinese firm: On January 22, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates announced the sale of the licensing arm of his company Corbis Entertainment to Visual China Group (VCG). Among the trove of 200 million photos that will be created as a result of the deal are iconic images from Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protesters, including photos of bloodied students and a man standing in front of a row of tanks. Some activists raised concerns that such images, which are systematically censored inside China, could now be restricted globally. However, executives at Corbis, VCG, and Getty Images, which is partnering with the Chinese firm, dismissed such fears, stating that they were committed to distributing the photos internationally and that the rights to many politically sensitive images in the licensing archive were still owned by other entities like Reuters and the Associated Press.
- Foreign tech firms vary in responses to Great Firewall: China’s website filtering system, commonly known as the Great Firewall, poses a challenge to many foreign companies. A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce found that four out of five U.S. companies are negatively affected by Chinese internet censorship. On January 21, CNN reported that Facebook had made an adjustment to its Google Android application so that a change in settings will automatically enable users to connect to the internet via Orbot, the app of the anonymity and circumvention tool Tor. The change could increase access for Chinese users to the social-media platform, whose website is blocked in China, although the Great Firewall has in the past successfully neutralized Tor. By contrast, on January 20, Global Voices reported that in response to pressure from Chinese government regulators, Microsoft Azure China, which provides cloud storage for leading content-delivery networks, issued a letter to its clients urging them to “conduct self-examination and rectification immediately” and remove access to “illegal ‘over the wall’ proxy sites” and virtual private networks.
- Cyberespionage targets Uighur, Tibetan advocates: On January 24, online security firm Palo Alto Networks published the findings of its seven-month investigation of a hacker group it dubbed “Scarlet Mimic,” which used various tactics to conduct cyberespionage against Uighurs, Tibetans, and their supporters, including via mobile devices. The report does not explicitly state how many targets were outside China, but the cited examples of “decoy” e-mail messages consist primarily of English documents, including a New York Times article about the death of a Tibetan monk and a press release from the World Uyghur Congress. Researchers could not find evidence conclusively tying the hackers to the Chinese government, but the report says the group’s motivations appear “similar to the stated position of the Chinese government in relation to these targets.”
Trials, sentences for detained lawyers: Watch for announcements of trial dates and verdicts for the lawyers detained in the July 2015 crackdown. The penalty issued in December against prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang—a three-year suspended sentence—was relatively lenient, suggesting that if significant international and domestic pressure is applied, some of those still awaiting verdicts could receive lighter sentences than might otherwise be handed down. Indeed, the harsh 19-year prison term imposed last month on Zhang Haitao may have stemmed in part from his relative international obscurity, in addition to his location in the sensitive region of Xinjiang.
Intensified Taiwan censorship after power transfer: Following the opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s victory in Taiwan’s January 16 elections, newly elected legislators took their seats on February 1, and Tsai Ing-wen will replace Ma Ying-jeou as president in May. During and after the transition, watch for more censorship and aggressive state-media responses to Taiwan-related news.
Hong Kong government’s response to bookseller cases: The Hong Kong government has come under significant public pressure to extract information from Beijing on the five detained booksellers. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Hong Kong police have reportedly made inquiries on the detainees’ behalf, but it remains to be seen how aggressively they will investigate—and respond to—the allegations and circumstantial evidence that at least one of the men was abducted by Chinese security forces in Hong Kong and then spirited across the border.