China Media Bulletin Issue No. 114: April 2016 | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin Issue No. 114: April 2016

A monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China

Photo of the Month: 

Vanishing Vaccine Scandal: This photo accompanied a March 19 article by financial magazine Caixin about tainted vaccines that was subsequently censored. Titled “The Sad Saga of Vaccines,” the piece notes that quality-control problems involving vaccines persist three years after journalists exposed the issue in 2013. It then provides a photo gallery of children who suffered brain damage or death over the past decade after receiving problematic vaccinations. This photo was part of a screenshot of the full article that was posted to Sina Weibo on March 22. The post was shared 107,352 times in less than 24 hours before being deleted. Credit: Caixin/Weiboscope


FEATURE: Amid Signs of Xi’s Weakness, Appeals for Detained Activists Get Results

This article was also published in the Diplomat on April 7, 2016.

by Sarah Cook

Given the prodigious resources and brutality that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employs against those it sees as a threat to its rule, one might conclude that the regime’s opponents are destined to fail. But just as conditions appear especially bleak, a new round of regime criticism emerges, including from state-media journalists and the ranks of the party itself. The past month has been chock-full of such dynamics. One apparent by-product has been the release of detained party critics.

These moments offer vivid reminders that China’s censors, secret police, and even President Xi Jinping may not be as all-powerful as they appear in the face of dedicated activists, international outcries, and the CCP’s own internal interest groups.

Over the last six weeks, several individuals who had been detained for what they said, wrote, or believed were set free. Chen Taihe, a law professor, was released from “residential surveillance” in late February and allowed to travel to the United States to reunite with his family. Zhang Kai, a prominent lawyer who had assisted Christians opposing a government campaign to remove crosses, announced on social media on March 24 that he had returned home. Jia Jia, a journalist who disappeared on March 15 in connection with an anonymous letter calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation, resurfaced after 12 days. And four of the five Hong Kong booksellers who were mysteriously detained in late 2015—apparently in response to controversial and salacious books on top Chinese officials—were no longer in mainland police custody as of early April.

Granted, the outcomes of the cases include considerable ambiguity. These individuals should never have been detained in the first place, most are still not completely free, and some were forced to cooperate with the authorities—including through televised confessions—to earn their release. Nevertheless, it is clear that the situation would have been much worse absent domestic and international pressure on their behalf.

Moreover, their releases are consistent with a broader pattern. Freedom House research has found that despite an atmosphere of tight political controls and new arrests, Chinese leaders made more concessions to international and domestic pressure on media and internet freedom issues in 2015 than in any other year in recent memory.

In the coming days and weeks, indictments, trials, and verdicts are expected in a slew of other, less well-known cases involving freedom of expression. A Uighur mother is charged with “leaking state secrets” for speaking to Radio Free Asia about her son, who disappeared into police custody in 2009. An elderly Falun Gong couple in Henan could face years in prison after police found four printers and several boxes of materials related to their persecuted spiritual movement during a raid on their home. Four mainland activists face charges for voicing solidarity with Hong Kong’s 2014 prodemocracy protesters in online posts or offline banners. And a Tibetan entrepreneur who advocated for bilingual education and protection of Tibetan culture, including in microblog posts and interviews with foreign media, has been charged with inciting separatism. The outcome of investigations involving editors and technical staff at Wujie, a government-run website in Xinjiang that posted the anonymous letter urging Xi’s resignation, also remains to be seen.

The many journalists and insiders who have spoken out against censorship and CCP media controls in recent weeks could face reprisals as well. These include staff at the financial news magazine Caixin, which exposed censors’ deletion of an article; former Xinhua reporter Zhou Fang, whose open letter denouncing censorship went viral online; professor Jiang Hong, television anchor Bai Yansong, actor Zhang Guoli, and other delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference who raised their concerns during the official advisory body’s annual meeting last month; and of course, popular real-estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, whose deleted microblog account catalyzed some of the recent pushback against Xi.

For the moment, any planned punishment for these individuals’ ideological “transgressions” appears to have been put on hold. Some analysts have attributed the pause, especially in Ren’s case, to a recent article that offered a careful defense of the principle of loyal criticism of the government. The piece was published on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s anticorruption agency, which is led by close Xi ally and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan.

Even as intraparty politicking unfolds behind the scenes, well-timed diplomatic pressure, foreign news reporting, and grassroots campaigns could provide much-needed protection for these and other Chinese citizens at risk of punishment for exercising their right to free expression.

Despite the Chinese government’s refrain that it handles prosecutions “according to law,” the outcomes of free expression cases in China are inevitably based on a political cost-benefit analysis somewhere in the party’s political-legal hierarchy. At a time when Xi is facing increased internal challenges to his authority, even as he attempts to tighten the screws on criticism inside and outside the party, the powers that be may be more susceptible than in the past to external calls for leniency.

For the sake of these individuals, their families, and the broader battle for democracy and human rights in the world’s most populous nation, it’s certainly worth a try.

Photo Caption: Falun Gong practitioners Yao Gaofu and Liang Xin with their daughter during better times. According to Amnesty International, the elderly couple was detained in December 2015 when police raided their home and found boxes of printed materials related to their persecuted spiritual practice. They face potential indictment and trial in the coming weeks. Credit:Minghui.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst at Freedom House and director of the China Media Bulletin.

PRINT / NEW MEDIA:  Xi’s restrictive media policy faces resistance from journalists and regime insiders

Since Chinese president and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping visited flagship state media in mid-February and announced a more heavy-handed approach to censorship and propaganda, several incidents have signaled a degree of resistance—among both journalists and political elites—to the new policy and to the generally tighter information controls of recent years. Many of the emerging acts of defiance or criticism appear to have been catalyzed by specific cases of censorship, including efforts to silence and punish real-estate mogul and social-media celebrity Ren Zhiqiang.

Last month, throughout the two-week annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (China’s rubber-stamp parliament) and the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a number of CPPCC delegates voiced concern about the closing space for free expression and called for greater media freedom. Among these were Jiang Hong (a professor from Shanghai), Bai Yansong (a popular China Central Television anchor), and Zhang Guoli (an actor and television producer). On March 8, the English-language website of Caixin, a prominent financial magazine, published an article revealing that an item relaying Jiang’s views had been forcibly censored. Although that article was also taken down by the next day, with would-be readers directed to an error message, the rare act of overt resistance drew international and domestic attention.

Over the following weeks, at least four journalists or writers published critical open letters or resignation announcements. On March 11, Zhou Fang, a former journalist at the official Xinhua news agency, published a letter addressed to the NPC that called for an investigation of officials involved in online censorship. The next day, two vice presidents of the China Writers’ Association branch in the Jiangsu Province city of Suzhou—Jing Ge and Ye Mi—publicly resigned, posting messages on their Sina Weibo microblog accounts that were seen as expressions of deep discontent with the state of party-controlled Chinese literature. On March 28, Yu Shaolei, editor of the cultural section of the Southern Metropolis Daily, posted a note online announcing his resignation and explaining that he was “unable to bear your surname,” a reference to Xi’s February demand that all media toe the party line; the post was quickly deleted. Although censors deleted many of the above posts as well, at least some of their content circulated widely online, drawing supportive comments from netizens.

Separately, on March 1, an article appeared on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party’s internal anticorruption arm, with the title “A Thousand Yes-Men Cannot Equal One Honest Adviser.” The piece, published under the pseudonym Lei Si, draws on a range of historical examples to argue that “the ability to air opinions freely and to accept suggestions frequently determined the rise or fall of an empire.” It essentially offers a clear but indirect rebuttal of efforts under Xi to suppress even policy-based criticism among party cadres. As of April 5, the article was still accessible on the commission’s site, indicating that it likely had approval from high-level officials, possibly including CCDI head and Xi ally Wang Qishan. Several China observers stressed the significance of the article, inferring that even those closest to Xi may be sending the message that he is going too far. Others speculated that the article was an indirect critique by Xi’s allies of propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, published on the CCDI website because it was outside Liu’s control. Indeed, some analysts argued that Xi’s February visits to state media may have been part of a bid to reduce Liu’s influence rather than a simple attempt to rein in independent journalism.

NEW MEDIA: Online letter urging Xi’s resignation prompts arrests, speculation on party infighting

On March 4, an open letter that was published online called for Xi Jinping to step down as president and Communist Party leader, citing his handling of the media and encouragement of a “personality cult,” among other reasons. The item, whose anonymous authors claimed to be loyal party cadres, was posted on several dissident websites outside China and circulated via e-mail. But it also made a rare appearance within the so-called Great Firewall on Wujie, a news website jointly owned by the Xinjiang regional government and private investors. The letter was shared briefly on social media in China before it was deleted, and related search terms like “Xi Jinping + resign” or “Xi + open letter” were blocked on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform.

Nevertheless, security services’ efforts to trace the letter’s authors and distribution network continued for weeks, inadvertently drawing more attention to the document and its English translation, especially outside China. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Chinese authorities detained at least 20 people in connection with the letter, including 16 from Wujie and a related technology company. On March 15, security forces took freelance journalist Jia Jia into custody, apparently because he had alerted Wujie editors to the letter’s presence on their site. Subsequently, family members of two prominent regime critics—U.S.-based blogger Wen Yunchao and Germany-based journalist Chang Ping—were detained. In both cases, police tried to use the men’s relatives to pressure them to censor themselves or admit to involvement in the letter affair. Amnesty International’s William Nee pointed out that the abduction of whole families represented a new escalation in such collective-punishment tactics. Following extensive coverage of the three cases in international and overseas Chinese media, Jia Jia was released, as were Chang and Wen’s families, though staff from Wujie remained in custody as of April 1.

In recent weeks, there has been much speculation among China watchers about the origin and authorship of the letter, with some raising the possibility that it represented a plot by rival cadres to discredit Xi. However, knowledgeable observers have pointed out that the style of writing is not typical of cadres, raising the suspicion that it was a collaborative effort between domestic and overseas activists. To some extent, the letter’s authenticity is of secondary importance. Many in the elite are believed to share similar concerns about Xi’s leadership style, and the dissemination of such ideas on the opening day of the annual National People’s Congress session was an embarrassment for Xi, as was the fact that it was reposted inside China. A second anonymous letter by 171 purported party cadres, also demanding Xi’s resignation, circulated online on March 29.

PRINT / NEW MEDIA: Censorship highlights: ‘Two Sessions,’ dystopian Hong Kong film, Panama Papers

The past month was a particularly active one for China’s censors as they sought to control news on a number of high-profile topics—and tackled a major typo.

  • ‘Two Sessions’: According to the California-based website China Digital Times, a leaked directive from the Central Propaganda Department relayed 21 instructions to journalists on how to cover the “Two Sessions”—the simultaneous annual gatherings of the National People’s Congress and the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Reporters were told to avoid certain topics (like smog, defense spending, and delegates’ personal wealth) while emphasizing others (such as evidence of steady economic growth or President Xi Jinping’s participation in the sessions). Reporting on Xi hit a snag, however, when an article by the official Xinhua news agency referred to him as China’s “last leader” rather than its “top leader,” a glaring error that some commentators saw as another hint of internal discontent with Xi’s performance. The text was quickly replaced, but not before it was picked up by the media in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Separately, over the following weeks, circumventing the Great Firewall became more difficult than usual, and other censorship directives ordered the deletion of stories on tainted vaccines and documentaries about Saudi Arabia and 2015 chemical explosions in Tianjin.
  • ‘Ten Years’: On April 3, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association granted its prize for best picture to Ten Years, an independent film depicting a dystopian future for the territory under Beijing’s rule. Although Chinese regulators had already restricted television coverage of the ceremony because of the film’s nomination, its receipt of the top award prompted a more thorough news blackout. Reports on the ceremony by Xinhua news agency and leading online portals like Netease, Sina, and Sohu simply omitted mention of the movie and the Best Film prize, while Baidu search queries turned up just one (possibly accidental) result from a Taiwanese newspaper.
  • Panama Papers: On April 4, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published its first reports based on a treasure trove of leaked documents that it dubbed the “Panama Papers.” The documents, from a law firm based in Panama, provided insights into the world of tax havens and shell companies employed by rich individuals to hide their wealth. Among the people named in the initial batch of articles on the trove were eight current or former members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee—including Xi Jinping—whose relatives had taken advantage of the law firm’s services. Although some of the assets in question, including the holdings of Xi’s brother-in-law, had already been uncovered by news outlets like Bloomberg and the New York Times, the renewed attention to them triggered netizen discussion and corresponding censorship. According to the BBC, at least 481 conversation threads on Sina Weibo were deleted within 24 hours, while screenshots show blank results for “Panama Papers” queries on search engines. China Digital Times published a leaked directive instructing editors to delete related reports, warning that “if material from foreign media attacking China is found on any website, it will be dealt with severely.” FreeWeibo noted that “Panama” was one of the most censored terms on Sina Weibo on April 4, second only to “Ten Years.”

HONG KONG:  Missing booksellers reappear, but questions remain

Some of the five Hong Kong booksellers who vanished into Chinese custody in late 2015 have reappeared in the territory, though they may not be free. Between October and December, the five men went missing from different locations and later resurfaced in mainland China, where they were apparently in some form of detention. All were connected with the Hong Kong publisher Might Current Media and its Causeway Bay bookstore, which are known for controversial books about top Chinese officials. The methods allegedly used to bring them into China—including suspected extraterritorial “renditions” from Thailand and Hong Kong—prompted significant concern and criticism among Hong Kong residents and foreign governments. In February, all five appeared on either Chinese television or Hong Kong–based Phoenix Television, confessing crimes or renouncing their foreign citizenship. Since early March, three of the five men have resurfaced and visited Hong Kong at least briefly, urging police to cancel their missing persons reports, purchasing baby supplies, and praising their treatment by Chinese security services. They then returned to the mainland, where some of them have family. Gui Minhai, a Mighty Current co-owner who was abducted from Thailand and remains in Chinese police custody, seems to be bearing the brunt of the authorities’ investigation into “illegal business” activities. Despite the other booksellers’ claims that they are free to travel across the border and requests to tone down concern over their plight, observers, friends, and relatives remain suspicious of their circumstances. Meanwhile, the bookstore has closed, former owner and alleged abductee Lee Bo has told reporters that he would “not publish books” again, and the case continues to have a chilling effect on free expression in Hong Kong, particularly in the book-publishing industry.

BEYOND CHINA: ‘Intranet’ fears, Trump on ’89 massacre, UN scolding, ZTE reshuffle

  • New legislation provokes fear of a Chinese ‘intranet’: On March 28, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) released new draft legislation that would require domain names accessible in China to register with the government. The draft law’s vague wording provoked fears that such a system could effectively function as a “whitelist,” blocking access to any unapproved foreign-hosted websites and dramatically increasing Chinese users’ already high degree of isolation from the global internet. The MIIT quickly rejected such worries, telling Reuters that there had been a “misunderstanding.” Several Chinese and foreign experts said that despite the unclear wording, they believed the law’s intention was to tighten regulation of websites hosted in China, not overseas, though this would still represent an intensification of existing internet controls. The proposed law is open for public comment until April 25. Another set of rules, restricting the terms under which foreign companies can operate websites inside China, came into effect on March 10.
  • In Geneva, China draws UN criticism, urges Dalai Lama boycott: During a session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, the deteriorating conditions for human rights activists in China garnered rare high-profile attention from diplomats. In his annual speech to the council on the global human rights situation, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein expressed specific concerns about conditions in China, including in Tibet and Xinjiang. This was followed by a rare joint statement by nine European countries, the United States, Australia, and Japan that was delivered by U.S. ambassador Keith Harper. The statement condemned, among other violations, the crackdown on rights lawyers and the recent extraterritorial abductions of journalists, cartoonists, and booksellers. China’s ambassador, Fu Cong, responded with a scathing speech accusing the United States of hypocrisy and warning that Western countries’ “politicization” of the council would doom it to failure like its institutional predecessor. The following day, the Dalai Lama appeared on a panel about civil society at the Geneva Graduate Institute, moderated by the UN deputy high commissioner for human rights. The Chinese mission in Geneva had urged diplomats and UN officials to stay away, but large numbers reportedly attended anyway.
  • ZTE reshuffles management to stem U.S. sanctions: On April 5, Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE announced the replacement of three of its top managers, including its chief executive. The overhaul comes after the U.S. Commerce Department imposed restrictions on the sale of U.S. technology to the company last month because it was found to have deliberately violated rules on exports of American-made goods to Iran, North Korea, and other countries subject to trade sanctions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the reshuffle is part of an agreement with the Commerce Department to remove executives allegedly involved in the violations in exchange for temporary removal of the sanctions on the company.
  • Activists react to Tiananmen massacre references in U.S. presidential race: During a debate among Republican Party presidential candidates on March 10, the moderator posed a question to Donald Trump regarding previous comments he had made expressing admiration for the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal suppression of prodemocracy protesters in 1989. Although Trump responded that he was not endorsing such violence per se, he reiterated that it was the act of a “strong” government, while referring to the protests as “riots.” A wide range of Chinese activists, netizens, and lawyers reacted with shock and disappointment to Trump’s remarks. In one open letter, a coalition of 27 groups said they were “appalled” by the statement and demanded an apology from Trump, adding that with such views, “he is not fit to be the president of the United States.” They also expressed appreciation for candidate John Kasich’s unequivocal condemnation of the massacre and gratitude for long-standing support by two other candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, for Chinese human rights activists. (Rubio has since dropped out of the race.) Separately, exile cartoonist Rebel Pepper marked the occasion by posting on Twitter a drawing of Donald Trump in a tank running over a protester and declaring, “This is the best thing we imported from China.”


Reprisals against activists and insiders: Watch for any punishment of critics or regime insiders who have challenged Xi Jinping’s media control policy in recent weeks, as well as for updates on trials, sentences, or releases of activists and religious believers referenced in this month’s feature article (see above).

Panama Papers fallout: As new China-related revelations emerge from the Panama Papers and their details are translated into Chinese, watch for a continued battle between censors seeking to stem their circulation and netizens eager to share or obtain them. Watch for a tightening of the Great Firewall as more users are motivated to circumvent blocks, and for how the allegations affect party infighting—particularly whether they weaken Xi or provide motivation for unity among competing CCP factions that are all implicated in the documents.

Revised version of domain-name legislation: Following the end of the public comment period on April 25, watch for the publication of revisions to the proposed “Internet Domain Name Management Rules” by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The revised version may clarify uncertainties in the current draft and hopefully narrow the scope of new restrictions on websites accessible in China.