China Media Bulletin Issue No. 115: May 2016
A monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China
Tough Toddler: This video screenshot shows a toddler fending off chengguan—Chinese urban management personnel—who had approached his grandmother over the placement of her street stall. The boy yells “Don’t touch my grandma!” while swinging a metal pipe. The clip initially gained official approval, despite its allusions to the chengguan’s notoriously violent behavior, and was posted by state news outlets on social media on April 14. But, after it went viral and drew comments critical of Chinese authorities, censors ordered the story’s removal from all “main news sections.” By April 20, Global Voices reported that “pro-law enforcement views” were dominating social-media discussion of the video. Credit: China Digital Times
- Feature: Xi Jinping Tech Speech Signals Tougher Times for Foreign Firms
- New blocks on foreign content as U.S. calls Chinese censorship a trade barrier
- Internet regulation updates: New WeChat rules, online TV crackdown, Baidu ad scandal
- Authorities and citizens clash over freedom of expression, transparency issues
- Hong Kong: Editor’s firing, museum closure add to press freedom concerns
- Beyond China: Twitter hire, India visas, S. Korea dance show, U.S. counterpropaganda bill
- What to Watch For
by Sarah Cook
This article was also published in The Diplomat on May 17, 2016.
When Chinese president and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping gave a speech on cybersecurity and information technology last month, international media noted that even as Xi called for greater tolerance of online criticism, censors were restricting Chinese internet users from posting negative comments about his remarks. However, foreign reporters overlooked other important points in the April 19 speech, including hints that the Chinese government will be intensifying its efforts to reduce foreign—and especially American—involvement in China’s IT sector.
In the early parts of his speech, Xi indeed urges officials to engage with citizens more frequently via the internet and to be “a bit more tolerant and patient” when doing so. But the remark is made in the context of calls to “strengthen governance in cyberspace” and enhance “internet supervision.”
Meanwhile, party officials continue to punish or silence critics of Xi and the central government, including dissenting party members. Less than two weeks after Xi’s address, it was reported that real-estate mogul and social-media commentator Ren Zhiqiang was being placed on probation for one year, an apparent reprisal for his online rebuttal of Xi’s hard-line February speech on media policy.
Instead, after the passing reference to greater tolerance, Xi dedicates much of the April 19 speech (14 paragraphs) to the need for China make quick “breakthroughs in core technology” and strengthen the presence of indigenous Chinese products in related fields. The term “core technology” is not clearly defined, but Xi says it includes “asymmetric” and “disruptive” technology. At one point, in a passage replete with military metaphors, Xi refers to certain American companies—Microsoft, Intel, Google, and Apple—as “backbone enterprises” with a “coordinated impact” that Chinese companies and state enterprises should strive to overtake by joining forces.
Xi does not call for foreign technologies and expertise to be completely shut out of China. In the final section of the speech, he notes in unusually candid fashion that China is suffering from a grave “brain drain,” and urges technology firms to build “talent structures” that can recruit experts from many countries and draw Chinese expatriates back home.
Nevertheless, the thrust of the speech matches a broader pattern in which Beijing has sought to exclude foreign companies and technology and promote Chinese alternatives, wherever and whenever it becomes feasible. The push for self-reliance seemed to gain urgency after Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of American cyberespionage activity, but it is hardly new.
Analyst Bill Bishop noted this undercurrent in the speech, warning in his Sinocism newsletter that “US tech firms should be under no illusions that there has been any change in the long-term agenda to de-Americanize China’s IT stack.” Indeed, days before the address, Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movies applications were shut down in China, only six months after they had been launched with government approval.
Shareholders and employees of global, and especially American, technology firms should take heed of Xi’s words. The speech indicates that U.S. technology companies are unlikely to make serious headway in the Chinese market under the current political leadership. Far from laying the groundwork for future expansion in China, acts like promoting Xi’s book of quotations, partnering with the Chinese government to improve surveillance capacity, or hiring former Chinese military engineers may simply make U.S. tech industry leaders appear foolish in light of Beijing’s stated goals. Such behavior also conveys a message of abandonment to Chinese internet users inside and outside the country who share Silicon Valley ideals of openness, free expression, creativity, and global communication.
Beyond the toll on foreign firms, internet users inside China are also clearly harmed by the kinds of restrictive, inward-looking policies their government is pursuing. They are unable to enjoy a range of convenient and cutting-edge international services, excluded from the global online community, denied privacy from the prying eyes of Chinese security agencies, and left without the benefits that might arise from real competition between Chinese and international companies. Over time, cutting off Chinese users, developers, and entrepreneurs from global tech giants like Apple could also harm the broader national economy.
Despite these potentially negative domestic implications, the speech is unlikely to generate the kind of internal backlash that followed Xi’s media policy speech in February. Instead, the backlash is more likely to come from abroad, as the space for foreign companies in China’s lucrative tech sector continues to shrink in the face of arbitrary regulation and website blocking.
Perhaps that is one reason why the English-language report on the speech by the official Xinhua news agency—which formed the basis of most initial foreign media coverage—downplayed these aspects of Xi’s remarks.
Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of the China Media Bulletin.
On March 31, U.S. officials for the first time included China’s internet filtering system on an annual list of trade impediments, according to an April 7 report by the New York Times. The entry in the National Trade Estimate Report, published by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said that over the last year “outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened” and that such actions “posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both Internet sites themselves and users who often depend on them for business.” It noted the arbitrariness of Chinese government decisions to block certain websites, citing a seemingly innocuous home-improvement site as one of many that had been “swept up by the Great Firewall.”
Despite the renewed attention to the negative implications of censorship for international trade, Chinese officials proceeded to block a series of foreign websites and online services over the following month. Beginning on April 2 and April 5, respectively, the English-language websites of the Economist and Time magazine were rendered inaccessible to users inside China, with the Economist’s WeChat app also reportedly suspended. In both cases, the catalyst appeared to be cover images that drew comparisons between Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong, with references to an emerging personality cult. A week later, Medium, a platform for sharing articles, was similarly blocked, perhaps due to the circulation on Chinese social media of content related to the Panama Papers, and the possibility that the platform could be used to share items from media outlets blocked in China. In another block that may be more significant for large numbers of Chinese users, Apple’s iBooks Store and iTunes Movie services became inaccessible in mid-April, just six months after being launched in China with government approval. A week later, DisneyLife, a streaming service for films and other material, offered in partnership with China’s Alibaba, went offline after only five months. The incidents represent real setbacks for two foreign companies that have had greater success in the Chinese market than most of their competitors.
- Internal WeChat restrictions: On April 12, the messaging application WeChat alerted users to a new set of rules that would be implemented to control content on the platform. Users violating the rules could be subject to punishments including a permanent account ban. Some of the rules limit circulation of content that is often restricted on social media around the world, such as references to sexual abuse or posts meant to harass fellow users. Others seemed designed to protect WeChat’s own business, like a ban on linking to external games. However, a number of provisions, including those targeting “rumors,” open the door to a potentially significant uptick in censorship of political, social, and religious content. In recent years, WeChat has gained popularity among Chinese internet users, including intellectuals, activists, lawyers, and journalists, in part because its censorship is seen as less intense than on the microblogging service Sina Weibo. Monitoring the degree of censorship on WeChat is much more difficult than on Sina, however, because most WeChat communication is fragmented into small, private circles.
- Reality TV and live online streaming: On April 14, state broadcaster China Central Television announced that all the major live-streaming platforms were under investigation by the Ministry of Culture. Authorities accuse the increasingly popular services of hosting too much content that is vulgar, violent, or likely to incite criminal activity. Three days later, the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television announced that children—and particularly children of celebrities—will henceforth be barred from participating in reality television shows. On April 19, Papi Jiang, a young woman who rose to become one of the country’s most popular web celebrities thanks to her three-minute comical video rants on a variety of topics, was ordered to take down most of her videos because of her use of foul language. She quickly posted an apology on her Sina Weibo account, which has 11 million followers, and promised to change her ways. Chinese internet users’ reactions to these measures were mixed. Some welcomed a possible reduction in vulgar language, cleavage, and spam advertising on video services and social-media platforms. Others expressed disappointment at the extensive restrictions on seemingly innocuous entertainment content, and puzzlement at the specificity of certain rules, like a ban on erotic eating of bananas, which could be circumvented if streamers simply “start eating cucumbers.”
- Baidu medical ad scandal: The ethics of search-engine results became a hot topic in China after the death of a college student who sought out a questionable cancer treatment based on an advertisement that appeared on the search engine Baidu. Wei Zexi passed away on April 14 after his family spent 200,000 yuan ($30,700) on the ineffective treatment. His story went viral online and sparked netizen accusations that the company was placing profits ahead of user safety. Government regulators took action against the company on May 2, and following an investigation, Baidu committed to policy changes, including inspection of all medical information from advertisers and a new mechanism for compensating users for any misleading information. The firm also expressed remorse and removed 126 million advertisements and over 2,000 medical institutions found to be out of compliance. This isn’t the first time that netizens have criticized Baidu’s medical advertising practices. In January, tens of thousands of users pledged to boycott the company after learning that it sold the right to moderate medical discussion forums to unqualified individuals and businesses with a clear conflict of interest.
NEW MEDIA: Authorities and citizens clash over medical parole, state media defamation, and free expression
- Allies pressure government on medical care for jailed activist Guo Feixiong: On April 26, the sister of Guo Feixiong, a prominent Guangdong activist serving a six-year prison sentence for speaking at a press freedom protest in 2013, visited Guo in prison. She reported that his health had severely deteriorated and that medical attention was not being provided. In response, a group of activists launched a relay hunger strike beginning on May 4. Each day, one person fasts for 24 hours with the goal of pressing the Chinese authorities to concede to two demands: 1) that Guo be released for medical treatment, and 2) that his medical records from before and during his detention be made public. According to Ai Wu, one of the activists involved in the campaign, as of May 6 at least 1,000 people had signed a corresponding petition calling for Guo’s release. The petition cites several prominent individuals inside and outside China as its sponsors, including blind activist Chen Guangcheng, rights advocate Hu Jia, online commentator Murong Xuecun, and journalist Xiao Shu.
- Mainland activists jailed for solidarity with Hong Kong protesters: On April 8, roughly a year and a half after the outbreak of prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong, four activists in Guangdong Province were sentenced to prison for expressing support—via online posts or photos—for Hong Kongers’ demands for greater political freedom, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Wang Mo, Xie Fengxia, Zhang Rongping, and Liang Qinhui were jailed for terms ranging from 18 months to four and a half years on the political charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” They had initially been charged with the lesser crime of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” On April 21, activist Su Changlan was put on trial, also in Guangdong, for similar online posts.
- Mother of detained activist files—then rescinds—defamation suit against state media: In early April, the mother of detained labor rights activist Zeng Feiyang filed a lawsuit against the official Xinhua news agency over a December 2015 article that she claims defamed her son’s character and formed part of a coordinated smear campaign. The suit, which asks for removal of the article in question from Xinhua’s website, a public apology, and 1 million yuan ($150,000) in compensation, also named local police and the Guangzhou detention center where Zeng is being held as defendants. Zeng’s mother, Chen Wenying, told Quartz that after the news reports, even old friends and family started questioning Zeng’s morality and efforts to help workers. On May 1, however, the South China Morning Post reported that Chen had been forced to drop the suit due to pressure from court authorities and threats that her grandson’s employment would be harmed. The lawsuit and its dismissal are a particularly blatant example of the close collusion between China’s flagship state media and the Communist Party’s security apparatus.
- Uighur sentenced to prison for watching film about Muslims: On May 9, Radio Free Asia reported that Eli Yasin, a Uighur man from Aksu prefecture in Xinjiang, had been sentenced to seven years in prison in February, apparently for watching a “politically sensitive” film about Muslim migration. The exact nature of the movie remains unclear, but the fact that Yasin and several relatives viewed it reportedly led some officials to believe that they were planning to go abroad and “wage jihad.” A security official from the family’s village who spoke to Radio Free Asia was skeptical of such conclusions, stating that “as a security chief, I am having a hard time explaining these charges to the people in my village.” Several of Yasin’s relatives were detained with him in May 2015 and may remain in custody. In recent years, Uighurs have been severely punished for producing or disseminating any information about Islam or Uighur history that departs from the Communist Party line, but this is one of the harshest documented punishments for merely consuming content deemed extremist by the Chinese authorities.
A public opinion survey conducted last month by the University of Hong Kong found that residents’ satisfaction with the state of press freedom in the territory was at its lowest point since the 1997 handover to China, with one-third of respondents stating that they found the current situation unsatisfactory. The sudden April 20 firing of an editor at Ming Pao, a leading Chinese-language newspaper, further fueled such concerns.
Chief executive editor Keung Kwok-yuen was abruptly dismissed from his position in what management said was a cost-cutting measure. Journalists at the paper responded angrily and voiced suspicion that the decision was a reprisal for a front-page report the same day linking top Hong Kong businessmen and politicians to new revelations in the Panama Papers. On April 24 and 25, five columnists protested the firing by publishing blank articles in the paper’s print edition. On May 2, over 400 journalists and community activists held a street demonstration, during which the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s chairwoman read an open letter from eight journalist groups demanding Keung’s reinstatement.
The strong reaction to Keung’s firing may have been amplified by a series of news items in the week prior to his dismissal that reinforced fears of deteriorating freedom of expression in the territory. On April 14, Agence France-Presse reported that a museum commemorating the 1989 massacre of prodemocracy protesters in Beijing would be closing amid legal complaints from the building’s other tenants, which museum supporters said were politically motivated. Three days later, the South China Morning Post reported that a theater group dedicated to raising awareness about the 1989 events was receiving notably fewer requests for performances at schools compared with previous years, and expressed concerns that teachers were coming under pressure not to invite them. On April 15, the Post reported that the publisher of the first English-language account of Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Central prodemocracy protest movement had faced difficulties finding a printer. It noted that two companies turned down the job due to the subject matter, and a third agreed to print the book on condition of anonymity. The latter incident reflects a broader chilling effect in the territory’s publishing sector since the suspicious 2015 detention in China of five Hong Kong booksellers whose products were critical of or embarrassing to Communist Party leaders.
- Twitter hires ex-military engineer to lead Greater China outreach: On April 14, Twitter announced that it had hired Kathy Chen as its managing director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The popular microblogging platform is blocked in China but has emerged as an important avenue for sharing uncensored information among tens of thousands of Chinese who are able to circumvent the so-called Great Firewall. Chen’s appointment quickly stirred controversy among Chinese activists and international observers. Many pointed to her past work as an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army and with technology companies that have links to the public security apparatus, arguing that she may be a member of the Chinese Communist Party who was hired mainly for her government connections. Adding to concerns that her work at Twitter might support the party’s propaganda and censorship policies, some of her first tweets called for cooperation with state media outlets. In one such message, she echoed language used by President Xi Jinping, writing, “let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!” Until the day she assumed her post, Chen had not been active on Twitter. The company defended the decision to hire her, but an article in the nationalistic state-run newspaper Global Times also came to her defense, which didn’t help her case in the eyes of skeptics.
- Uighur, Chinese activists denied entry to India: At the end of April, a network of Chinese, Tibetan, and Uighur representatives participated in an interethnic, interfaith conference in Dharamsala, India, organized by the Washington, DC–based prodemocracy group Initiatives for China. This was the first time the annual meeting had been held outside the United States or Taiwan. While dozens of individuals from around the world participated, at least three Uighur and Chinese activists were denied entry into India, fueling fears that they had been barred because of Chinese government pressure. Dolkun Isa, a leader of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress; Lu Jinghua, a U.S.-based dissident; and Ray Wong, a former student leader in Hong Kong, reported having their visas denied or revoked. Indian authorities claimed that their paperwork had been incomplete, but the last-minute change in Isa’s case and past instances of individuals encountering travel blocks led the three to believe that they had been refused entry as a result of pressure, or at least misinformation, by the Chinese government.
- Dance performance canceled in South Korea after Chinese embassy pressure: On May 4, a court in Seoul issued a last-minute ruling canceling a series of classical Chinese dance and music shows by Shen Yun Performing Arts at KBS Hall. The ruling explicitly cited threats by the Chinese embassy aimed at the theater owner. The New York–based performance group says its mission is to revive China’s five-millennia-old traditional culture, much of which has been destroyed under Communist rule. Along with dances portraying scenes from the imperial past or literary classics, some of the pieces depict the story of Falun Gong persecution in modern China or attacks on Buddhist temples during the Cultural Revolution. Such themes have put Shen Yun on the Chinese Communist Party’s target list, prompting more than 60 attempts by Chinese officials to obstruct the show worldwide in recent years. While the pressure sometimes leads to cancelations, this month’s incident in South Korea stood out in at least two respects. First, the same court that issued the cancelation order had ruled in favor of the performance going forward just two weeks earlier, raising questions about what additional pressure may have been applied by Chinese or Korean officials in the interim. Second, the court’s rationale cited the potential financial losses that the Korean Broadcasting System—the owner of KBS Hall—could incur if Beijing retaliated by obstructing its access to the Chinese market, where the firm’s television dramas are popular. The judge argued that such losses would far outweigh the compensation the firm might need to pay Shen Yun for lost ticket sales, setting a dangerous precedent in which potential earnings from content broadcast inside China are explicitly used to justify restrictions on free expression outside China.
- Counterpropaganda bill introduced in U.S. Senate: On March 16, a bill titled the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 was introduced in the U.S. Senate and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. Sponsored by Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Senator Christopher Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, the bill notes that foreign governments—including those of China and Russia—use disinformation and propaganda to undermine the national security interests of the United States and its allies. The measure calls for the establishment of a Center for Information Analysis and Response to coordinate research on foreign governments’ “information warfare” efforts and develop a whole-of-government American response. The center would be funded by an initial appropriation of $20 million, which would also support research by outside think tanks, academic institutions, and nongovernmental organizations in the United States and abroad. Claire Chu of the Washington, DC–based think tank Project 2049 writes in the National Interest that although the U.S. Congress has a long history of countering Russian propaganda, this is “the first time Congress has introduced policy measures to directly address the threat of China’s aggressive comprehensive information operations doctrine.”
Real-world impact of Xi speech, U.S. trade barrier designation: Following the U.S. trade representative’s identification of Chinese internet censorship as a trade barrier on March 31, watch for any practical implications of this designation, including more robust U.S. efforts to challenge the arbitrary blocking of American websites and technology services. Also watch for additional restrictions on U.S. tech companies operating in China following Xi Jinping’s April 19 speech.
Increased WeChat censorship: Following the popular social-media service’s April 12 announcement of new rules governing content, watch for anecdotal reports of an increase in censorship and deleted posts, including on previously tolerated social, political, or religious topics.
Effect of foreign NGO law on journalism, free expression: On April 28, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a law on Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations’ Activities within Mainland China. The new legislation was widely criticized for its likely impact on both foreign and Chinese civil society groups and the interaction between them. Although most of its provisions do not directly relate to free expression, some elements could damage media and internet freedom through restrictions on foreign trainings for Chinese journalists, limitations affecting NGO websites, punishments for disseminating content deemed “politically sensitive,” and monitoring by public security agencies that entails technical surveillance. Watch for new restrictions of this kind and any broader chilling effect, on both civil society in China and Hong Kong–based groups that are active on the mainland.