China Media Bulletin: Next internet crackdown, anticorruption TV show, Netflix in China (No. 119) | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin: Next internet crackdown, anticorruption TV show, Netflix in China (No. 119)

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

Photo of the Month: 

A staged fight against corruption

In the Name of the People, a new anticorruption drama on Hunan TV that was funded by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, debuted on March 28. Cartoonist Rebel Pepper offers a skeptical take on the popular series, depicting it as a puppet show controlled by President Xi Jinping. Xi has overseen selective, politically fraught corruption probes against high-level officials, or “tigers.” The cartoonist writes, “If Xi Jinping hadn’t given his personal approval, how could this show receive such high-profile publicity?” On April 20, the British group Index on Censorship announced that Rebel Pepper had received its 2017 Freedom of Expression Arts Fellow award. Credit: ChinaDigitalTimes

Issue No. 119: May 2017


FEATURE: Preparing for China’s next internet crackdown

by Sarah Cook

This article was also published by the Diplomat on May 22, 2017.

China’s new Cybersecurity Law takes effect on June 1. Together with regulations issued over the past month by the Cyber Administration of China (CAC)—including on news reporting and commentary—the new legal landscape threatens to tighten what is already one of the world’s most restrictive online environments. What happens next will depend on a combination of Chinese government actions, citizen pushback, and international readiness.

Past experience suggests that the government’s enforcement of the regulations will be uneven and selective but a worst-case scenario would include three features.

First, social media accounts would be closed on a large scale across multiple platforms. This has already been taking place in a more piecemeal fashion. Since 2013, online opinion leaders with millions of microblog followers on Sina Weibo have had their accounts shuttered. In March 2014, dozens of public accounts on WeChat that shared information on current affairs were closed or suspended. More recently, some journalists and academics have reported having their personal WeChat accounts shuttered. Under the new rules, millions of social media accounts sharing information on even apolitical news topics could be subject to such censorship.

Second, there would be an increase in arrests of ordinary users, including based on private information obtained by Chinese security forces from internet companies. The foreign business community and internet freedom advocates have expressed concern regarding the Cybersecurity Law’s requirement that user data be stored on servers inside China, which would make users more vulnerable to having their private communications seized or used for prosecutions.

The Chinese authorities have made clear that they are willing to imprison ordinary citizens based on content shared or viewed via social media. A February 2017 Freedom House study on religious freedom found that Falun Gong practitioners had been jailed for posting messages about the spiritual group or human rights abuses to WeChat or QQ, and that young Uighurs had been imprisoned for viewing online videos about Islam. Last month, Wang Jiangfeng of Shandong Province was sentenced to two years in prison for referring to “Steamed Bun Xi”—a banned nickname for President Xi Jinping—in a group message on WeChat.

Third, full enforcement would mean greater government control over private media companies and news portals. The CAC rules promulgated on May 2 significantly restrict the space for investment and editorial input by foreigners, requiring editors in chief, for example, to be Chinese passport holders. They also mention “special management shares.” According to former journalist Feng Kecheng, now a media studies doctoral candidate in the United States, private web companies that provide news may have to issue such special shares to the government and possibly grant it a seat on their boards.

These provisions reflect Chinese leaders’ attempts to bring the online news industry into closer alignment with the domestic print and broadcast sectors, in which all outlets are owned by the state or party.

Yet some Chinese media observers remain cautiously optimistic, since it is doubtful that the CAC will close millions of WeChat, Weibo, and QQ accounts or imprison tens of thousands of people for sharing “unlicensed” news.

Meanwhile, online businesses and news websites, which must still compete for users, are likely to continue dragging their feet on compliance and might engage in outright defiance. In August 2015, following deadly chemical explosions in Tianjin, several news portals produced original reporting about the cause of the blasts, although they were technically barred from doing so even under previous regulations.

Netizens, technologists, and their counterparts outside China will continue to develop ways to disseminate uncensored information on important topics and protect user privacy. Last month, Radio Free Asia reported that as local governments in Hebei and Guangdong Provinces stepped up monitoring of public Wi-Fi hotspots, a free mobile application called WiFi Master Key—which encrypts user activity—was downloaded over 900 million times. Similarly, after Apple was pressured to remove the New York Times mobile app from its stores in China, downloads for a less easily blocked Android version continued unobstructed.

China’s internet is still a contested space. Indeed, regime insecurity about this contestation is precisely what is driving the latest effort to consolidate control. “Online, the government is fighting like a cornered beast,” says journalist Zhu Xinxin. “They can’t exercise total control over online public opinion.”

President Xi is facing simultaneous political and economic pressures, raising the stakes of the struggle, but it is precisely during times of crisis that Chinese netizens have shown a greater tendency to seek out uncensored information. This occurred in 2012, amid a national scandal centered on Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai; in 2014, when Instagram was blocked at the height of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution; and in 2015, following the Tianjin explosions.

All those with an interest in Chinese people’s access to information—whether they are foreign governments, technology companies, civil society groups, or ordinary citizens—should be prepared with contingency plans and funding to support circumvention tools and other means of getting uncensored news into and out of China at critical moments.

With a major party congress approaching in the fall, environmental problems multiplying, and North Korea advancing its nuclear program, the next moment of crisis in China might be just around the corner.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House. She directs its monthly China Media Bulletin and is author of its recent report The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping.

In lawyers crackdown, authorities punish online speech, foreign media contacts

Since July 2015, the Chinese authorities have been engaged in a fierce crackdown on the country’s contingent of human rights lawyers, often referred to as the “709 crackdown,” for its launch on July 9. In addition to its implications for the rule of law, the effort has had a strong media dimension, including smear campaigns on state media, televised “confessions” by detainees, and the punishment of lawyers for peaceful online activism.

This trend has continued and intensified since March. Lawyers and their families have been penalized for what were once routine and somewhat tolerated forms of legal activism in China, including exposing the torture of an activist in custody and speaking to foreign media. Meanwhile, further evidence of severe abuse in custody has emerged as additional lawyers are released or forced to make televised “confessions.” An April 13 study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that conversations about the persecution are being heavily censored on the popular messaging application WeChat.

Developments in the cases of four lawyers in particular epitomize the censorship and propaganda dimensions of the crackdown:

  • Xie Yang: The 44-year-old Xie, a lawyer from Hunan Province who was indefatigable in demanding fair trials for his clients, was detained in July 2015 on suspicion of “subversion of state power” and “disrupting court order.” In a series of transcripts released earlier this year, he provided a detailed account of torture he reported suffering in custody in mid-2016. However, the Chinese authorities allowed him to return home on bail after he pleaded guilty on May 8 and stated in court that he had not been tortured. That statement, apparently made under duress, was posted online via Sina Weibo, and in a subsequent “confession” broadcast on Hunan TV, Xie said he had worked with foreign media to sensationalize cases. His wife and children fled to the United States in March.
  • Jiang Tianyong: A veteran rights lawyer and one of the most prominent in the rights defense (weiquan) movement, Jiang has taken on sensitive political cases for over a decade. He was detained in late November 2016 on suspicion of divulging state secrets, among other charges; no charges have been formally filed to date. While in detention at an undisclosed location in March, Jiang was apparently forced to confess to state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) that he helped fabricate Xie Yang’s account of torture. Jiang remains in custody.
  • Chen Jiangang: Chen, one of Xie’s defense lawyers, took detailed notes in January in a meeting which Xie during which the detainee described the torture he had been subjected to. Chen later transcribed the account and published it online. When state media produced Jiang’s confession and other items labeling the torture allegations “fake news,” Chen gave interviews with foreign media, made video statements attesting to their veracity, and raised pointed questions about the official account. On May 3, Chen was himself detained (along with his wife, two children, and two friends) while visiting Yunnan Province, but was soon freed after nearly 100 fellow lawyers signed a statement urging his immediate release.
  • Li Heping: One of China’s first human rights lawyers, Li for years defended individuals deprived of their rights, including Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, petitioners, and others. He was taken into custody on July 10, 2015. On April 28 this year, Li was handed a suspended sentence after a secret trial. According to Reuters, the court said Li had “used the internet and foreign media to smear and attack state organs and the legal system,” among other supposed offenses. Ten days later, he was finally allowed to reunite with his family, though colleagues said he appeared gaunt and seemed to have aged considerably during his nearly two years in custody.

Another well-known lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was detained on August 3, 2015, and remains in custody on charges of “subversion of state power.”

Although Li Heping and Xie Yang faced abuse and dubious convictions, the fact that they were given suspended sentences rather than jail time is likely due to the high level of international pressure put on the Chinese government on their behalf. Their cases thus echo the December 2015 release of prominent attorney Pu Zhiqiang, also after a suspended sentence, and highlight the importance of international attention for those like Wang who are still in custody.

New rules tighten control over online news

On May 2, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) promulgated strict new rules for the licensing, surveillance, and operation of online news outlets. The regulations—titled “Internet News Information Service Management Regulations”—apply to reporting and commentary on news related to politics, the economy, military and foreign affairs, and “sudden social incidents.” They will come into effect on June 1. Overall, they appear aimed at making structural changes to the online sphere to more closely mimic the heavily controlled and state-owned traditional media sector.

The rules apply to a wide range of online information sources—including news websites, applications, forums, microblogs, livestreaming services, and public accounts on social media platforms. These entities will be required to obtain a license and meet certain conditions, such as being based in China, having a Chinese citizen as editor in chief, having specialized editorial personnel, and “having complete internet news information service management structures.” The rules also bar foreign capital from funding internet news agencies. Violators are subject to fines of up to 30,000 yuan ($4,350) and potential criminal prosecution.

In the past, many online information distribution channels, like public accounts on the WeChat messaging platform, were not as tightly regulated as traditional media. Some did not even exist when the previous version of the rules was promulgated in 2005. Major web portals such as Tencent, Sina, and NetEase have also traditionally been given greater flexibility than print and broadcast media to repackage and publish official news stories. Under the new regulations, such portals will now need to “clearly indicate the news information’s source, original author, original title, real name of the editor, etc.” Moreover, only outlets funded with state capital and staffed by government-accredited journalists will be allowed to engage in newsgathering activities.

The regulations are also significant for explicitly bringing online news, information dissemination, and related law enforcement under the supervision of the CAC rather than the State Council Information Office. The CAC is supervised by a Communist Party leading group headed by President Xi Jinping himself. David Bandurski of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University notes that the rules put the agency at the heart of “defending the political and ideological line” in China.

The news management rules are part of a larger package of regulations linked to the new Cybersecurity Law, which is scheduled to take effect on June 1. They come on the heels of several other laws and restrictions on online content issued over the past year, including, since January, a “clean-up campaign” aimed at domestic VPNs (virtual private networks) that are used to circumvent China’s internet filtering.

Netizen conversations: Student death, anticorruption show, Great Firewall game

● Media cover-up on boy’s death leads to protests, online outcry: After the suspicious death of 14-year-old student Zhao Xin in Luzhou, Sichuan Province, on April 1, angry crowds gathered to protest what they alleged was police negligence and a cover-up. The police said they ruled out homicide, but locals claim that the boy was likely beaten to death by bullies, specifically classmates who are the children of politically connected Communist Party figures. As video clips of Zhao’s severely bruised body spread online, local authorities issued a censorship directive on April 2 requiring all websites to “immediately delete information related to the death” and stating that “only official reports may be published.” Netizens were furious with the secrecy surrounding the case and attributed the protests to the information blockade as much as to the death itself. “The mass protests in Luzhou are not because of the death,” wrote Sina Weibo user @Zhoupenglaoshi, “but because of your approach to handling the case, joining forces with the school to cover it up.”

● New television show promotes Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign: The popular television program In the Name of the People, which debuted on March 28 on Hunan TV, has put a new face on China’s anticorruption campaign. The series was funded by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and is the first drama series since 2004 to feature Communist Party corruption as one of its central themes. Within a week, the show’s online versions had racked up 500 million views. The program highlights the work of anticorruption investigators unraveling a realistic network of political deal-making, treachery, and embezzlement in the fictional city of Jingzhou. The drama delves deeply into topics that are often off-limits to Chinese entertainment programs: officials amassing vast sums of cash, corrupt party chiefs fleeing for the United States, and the murky ties between political power and private wealth in China. But it does so in a way that appears to reinforce justifications for one-party rule, as long as the right people are in charge. Still, the character who has become the show’s most popular is Li Dakang, an earnest but flawed party chief seeking economic growth at any cost, rather than the officials leading the party’s antigraft efforts. Online shops have opened to sell various paraphernalia associated with the Li character.

● Game invites viewers to smash the Great Firewall: Shoot-’em-ups have long been a popular video game genre in China, but for the first time users will now have the opportunity to destroy China’s famous internet firewall—symbolically, of course. A forthcoming game, called simply The_Wall, features a protagonist who charges through corridors with a gun, shooting guards and breaking through walls and padlocks to liberate websites like “” and “” The game trailer, in English and Chinese, proffers the challenge: “If you were born inside The Wall, will you be docile enough to accept its protection? Or would you like to break the wall?” Images from the game show a line of slaves being led around by bosses, before one of them breaks free. The game appears to have been produced by Chinese developers under the name ZuoBuLai Game Studios. It has yet to be released, but its trailer posted on Steam, a gaming platform with 15 million users in China, quickly received over a hundred comments from Chinese netizens, many of them supporting the concept.

HONG KONG: Pressure on dissent increases amid press freedom decline

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s former chief secretary for administration, was chosen as the new chief executive of the semi-autonomous region by a limited electoral committee on March 26, despite trailing another candidate, former finance chief John Tsang, by up to 20 percentage points in public opinion polls.

Lam will take office July 1, a day that marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to the People’s Republic of China, as well as Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first visit to the territory since assuming leadership of the Communist Party in November 2012. In the run-up to these high-profile events, Hong Kong authorities have taken several unprecedented steps that suppress dissent, including:

  • the denial of permission for a coalition of prodemocracy activists to hold their annual rally in Victoria Park in July, as is customary, and a decision to grant a pro-Beijing group access to the park instead;
  • the arrest of nine prodemocracy activists and legislators for a protest on November 6, in which thousands took to the streets to register their discontent with a bid to disqualify two lawmakers who supported Hong Kong independence;
  • the arrest of Cheng Chung-tai, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, after he inverted the flags of China and Hong Kong in the council chamber on October 19.

These incidents come in the context of a broader decline in media freedom in Hong Kong. On April 28, Freedom House published the 2017 edition of its annual Freedom of the Press report, in which Hong Kong’s score declined by three points and its global ranking fell from 76 to 80 out of 199 countries and territories assessed. The decline was due to increased mainland interference in local media as well as multiple attacks on journalists during demonstrations.

Free expression and democracy advocates have sought to push back against the growing controls. On May 5, three prominent Hong Kongers—former Legislative Council member Martin Lee, student activist Joshua Wong, and bookseller Lam Wing-kee—testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Lam, who was held in China from October 2015 to June 2016, told reporters the day after the hearing that he plans to reopen his business in Taiwan later this year. He described the project as “a symbol of resistance.” The same ethos is animating a museum commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In April, the organization behind the museum reopened in a new Hong Kong venue, this time in a residential area, after it was forced to close its previous downtown location last summer. Pressure from the Chinese authorities on the building owner, while not proven, had been widely suspected.

BEYOND CHINA: Confucius Institutes, Netflix market entry, Chinese global media influence

  • New U.S. report highlights problems at Confucius Institutes: On April 26, the U.S. National Association of Scholars published a new report on China’s Confucius Institutes, concluding that they are a “trojan horse” for the Communist Party’s political influence. The report, which includes detailed case studies of 13 institutes in New York and New Jersey, is the most comprehensive examination of the subject to date. While the institutes are on the surface a means of cultural diplomacy, providing Chinese-language courses and other educational programs, report author Rachelle Peterson argues that their goal is actually to “subvert American higher education.” According to the study, Confucius Institutes take advantage of the financial need of foreign universities, placing their own staff and curriculums on campus while restricting academic freedom, obstructing transparency, encouraging self-censorship, and engaging in discriminatory hiring practices.
  • Outspoken tycoon faces obstacles when airing grievances in exile: Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire now living in exile, recently made the unusual decision to go public with criticism of sitting Communist Party officials, accusing many of corruption. He has encountered a number of obstacles when sharing his views: His Facebook and Twitter accounts were briefly suspended, and a live interview with Voice of America’s Chinese service was unexpectedly terminated mid-broadcast. Guo made his money in real estate with help from one of China’s top domestic intelligence officials, Ma Jian, who in turn received hefty kickbacks. Guo’s allegations of corruption at the highest levels of the regime, including accusations against antigraft chief and Xi Jinping ally Wang Qishan, have so far proven impossible to verify. Guo’s bombastic attitude and flaunting of wealth on social media also raise questions about his credibility and agenda. Nevertheless, the unusual episode at Voice of America (several senior staff members were suspended after the interview with Guo) has fueled concerns about the extent of Beijing’s reach abroad.
  • Netflix finds way into China, plans release of Joshua Wong documentary: On April 26, the U.S.-based video streaming company Netflix announced a deal allowing Chinese counterpart iQiyi to offer Netflix content to its 20 million subscribers in China. Meanwhile, Netflix is also following through with the planned release of a documentary about young Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong—Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower—on May 26, though iQiyi is unlikely to pass such a politically sensitive video along to its Chinese viewers. Netflix bought the film’s global rights after its preview at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The company had previously attempted to penetrate the Chinese market on its own, but was stymied by the country’s thicket of regulations and content controls.
  • Apple removes media app from stores in China, Taiwan: In April, Apple removed from its Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China app stores the satirical news program China Uncensored, produced by the New York–based New Tang Dynasty Television. Following pressure from Reporters Without Borders and internet petitions, access to the application was reportedly restored in early May—at least for Hong Kong and Taiwanese users. Both decisions were made behind closed doors, with no explanation from Apple. The U.S. technology giant has previously made concessions to Chinese censors regarding its app store offerings as the price of doing business in the country, but this marked the first ban that extended to Hong Kong and Taiwan. The company continues to face Chinese government pressure over other apps that are still available to users in China. On April 19, Xinhua reported that officials from three Chinese government agencies planned to summon Apple executives about live-streaming video software that could be used to bypass China’s internet firewall.
  • U.S. commission hears testimony on China’s expanding global media influence: The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing on May 4 about China’s expanding information controls, global media influence, and cyberwarfare strategy. The second session featured Dan Southerland, formerly of Radio Free Asia; Shanthi Kalathil, with the National Endowment for Democracy; and Freedom House’s Sarah Cook. Cook’s testimony offered details on the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to establish dominance over Chinese-language television programming in the United States, as well as the financial and editorial impact of its influence operations on major American media outlets. She outlined various “carrot and stick” tactics employed by Chinese authorities and recommended measures that U.S. officials could adopt in response.


Zhang, a Han Chinese resident of Urumqi, was detained on June 26, 2015. On January 15, 2016, a court in Xinjiang sentenced him to 19 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and “providing intelligence to overseas entities.” The sentence was especially harsh considering that the activities cited in the verdict entailed relatively minor acts of free expression. Specifically, the verdict cited 69 WeChat posts and 209 Twitter messages (including retweets) that were critical of the Chinese Communist Party and its policies, including in Xinjiang. The decision also cited a few interviews Zhang had given to overseas news services like Radio Free Asia, relaying accounts of the heavy security presence on the streets of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. The court also claimed that he had registered to be a reporter for the U.S.-based citizen journalism website Boxun and had shared photos of security forces. All of the examples appear to have been expressions of views or sharing of easily accessible public information. Nevertheless, in December 2016, the full 19-year sentence was upheld on appeal.

The timing of Zhang’s imprisonment has been especially difficult for his family. His son was born when Zhang was already in detention and was only one month old when his father was sentenced. Last month, the U.S.-based website published a detailed account by his wife describing the experience of traveling from Henan to visit him at Xinjiang’s Shaya Prison. She reported that he had lost weight, but that leg shackles he had previously been restrained with were removed and he appeared in relatively good spirits.


Internet rules implementation: As the Cybersecurity Law and related regulations come into effect June 1, watch for how systematically they are enforced, instances of expanded online censorship and surveillance, and how the Chinese authorities interpret some of the vaguely worded provisions.

Tiananmen massacre anniversary: June 4, 2017 will mark 28 years since soldiers fired on peaceful demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and surrounding areas. In past years, the sensitive date has been the focus of particularly tight censorship, testing of new online control methods, and detention of citizens commemorating the anniversary, even in private. Watch for similar clampdowns this year, particularly given the generally tense political atmosphere.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong: When former Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Hong Kong in 2012 to swear in Leung Chun-ying as chief executive on the 15th anniversary of the territory’s return to China, tens of thousands of people participated in protests, security was tight, and police detained several demonstrators and a journalist. In the context of even greater mainland–Hong Kong tensions today, Xi Jinping’s July visit is likely to be more fraught. Watch for additional restrictions on basic freedoms before and during the visit, akin to the recent denial of permission for prodemocracy groups’ annual July 1 rally in Victoria Park.


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  • Access uncensored content: Find an overview comparing popular circumvention tools and information on how to access them via, here or here.
  • Support a prisoner: Four Chinese activists and one Taiwanese man held in China for exercising their right to free expression are the focus of Amnesty International letter-writing campaigns. Details on adding your voice can be found here and here.