Party Congress censorship, VPN crackdown, surveillance upgrades | China Media Bulletin

China Media Bulletin: Party Congress censorship, VPN crackdown, surveillance upgrades (No. 121)

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

rebel pepper hong kong cartoon
Photo of the Month: 

Jailed Umbrella holders: This cartoon, by artist Rebel Pepper, represents the August 17 sentencing of Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong—ages 26, 24, and 20—to seven, eight, and six months in jail, respectively. The three led Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” a series of prodemocracy demonstrations that came to be symbolized by yellow umbrellas. The jail sentences were condemned internationally for their questionable legality and apparent political motivations, while galvanizing protests by the trio’s supporters in Hong Kong. Credit: Radio Free Asia.


FEATURE: China’s Information Controls Reach New Extremes ahead of Party Congress 

A month riddled with perilous anniversaries offers a showcase for upgraded internet controls. 

By Sarah Cook

Next month, Chinese leaders will gather in Beijing for one of the most important meetings on the political calendar: the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). New members of the country’s most important decision-making body—the Politburo Standing Committee—will be announced, including a possible candidate to replace party leader Xi Jinping in 2022. Absent such an appointment, speculation on Xi’s desire to depart from precedent and seek a third term will be rife.

Any assembly of top Chinese officials inevitably triggers increased information controls, but as this especially important summit approaches, a whole new level of restrictions are being rolled out, generating additional danger for those who share taboo information, expose rights abuses, or post unfavorable comments.

For the past several months, a plethora of local government websites have noted the importance of the 19th Party Congress, calling it the “main line throughout the year” for the security apparatus. Various meetings and visits by security and internet management officials have taken place since July to prepare for the event and ensure “a secure and stable social environment.”

And although the congress itself will take place in Beijing, controls are being imposed nationwide, both online and off. Efforts to monitor internet networks, petitioners, members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, and other potential sources of political dissent or human rights activism are being undertaken as far afield as Xinjiang, Jilin, Guizhou, and Sichuan.

Among other new measures, the authorities have removed virtual private networks (VPNs) from online mobile application stores to limit access to uncensored content, investigated major social media platforms’ performance in censoring undesirable comments, and renewed efforts to impose real-name registration for internet users by October 1.

On August 3, the Ministry of Public Security presided over a nationwide drill by internet data centers and cloud services that was meant to “step up online security for the 19th Party Congress.” Data centers were reportedly ordered to practice rapidly shutting down websites that carried harmful information and reporting their owners to the police. Although the ministry did not make the drill public, several service providers notified their customers of potential disruptions, and media reports indicate that certain companies’ sites were indeed temporarily shuttered.

Last week, on September 7, the Cyber Administration of China published a new set of regulations for “internet group information service management” that would take effect on October 8. The rules emphasize the responsibility of group managers and service providers on platforms like Tencent’s WeChat to enforce official content restrictions and report violators to “the relevant authorities.” Those who fail to comply with the regulations risk punishment themselves. Even without these new rules, a man in Yunnan was sentenced in mid-August to five days of administrative detention after posting a comment on WeChat mocking Xi Jinping.

In the offline sphere, various activists, lawyers, and others who typically face restrictions around high-profile political events are already feeling the pressure, though harassment and tight surveillance are a permanent state of affairs for many Chinese dissidents. Several activists have reported difficulties traveling to Hong Kong, including Wu Rongrong, a prominent feminist who was scheduled to begin a master’s degree program at Hong Kong University on September 1. More disconcerting is the August 13 disappearance of human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, who has been severely tortured during past detentions.

As the congress approaches, dissenting voices are also likely to be “sent on holiday” outside Beijing. Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo told Radio Free Asia in late August that state security agents had already begun “asking me where I want to go on vacation during the 19th Party Congress.” Those recently tried on politically motivated charges, like blogger Wu Gan and attorney Jiang Tianyong, may have their prison sentences announced before the congress begins.

But it is the new potential for large numbers of ordinary internet users and website owners to face targeted censorship, arrest, and criminal prosecution that sets this year’s preparations apart from past congresses. The legal, technological, and administrative tools at the CCP’s disposal in 2017 are significantly more powerful than in 2012, the year of the last leadership rotation. These tools will survive long after the event concludes.

The authorities’ extreme efforts to ensure a well-choreographed leadership shuffle are emblematic of the regime’s insecurities and the remarkable isolation of its authoritarian leadership: As the country undergoes one of the most significant political events in its recent history, the vast majority of Chinese citizens are not only being shut out of the conversation, but also risk severe punishment should they even try to take part from afar.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. Cheryl Hsin-Ju Yu provided research assistance for this article. A version of this article was published in the Washington Post on September 14, 2017.  

Chinese government takes new steps to close gaps in online censorship

The Chinese government is seeking to close remaining loopholes in its internet censorship apparatus by implementing the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, which came into effect June 1, through a series of regulatory guidelines, investigations, and disruptions to major internet services.

  • VPN crackdown: On July 29, Apple quietly removed dozens of virtual private network (VPN) applications from its online store in China. The company issued a brief statement to TechCrunch explaining that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) required it “to remove some VPN apps in China that do not meet the new regulations.” Apple was criticized internationally for bowing to pressure from Beijing without trying to push back against the request, as it has done in some other countries. In August, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) also ordered five domestic websites, including the e-commerce heavyweight Alibaba’s Taobao, to remove illegal VPNs from their stores. Luxury hotels, like the Waldorf Astoria in Beijing, have reportedly stopped offering VPN services amid the clampdown. In January, the MIIT announced a 14-month sweep of unauthorized connections that may significantly curtail VPN service, especially for ordinary Chinese users.
  • Social media platform investigation: On August 11, the CAC announced that it was investigating three major social media platforms for violations of the new Cybersecurity Law. WeChat, Weibo, and Baidu Tieba are accused of hosting “information shared by users that harms national security, public safety and social order,” including posts related to rumors, pornography, and violence. The CAC claims that these violations came to its attention through user reports, and is encouraging more reporting by offering a 24-hour hotline. Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, notes that by targeting the country’s biggest players, the CAC sent a message to smaller companies that “they too should take the new Cybersecurity Law seriously.”
  • WhatsApp blackout: WhatsApp service in China was totally disrupted on July 18. Service was partially restored the next day and seems to have completely bounced back since then, but analysts suspect that the disruption was in part a ploy to move users to WeChat, where their messages and activity can be monitored and censored. WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, features end-to-end encryption.

Surveillance updates: Real-name registration, Xinjiang spyware, facial recognition 

  • Real-name registration: On August 25, the Cyber Administration of China (CAC) announced new regulations—to take effect October 1—that will require real-name registration (RNR) to comment online. Users may be obliged to scan their identity cards. The CAC will also require RNR on BBS forums. The central government has struggled for years to enforce RNR, but the new regulations have the backing of the Cybersecurity Law adopted in 2016.
  • Xinjiang spyware: Xinjiang residents learned on July 10 that they had 10 days to install the surveillance app Jingwang (“Clean Net”) on their phones. Residents stopped at checkpoints who do not have Jingwang may be detained for up to 10 days. By July 17, photos were already circulating on Twitter of police at checkpoints in Xinjiang verifying whether the app had been installed. The authorities claim that the spyware is part of its antiterrorism campaign, but detentions based on monitored conversations began almost immediately. Radio Free Asia reported on July 13 that 10 ethnic Kazakh women in the same WeChat group were detained for discussing emigration to Kazakhstan soon after installing the app.
  • Facial recognition: Airline passengers in Nanyang, Henan Province, can now scan their faces instead of their boarding passes. The facial recognition software, provided by Baidu, is expected to be rolled out in airports across the country. In Hangzhou, a new restaurant affiliated with the KFC brand is debuting the world’s first “Smile to Pay” service, and in Shenzhen, video screens above a street announce that “jaywalkers will be captured using facial-recognition technology.” With hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras installed throughout China, the government plans to use facial recognition to build an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” system to monitor its citizens, according to a 2015 Ministry of Public Security document.

Netizens remember Liu Xiaobo amid censorship at home, propaganda abroad 

Democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died of complications from late-stage liver cancer on July 13. He had been serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” since 2009. Though he was granted medical parole on June 26, his communications had remained restricted.

The censorship apparatus went into overdrive following Liu’s death, attempting to limit the spread the news itself as well as photos of Liu, excerpts of his writings, and remembrances by others. China Digital Times detected the blocking of eight relevant search terms on Sina Weibo, as well as six keywords that could not be posted, such as “I have no enemies,” “candle,” and “RIP.” The candle emoji was also disabled. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab reported that keywords and images related to Liu were blocked not only from WeChat Moments (news feeds), but also from group chats and one-on-one messages within the WeChat platform. Citizen Lab had never before detected the blocking of images from private WeChat messages, indicating a new level of censorship.

Meanwhile, state media targeted foreign audiences with propaganda on Liu, placing it on social media platforms that are blocked in China, including Twitter and YouTube. There was barely any coverage by domestic-facing media: The Shenyang Judicial Bureau released a terse statement on its website, while China Central Television’s CCTV-1 aired a propaganda segment. By contrast, coverage of Liu’s death and hasty burial at sea proliferated in the English edition of Global Times, and CGTN America, CCTV’s  U.S.-based division, tweeted the news of Liu’s death. Liu’s brother, Liu Xiaoguang, appeared on Hong Kong television thanking the Chinese Communist Party for the medical treatment it had provided, and for the funeral it arranged two days after Liu’s death.

On August 18, as Beijing faced growing international pressure to reveal the whereabouts of Liu’s widow, Liu Xia, a video of her surfaced on YouTube. In the clip, she says she is “taking a rest in another place” and asks people to leave her alone to grieve, though close friends said the statement appeared coerced. She had been under extralegal house arrest since 2010, but was allowed to travel for her husband’s medical parole and funeral. Hong Kong activist Frank Lu Siqing spoke with Liu Xia by phone on September 2, reporting that she was back in Beijing, but still extremely depressed and distraught. She apparently remained under house arrest.

Despite official efforts to suppress discussion, Chinese netizens and activists continued to mourn Liu and call for the release of his wife. Many interpreted a storm in Beijing on July 13 as a poetic metaphor. Offline, two men were criminally detained in Guangzhou for collecting poetry eulogizing Liu for an anthology. Outside observers speculated that Liu was buried at sea to prevent supporters from visiting a grave, “but in fact the whole sea has become a place where we can be close to him,” said Beijing activist Hu Jia. Mourners in Guangzhou and Fujian were detained after holding seaside memorials, while people around the world placed empty chairs on beaches, alluding to Liu’s empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony. Hong Kong was alone among cities in China to allow public memorials for Liu, including one attended by an estimated 1,500 people.

Although foreign governments’ admonishments of Beijing for Liu’s treatment remained relatively feeble, the grassroots response to his death and continued agitation for Liu Xia’s release speak to the enduring memory of a man whom the state has sought to erase from public consciousness.

HONG KONG: Reporter in court, BBC news replaced, typhoon restrictions 

On August 17, a Hong Kong judge meted out jail sentences to Joshua Wong and two other prodemocracy Umbrella Movement leaders in a decision that was widely seen as undermining the rule of law and civil liberties in the territory. But this high-profile case is just one of several recent developments that threaten freedom of expression in Hong Kong. The following incidents match broader trends documented in the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s annual report, published in July under the title Two Systems Under Siege.

  • Intern reporter charged with contempt: Mak Ying-sheung, a former intern for the independent online news outlet In-Media, appeared in court on August 10 to defend herself against charges that she failed to follow orders to disperse at a protest in Mong Kok in November 2014. Her press credentials were still being processed at the time, and she was detained while stopping to help Joshua Wong to his feet after he fell in front of her. At the trial, the prosecutor played footage of someone chanting slogans at the scene, claiming it was Mak. She denied this. She was also asked if “In-Media” stood for “independent Hong Kong media,” implying support for Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China. Mak explained that “independent” referred to the media organization itself. The Committee to Protect Journalists called the case against Mak “legal harassment” and asked prosecutors to drop all charges.
  • BBC radio broadcasts replaced with Chinese state media: On September 4, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) replaced its 24-hour broadcasts of the BBC World Service on Radio 6 (AM 675) with China National Radio’s Hong Kong edition, which is mostly in Mandarin. The BBC had been continuously broadcast by RTHK since 1978. Its World Service will now be relayed only from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Radio 4, an FM channel. A spokesperson for RTHK, which is run by the Hong Kong government, said the move was meant to “enhance the cultural exchange between the mainland and Hong Kong.” But PEN Hong Kong expressed concern that the change would “impose on Hong Kong propaganda disguised as journalism.”
  • Media restrictions imposed in typhoon aftermath: On August 26, four Hong Kong journalists were denied entry at the border of neighboring Macau—also a special administrative region of China—where they intended to report on the Typhoon Hato clean-up effort. The border agents asked them to sign a notice declaring that they “posed a risk to the stability of internal security” under Macau’s Internal Security Law. Other Hong Kong journalists have reportedly been denied entry in recent years. Local and international press freedom groups—including the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, and the Macau Portuguese and English Press Association—issued statements questioning the latest incident. Meanwhile, at least five Macanese media organizations attempted to shape coverage of the typhoon’s aftermath, instructing their staff to “report more on good people and good deeds, actively spread positive energy throughout society, and decrease [reports] holding the government, especially the highest officials, accountable.” The orders echoed Chinese president Xi Jinping’s push for “positive energy” in the Chinese press and were reminiscent of propaganda directives relayed regularly to mainland media.

BEYOND CHINA:  Academic self-censorship, Italy holds Uighur activist, California rights resolution 

  • Cambridge University Press briefly bows to censorship: On August 18, Cambridge University Press (CUP), the world’s oldest publishing house, complied with a Chinese government directive to take down 315 articles from the China Quarterly, a premier journal in China studies, on its China website. Facing outrage from the international academic community, CUP reversed the move on August 21, but the episode drew attention to Beijing’s broader campaign against academic freedom at home and abroad. Tim Pringle, editor of China Quarterly, said CUP made its decision without consent from the journal. The Journal of Asian Studies, also published by CUP, received a similar request to censor 94 articles and book reviews, but refused to comply. A third CUP publication, the American Political Science Review, was reportedly asked to censor 27 book reviews. In all of these cases, the targeted content was typically related to Tibet, the Cultural Revolution, Xinjiang, Falun Gong, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, but the selection of articles seemed slapdash, apparently driven by sensitive keywords in the titles, and ignored other works that might be at least as politically sensitive.
  • Wanda steps back from Hollywood ventures: The real estate and media mogul Wang Jianlin had plans to conquer the global film industry. But his company, Dalian Wanda Group, announced in July that it would sell its Qingdao Movie Metropolis, worth $7.3 billion. Opened in 2013 with various Hollywood stars in attendance, the studio complex remains unfinished and has failed to attract either American or Chinese producers. The sell-off suggests that Wanda is losing its foothold in Hollywood after a years-long U.S. buying spree that included the AMC cinema chain and the production company Legendary Entertainment. Wang’s business empire has recently come under greater scrutiny from the central government for its debt-driven overseas investments, and its much-hyped film The Great Wall, whose international cast included Matt Damon, was a pricey flop at U.S. box offices earlier this year.
  • Chinese students confront Australian lecturers over sovereignty issues: Australia’s institutions of higher education have experienced several expressions of political outrage from Chinese students this year, including two in August over perceived affronts to Chinese sovereignty. In the first episode, Chinese students at the University of Sydney took to social media when a lecturer used a map that showed certain territories claimed by China as parts of India. The story was posted to the public WeChat account of the Sydney International Students Mutual Aid Society under the title “Rage! Indian Instructor at Sydney University Puts Map of ‘Divided China’ into PowerPoint! Please Replace Him Immediately. Totally Unacceptable!” The university issued an apology on the lecturer’s behalf. Days later, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle was targeted for using a Transparency International report that listed China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as separate entities. The students secretly recorded a meeting with the instructor in which they said, “Chinese students are one third of this classroom. You make us feel uncomfortable.” The lecturer responded, “If you feel offended about it, that is your opinion.” The video was posted to YouTube by the Chinese-language Sydney Today. Newcastle has defended the lecturer and expressed disappointment at the way the students handled the situation. Australian experts noted that some Chinese students fear being reported to embassy authorities by their compatriots if they voice dissenting opinions, and that many Chinese students’ failure to integrate with non-Chinese peers is exploited by Beijing to strengthen its ideological influence.
  • Italian police detain Uighur activist: On July 26, Dolkun Isa, secretary general of the World Uyghur Congress, was stopped by police on his way to the Italian Senate, where he was to speak at a press conference co-organized by the Italian Nonviolent Radical Party and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Isa, a naturalized German citizen, was released more than four hours later, after Italian police had fingerprinted and photographed him and examined his documents. When Isa asked the officers why he had been detained, they told him it was in response to a request from China. Beijing has issued an Interpol red notice (not an international arrest warrant) on Isa, though it has never stated what crimes he is suspected of.
  • FBI arrests Chinese national for cyberattacks: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Chinese citizen Yu Pingan at Los Angeles International Airport on August 24. Yu and two alleged co-conspirators in China were charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with hacking into the networks of at least three unnamed U.S. companies. The trio reportedly deployed Sakula, the same malicious software used in 2015 to hack into the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management and obtain data from millions of U.S. citizens’ security clearance forms. If Yu is found to be working on behalf of the Chinese government, his actions would be a violation of a 2015 agreement between Chinese president Xi Jinping and former U.S. president Barack Obama not to hack each other’s companibes in search of intellectual property or other commercial advantages.
  • Chinese consulate pressure stops vote on California human rights resolution: On August 29, the judiciary committee of California’s state senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual group. Two days later, various state senators and assembly members spoke out in support of the resolution and those suffering in China. But on September 1, the state senate unexpectedly voted to return SJR 10 to the rules committee, blocking it from coming up for a floor vote. The delay appears related to a series of letters sent by the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to members of the state legislature. According to media reports, the letters argued that passage of the resolution “may deeply damage the cooperative relations between the state of California and China” and “sabotage the friendship … between California and China,” an indirect reference to the strong economic ties between the state and China, which include trade, tourism, and large numbers of Chinese students at state universities.


Lu, a former migrant worker who became a citizen journalist, was detained in June 2016 in Yunnan Province along with his girlfriend, Li Tingyu. The pair had worked together to document, collate, and share reports of strikes and protests throughout China. On August 3, Lu was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” through his work. Li was tried in April and subsequently released from custody. The content of the two verdicts has not yet been published.

The scale of the couple’s efforts to find, track, and republish accounts and photos of incidents of unrest is impressive, and required the development of a detailed methodology for identifying and capturing such content before censors deleted it. In 2015, they collected data on an estimated 30,000 demonstrations related to land grabs, labor strikes, and environmental protests. They shared the information on blogs and social media platforms inside and outside China, including under the Twitter handle @Wickedonna and via a Tumblr account that is one of the few remaining traces of their work. Their documentation was used widely by journalists, researchers, and activists, particularly because the government no longer reports its own statistics on “mass incidents.” It earned them a 2016 press freedom award from Reporters Without Borders for citizen journalism.

Lu’s sentencing stands out as unusual because his work focused on documentation rather that activism or protest organizing—forms of dissent that are more typically punished as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Yet it comes at a time when online censorship has increased and controls on academic freedom are intensifying.

Lu remains in custody in Dali City, Yunnan Province, where he has told lawyers that he experienced beatings and sleep deprivation. His attorneys report that he has appealed his sentence.


More censorship, detentions ahead of party congress: Despite already tightening internet and media controls, restrictions on free expression are very likely to intensify ahead of the 19th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on October 18. Based on past high-profile events, watch for directives instructing media to avoid reporting on a range of topics (including public health threats), detentions or removals from Beijing of prominent activists, and deployment of new censorship tools, including targeted shutdowns of smaller websites or WeChat groups that are found to be sharing politically sensitive information.

Facebook’s latest efforts to enter China market: Facebook, one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, has been blocked in China since 2009. But the firm and its founder have been reaching out to Chinese regulators in recent years, trying to find a way to access the country’s 600 million internet users. Last month, Facebook released a new photo-sharing app called Colorful Balloons in China, but it did so through a local company and without the Facebook brand. On September 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had hired a former Chinese official and executive at LinkedIn (which complies with Chinese government censorship demands) to manage its relations with Beijing. Watch for how the new app performs, especially given recent disruptions to Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and for any other new China-specific initiatives the company may be planning to roll out.

Punishment of Hong Kong activists under new national anthem law: On September 1, a new law was adopted that penalizes disrespectful references to China’s national anthem with 15 days in detention. Given past punishments for prodemocracy legislators in Hong Kong who mocked national symbols, and vows from Hong Kong soccer fans to defy the new legislation, watch for arrests or prosecutions of Hong Kong residents.


  • Share the China Media Bulletin: Help friends and colleagues better understand China’s changing media and censorship landscape.
  • Access uncensored content: Find an overview comparing popular circumvention tools and information on how to access them via, here or here.
  • Support a prisoner: Two Chinese website founders, a poet, and a Taiwanese nongovernmental organization worker being held in China for exercising their right to free expression are the focus of international letter-writing campaigns. Visit the relevant link to add your voice on behalf of Huang Qi, Liu Feiyue, Wu Mingliang, or Lee Ming-Cheh. For those in Hong Kong, a petition asking for the return of 24-hour BBC World Service broadcasts is open for signatures.