China Media Bulletin: Social credit incentives, elite jailings, #MeTooUyghur (No. 133) | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin: Social credit incentives, elite jailings, #MeTooUyghur (No. 133)

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

Photo of the Month: 

Prize Painting
This seemingly innocuous image of a Chinese painting was shared 990 times within three hours on Sina Weibo before being deleted by censors. Posted on February 14 by television celebrity host Cui Yongyuan to over 20 million followers, the trigger for the deletion appears to be Cui's offering it as a prize to the winner of an essay contest critical of state-run China Southern Airlines. Cui has accused the airline of leaking his personal information launched the contest to pressure the airline to improve data protections, but censors were wary of an online discussion by customers and employees of problems at the state-run firm. Credit: Weiboscope


ANALYSIS: How the Chinese Communist Party Is Incentivizing Repression

The party’s “social credit” scoring systems may be dressed up like games, but the results can be deadly serious.

By Sarah Cook

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) moves forward with plans for a “social credit system” that would rate and impose consequences for citizens’ behavior, much reporting and commentary has focused on how such systems could undermine privacy, blacklist undeserving victims, and penalize the party’s critics.

But there is an even more disturbing dimension to the social credit phenomenon: The ways in which it may incentivize citizens to act as enforcers for the authoritarian party-state and help to repress their own compatriots. While the nationwide system is not yet in place, examples of similar incentives can be found in a variety of existing CCP policies and practices.

Propaganda prizes

One party-backed reward system that made headlines this month is a new mobile phone application meant to promote “Xi Jinping Thought” and other propaganda: “Study Xi, Strengthen China” (Xué Xí Qiáng Guó). Along with a steady stream of Xi quotes and state media reports, the app—which has already been downloaded tens of millions of times—incorporates quizzes and other opportunities for users to earn “Xi study points” that can be cashed in for real-world prizes. Importantly, one accumulates points not only for consuming information, but also for sharing articles with friends.

This is not the only example of such digital incentives, nor are they limited to users inside China. An app offered by the English-language state newspaper China Daily via Apple’s US-based iTunes store also offers users points for reading, liking, and sharing articles, and the points can be converted into virtual coins and used to make purchases from an online store.

At first glance, such user engagement may seem relatively harmless. But sharing Chinese state media content can mean promoting the coerced confessions of lawyers and journalists, or the whitewashing of mass detention policies in Xinjiang. Warping the information environment can do real-world damage.

Rewarding acts of repression against minorities

Various pilot schemes and disparate systems related to the development of a national social credit mechanism include elements that effectively encourage the repression of religious and ethnic minorities. For instance, an investigation by Nectar Gan published in the South China Morning Post on February 19 details how information is collected and points are allotted in the city of Rongcheng in Shandong Province. In one case, 10 points were granted to a couple “who have a son serving in the army in Tibet,” where Chinese security forces enforce onerous constraints on the fundamental rights of ethnic Tibetans.

In another example from the same town, as reported by Foreign Policy in April 2018, those who receive a “city-level award” can earn 30 points. While the article states that such awards can be gained “for committing a heroic act,” they have also been offered to officials who loyally repress the rights of local residents. An official 2014 document from Hefei in Anhui Province, for instance, states that street-level officials were granted an award established by the city because of the effectiveness of their efforts to force local Falun Gong practitioners to “transform,” a euphemism for coercing people to renounce their beliefs, typically with the use of physical and psychological violence.

In Rongcheng, material rewards for high scores include the ability to rent bikes without a deposit, discounts on heating, and eligibility for bank loans. But incentives also exist outside of the nascent social credit system. A comprehensive 2017 Freedom House study on religion in China found that across various faiths, “monetary incentives play a direct role in the enforcement of restrictions on religious practice,” and that “within the party-state system, promotions and bonuses are available to officers who effectively crack down on targeted religious groups and behaviors.”

Expanding party evaluation schemes to the general public

In many ways, Beijing’s social credit plans are a digitized and expanded version of the elaborate performance evaluation system that has shaped the careers of government officials and party cadres throughout the post-Mao era.

That system’s scoring tables and prioritized target categories play a crucial role in encouraging violations of human rights. For instance, one 2002 scoring table from Guangzhou, issued by the notorious 610 Office, a party-based security force leading the anti–Falun Gong campaign, provides the criteria for assessing each township and neighborhood in Tianhe District. It lists 28 indicators for point reductions, including failure to “formulate a reeducation program” or “establish a personal dossier” on local residents known to practice Falun Gong. The scorecard also lists three indicators for point gains, including five points for every local adherent successfully “transformed” and for each time an arrest prevented the dissemination of information sympathetic to Falun Gong.

With regard to target categories, the highest level are the “priority targets with veto power” (yipiao foujue, literally “one-ticket veto”). Failure on one such indicator automatically cancels out positive performance in other areas and can by itself result in a cadre being terminated or passed over for promotion. Based on a Freedom House examination in early 2014 of provincial and city-level documents, the main “veto power” areas designated by the central authorities under Xi Jinping’s leadership at the time were social stability management, population and family planning, and party discipline.

The influence of these evaluation practices on the planned social credit system is clear. Most accounts of pilot programs indicate the existence of scoring tables that include both demerits and rewards. Moreover, party standards and evaluation terminology have begun to appear in regulations governing social credit scores. A set of April 2018 guidelines from the Ministry of Finance relating to accountants, published on the Credit China website on February 20, 2019, lists Xi Jinping Thought as the ideology guiding the system. It also instructs implementation of a “one-ticket veto system” (yipiao foujue zhi) for untrustworthy accountants, while calling for the creation of a unified national credit information platform for the accounting profession.

Given these connections, it seems reasonable to expect that accountants could be punished not just for engaging in fraud or dishonesty, but also for practicing a persecuted religion, calling on officials to declare their assets, mocking the Communist Party in an online post, or petitioning higher authorities over a grievance.

Peer informants

Some existing incentive systems are quite explicit about encouraging private citizens to inform on one another.

In Xinjiang, monetary rewards are routinely offered to those who provide information to authorities about Uighurs’ religious practices. An April 2014 notice posted on a government website in Aksu Prefecture explained that informants could receive up to 50,000 yuan ($8,000) for reporting on local residents who engage in any of 53 kinds of proscribed behavior. The list included 18 acts related to religion, such as praying in a public place, holding the Islamic Nikah wedding ceremony, or fasting during Ramadan. In Tibet, officials have offered monetary rewards of up to 200,000 yuan ($31,500) for information on monks associated with a self-immolation or other acts of dissent.

In 2012, the Sina Weibo microblogging platform introduced its own credit system, initially Dubbed “Weibo Credit” and then replaced by “Sunshine Credit in 2016. One feature of the schemes is for users to report one another for activities ranging from harassment to the spreading of “untrue information.” Each negative report results in a lower score that can lead to a “low-credit user” badge or even the deletion of one’s account. A year after implementing the Weibo Credit system, Sina reported that more than 15 million reports of harmful information had been received; many were related to spam, but at least some likely involved politically sensitive posts. In October 2017, some users complained that the credit system was being abused to delete photos of women showing bare skin, even those that were clearly not pornographic. As one user explained it, “The reason why so many posts are reported is that each supervisor has been given a specific quota every month. They have to file at least 200 reports in exchange for the RMB 200 subsidy.”

In a more recent example, a Hebei court released a WeChat “map of deadbeat debtors” on January 14. According to China Daily, “users are given an on-screen radar, which allows them to discover if there is anyone who owes money within a 500 metre radius.” Individuals are then encouraged to tell authorities if they believe the person can afford to pay back what they owe.

Such peer evaluations are being incorporated into some social credit system pilots. In Rongcheng, a team of 10 municipal representatives are tasked with manually taking note of relevant actions and assigning appropriate scores to residents. Similarly in Qingzhen, a city in Guizhou Province, a list of 1,000 indicators are reportedly used to assign a point value to citizens, including some based on peer evaluations and community monitoring.

The combination of material rewards and repressive goals is likely to intensify the pressure on local administrators and ordinary citizens to report peaceful but nonconformist behavior by their neighbors. Last month, a petitioner from Rongcheng was docked 950 credit points after sending more than 1,000 online appeal letters related to a two-decade-old medical dispute involving his mother. Members of one residential community in the city face added penalties in their score assessments for illegally spreading religion.

It is also easy to see how people could be tempted to make false reports, perhaps as an act of personal revenge over some unrelated grudge. Ironically, it is these kinds of practices—reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution—that have so thoroughly undermined societal trust in China, the very problem that the social credit systems are presumably aimed at addressing.

Official morality versus personal conscience

To properly understand the Chinese government’s various efforts to promote “good” and deter “bad” behavior, one must place them within the often counterintuitive and inhumane logic of the authoritarian political system. This is a system in which large numbers of people seeking the betterment of their society—by peacefully exposing corrupt officials, revealing rights abuses, investigating health scandals, or defending religious freedom—have been harshly punished and imprisoned. Indeed, one of the central contradictions of the social credit experiment is that many of the most credit-worthy individuals in China (in the Confucian sense of the word) are those most likely to be penalized under the CCP’s distorted incentive system.

As these programs expand, Chinese users may want to think twice about what kinds of actions they are willing to perform in exchange for rewards. They should consider resisting behavior that violates fellow citizens’ rights or vilifies CCP victims, even if such resistance entails some personal risk. Earning points by doing community service, putting up a basketball hoop at the local playground, or caring for elderly parents can have clear societal benefits. The same cannot be said for informing on a neighbor who fasts during Ramadan, hands out information on the torture of Falun Gong adherents, or shares a joke at Xi Jinping’s expense. A truly moral society calls on its members to exercise their own judgement in distinguishing right from wrong, and to do right regardless of any short-term benefit. Virtue, after all, should be its own reward.  

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. This article was also published by the Hong Kong Free Press on February 27, 2019.

[Photo caption: Screenshot of the new “Study Xi, Strengthen China” mobile phone application. Credit: What’s on Weibo]

Party propaganda, modern and traditional, achieves mixed results

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda efforts have gained significant momentum. On the one hand, Xi is personally promoted with slogans reminiscent of the Mao era that often appear on billboards and other traditional platforms. On the other hand, following instructions from Xi himself, state media and other party entities are continually exploring ways to make the CCP’s messaging accessible and engaging for younger, more digitally oriented audiences. The results have been uneven at best.

  • CCTV Spring Gala: The annual Spring Festival Gala program on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) has aired on the eve of Chinese New Year since 1983. While it remains a national tradition and the most-watched television show in the world, ratings have slumped in the past few years. This year’s edition, broadcast on February 5, was hailed as a massive success by CCTV and other domestic media, but a survey of unfavorable online reactions by Jiayun Feng at SupChina led her to voice skepticism about the official claims. Feng noted that while criticism of the gala was banned online last year, along with a list of sensitive social media search terms, the restrictions seem less tight this time around. Among netizens’ complaints was the fact that actor Wu Xiubo, one of the planned hosts of the event, was awkwardly edited out after appearing in prerecorded footage, as he had been discredited by a series of extramarital affairs that came to light in late January. Netizens were also disgruntled to learn that, for the first time, the gala would not feature a crosstalk sketch by comic Feng Gong, reportedly because his segment did not meet strict screening requirements. Despite these minor indignities, this year’s gala did manage to avoid the massive controversy that erupted last year over a blackface skit.
  • App to promote ‘Xi Jinping Thought’: One of the most downloaded applications on Apple’s China app store was, as of February 12, “Study Xi, Strengthen China,” which was reportedly developed with the help of tech giant Alibaba. While millions of smartphone owners have reportedly downloaded the app of their own accord, CCP members must download and interact with it to avoid earning demerit points. Alongside a steady stream of Xi quotes and state media reports, the app incorporates quizzes and other opportunities to earn “Xi Study Points,” which can be cashed in for real-world prizes. China Media Project and What’s on Weibo offer in-depth analyses of the app and how it facilitates a level of user engagement with propaganda that has often eluded the party. One young woman reportedly complained about the app’s intrusive impact on her mother, a minor official who is now spending all her free time on it because employers at her school required her to earn a certain quota of points daily. The app’s release follows a larger trend evident under Xi, who reiterated the need to “boost integrated media development and amplify mainstream tone” through cutting-edge media technology while speaking at a January 25 study session attended by all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee. In a February 10 article for the China Media Project, researcher David Bandurski noted that the Communist Youth League has also been assessing its own recent propaganda efforts, identifying the need to better leverage social media platforms to reach young audiences.
  • Undermining Uighur culture in the Year of the Pig: Amid an ongoing assault on Uighur culture, most apparent in a network of “reeducation” camps where an estimated one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have been detained, Central Asia scholar Darren Byler describes in a February 6 article several ways in which propaganda is being increased in the Xinjiang region to control Uighur behavior. While the Lunar New Year is not a typical staple of Uighur culture, the beginning of the Year of the Pig was given an enormous spotlight in 2019. Byler cites the broadcast of a Uighur folk dance—performed for a majority Han audience made up in part of state workers who oversee a large internment camp—on CCTV. He also notes the particular sensitivity of this year in the Chinese zodiac, given Islam’s ban on eating pork and the common observance of this prohibition among Uighurs. In keeping with their effort to suppress such religious and cultural distinctions, Chinese officials appear to be taking advantage of the new lunar year to promote non-halal foods and the raising of pigs, a tactic that elderly Uighurs may recall from the years of the Cultural Revolution.
  • Anime series on Marx: The Leader, an animated series on the life of German socialist philosopher Karl Marx, made its debut on the Chinese streaming website Bilibili on January 28. The first installment of the seven-part series garnered over 2.8 million views in 24 hours, but it may not be achieving its intended aim. According to Sixth Tone, “the show’s debut has seen mixed reviews among Chinese viewers, who have paid more attention to [the animated] Marx’s high cheekbones and good looks than his theories.” 

Censorship updates: Tencent trends, foreign journalists, ‘The Paper’ syndication ban

  • Tencent censorship in 2018: An analysis of censorship among public accounts on Tencent’s WeChat platform in 2018, published on February 11 by researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s WeChatscope project, found that far more content removals were initiated by the accounts themselves (8,092 articles) than by WeChat administrators (2,950 articles). This suggests that self-censorship has intensified in the increasingly harsh online environment, with constantly shifting “redlines” and a higher risk of account closure. Many of the most censored topics revealed by the analysis—including the arrest in Canada of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, the ongoing China-US trade dispute, and a Chinese scientist’s controversial use of gene editing in humans—were also the subjects of official censorship directives to media outlets translated by China Digital Times, highlighting the extent to which WeChat censors are implementing official instructions. Efforts by Freedom House and its partners to distribute this media bulletin suggest that Tencent also tightened controls on its QQ email service last year, as newsletter deliveries to QQ email account holders became increasingly unreliable in the latter months of 2018.
  • Worsening conditions for foreign journalists, sources: The annual members’ survey of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China found that, once again, reporting conditions worsened in the past year, but also that the latest results “painted the darkest picture of reporting conditions inside China in recent memory.” A vast majority (91 percent) of respondents reported being concerned about their phone security; over half (55 percent) reported deteriorated conditions, and nearly half (48 percent) said they were followed or had their hotel room entered without permission. Of 27 respondents who traveled to Xinjiang, all but three reported interference while in the region, and for the first time in three years, a foreign reporter was effectively expelled from the country through a visa denial. Surveillance, detention, and other direct intimidation aimed at Chinese-national assistants and sources were also found to have increased. In response to the survey, one American bureau chief remarked, “In the past, there were crackdowns, but you knew the reasons and expected them to end. What we’re dealing with now is a new normal.”
  • Syndication ban on ‘The Paper’: In an unusual move against a state-funded news outlet, central internet content regulators banned syndication of The Paper for 30 days beginning on January 21, according to a leaked directive translated by China Digital Times. Launched in 2014 with state funding, The Paper is a digital-only news site and mobile-phone app catering to young, well-educated readers who might otherwise not follow state media coverage. Reporting by Hong Kong’s Apple Daily suggests that this penalty was imposed for the unauthorized breaking of a story confirming the death of former State Council spokesperson Yuan Mu in December. Yuan had become notorious for comments related to the killing of prodemocracy protesters in 1989. A December 17, 2018, directive translated by China Digital Times demanded that only copy from Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily be published on the subject. This is not the first time The Paper’s content has been the subject of censorship orders, despite its close state affiliation. Previously leaked directives imposed restrictions on a March 2016 article about illegal vaccines, a February 2017 article on technology used by a fraudulent phone ring, and a February 2017 report citing a Peking University study on air pollution deaths.

Party-state targets elites, intellectuals in recent free expression cases

Although victims of Chinese Communist Party repression come from all social backgrounds, a spate of disappearances, arrests, and prison sentences reported over the past two months have targeted highly educated elites and professionals. Among those detained or imprisoned are lawyers, university professors, prominent scholars, and students from the country’s top universities. The rash of cases may add to pressure on foreign universities or professional groups like bar associations to reexamine their relationships with their Chinese counterparts, particularly because in at least two instances, allegations of receiving foreign funding were used to justify prison sentences.

  • Environmentalist: Lawyer and environmental activist Chen Wuquan was sentenced to five years in prison by a Guangdong Province court on January 9 for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Five codefendants received terms ranging from one year to 18 months. Chen and the others were detained over a year ago for aiding in a protest against a land reclamation project on Donghai Island in the city of Zhanjiang.
  • Prominent rights lawyer: On January 28, high-profile human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison by a Tianjin court after being held in incommunicado detention for over three years. Wang’s trial was held on December 26, 2018, and the lawyer became the last of the “Black Friday” detainees rounded up in 2015 to face trial or be released. A leaked censorship directive from days before the sentencing, translated by China Digital Times, ordered all news websites to refrain from reporting on the sentence.
  • Civil society organizer: Liu Feiyue, founder of the well-known Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch documentation website, was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of over RMB 1 million ($150,000) by a Hubei Province court on January 29 for “inciting subversion.” Liu’s mother claimed that the court broke a promise to give her son a suspended sentence in exchange for her agreement to undergo “ideological work.”
  • Professor: Zeng Hao, a 45-year-old business professor at Tianhe College, part of Guangdong Province’s Polytechnical Normal University, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison and fined RMB 10,000 ($1,500) on January 29. He had been detained in August 2017 after posting several images related to the Falun Gong spiritual group on Tencent’s QQ platform. Zeng was sentenced without his lawyer or family present.
  • Australian writer: Writer and blogger Yang Hengjun, a 53-year-old Australian citizen with a PhD from the University of Technology, Sydney, was revealed to have been detained in China for “criminal activities endangering national security” days after he went missing upon arrival at a Guangzhou airport on January 19. Yang, a former Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee who later became a spy novelist, has been critical of the Chinese Communist Party in his writings, though not in recent times. In 2011, Yang was briefly detained while on a trip to China, but later called the incident a “misunderstanding.”
  • Marxist university students: Seven Marxist students from the elite Peking University and Renmin University were detained on January 21. They were just the latest to be detained as part of a crackdown in recent months on Marxist students and graduates of top universities who became active in the labor movement.
  • Uighur intellectuals: Amid an ongoing assault on Uighur culture in Xinjiang, a January 28 report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project details the cases of 388 intellectuals who have been detained since April 2017. They include 61 university professors and 57 media professionals.

HONG KONG: Proposed legal changes could criminalize peaceful dissent

Two legal changes being considered by the Hong Kong government have raised concerns that they could lead to prison sentences for nonviolent acts of political or religious expression, or even for satire.

  • National anthem bill: On January 23, Hong Kong’s government officially introduced a bill to the legislature that would assign criminal penalties of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to HK$50,000 (US$6,400) for those who insult “The March of the Volunteers,” the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China. The bill, should it become law, would also require schools to follow guidelines on how they teach the anthem. The proposal came just before the nearby Special Administrative Region of Macau passed a similar law on January 26, allowing up to three years in prison and a hefty fine for the intentional disrespect of “national symbols,” including the national anthem. In Hong Kong, prodemocracy lawmakers criticized ambiguous language in the bill concerning what constitutes an “insult.” Meanwhile, members of the prodemocracy group Demosisto protested the proposed law outside the government headquarters, where they flew a banner reading “the freedom not to praise.” In response to criticism, Hong Kong Executive Council convener Bernard Chan wrote in the South China Morning Post that the law would be “impossible to break without openly and deliberately doing so.” But a reply letter to Chan’s article highlighted how the legislation would criminalize a common form of satire in Hong Kong. The bill has been in the works for over a year, since Beijing cracked down on the commercial use of the anthem and then extended a mainland legal provision on respect for the song to Hong Kong, forcing the government there to try to incorporate it into local law. The move was an apparent response to a trend since 2014 of booing the anthem at Hong Kong soccer games to protest Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy.
  • Amending extradition rules: Hong Kong this month began mulling amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance that would ease criminal extraditions involving Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and mainland China. The proposed amendments came in response to murder cases in which Hong Kong authorities were unable to gain custody of suspects, including a man accused of murdering a 20-year-old Hong Kong woman during a trip to Taiwan last year. Authorities could not charge him under local Hong Kong laws, and Taiwanese authorities were unable to have him extradited to Taiwan from Hong Kong. The amended ordinances would allow Hong Kong to surrender fugitives to any region with which the city does not already have a bilateral extradition agreement; requests would be handled on a case-by-case basis. At first glance, political and religious activists from Hong Kong could not be extradited to China for peaceful dissent because the rules require the act in question to be a criminal offense in both jurisdictions. But opponents of the amendments have raised concerns on two grounds: first, that Beijing has been known to punish journalists and other activists on trumped-up charges such as fraud that are also offenses in Hong Kong, and second, that the mainland’s criminal justice system suffers from a variety of basic flaws. As Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok put it, “Are we really confident handing over an accused person to be tried on the mainland?” Lam Win-kee, the founder of Causeway Bay Books who went missing in 2015 and ended up on the mainland “confessing” to crimes on state television, told Citizen News that if this amendment passes, he will be leaving Hong Kong. In a February 18 blog post, prominent Chinese law expert Jerome Cohen noted that the rules would be a “major change.” He warned that any “rendition” agreement with China “must not violate the human rights protections” provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is legally binding in Hong Kong, if not on the mainland.

BEYOND CHINA: Pressure on Xinjiang refugees, cultural censorship in United States and Europe

  • Xinjiang crackdown follows victims beyond China: As a crackdown on Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims continues in Xinjiang, some who managed to escape the region are facing surveillance, intimidation, or related diplomatic tensions abroad. Ethnic Kazakh and Chinese national Sayragul Sautbay, who previously worked as an instructor at a Xinjiang reeducation camp and became an early source for reporting on the mass detention system, fled to Kazakhstan last year. But her status in Kazakhstan is uncertain, and the country is deeply dependent on Chinese investment, leading her to express fears that she may be sent back to China. Meanwhile, Qalymbek Shahman, also an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen, underwent an air-travel odyssey across Asia after escaping from China to Thailand on January 4. He flew from Thailand to Kazakhstan, where he was denied entry, then flew to Uzbekistan, where Chinese officials attempted to have him repatriated. Uzbek authorities ultimately sent him back to Thailand instead. Uighurs who flee further abroad are also being surveilled and intimidated by Chinese authorities. A report from the Washington Post describes the experiences of Australia-based Uighurs, who fear physical intimidation after Chinese authorities obtained their residential details by threatening their family members back in Xinjiang. In Canada, a speech by Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush was attended by nationalistic Chinese students who disrupted the presentation and reportedly attempted to compile information on attendees, allegedly under the supervision of the local Chinese consulate.
  • Uighur exiles and American Muslims speak out: The overseas Uighur community and other Muslims have begun to speak out about the persecution in Xinjiang. On Twitter, a #MeTooUyghur campaign has begun to both raise awareness and unofficially campaign for assurances on the health and well-being of individual detainees. The posts typically feature photos or videos about family members who have disappeared into the camp system, and call on Chinese authorities to confirm their status. The effort was prompted in part by a video released by Chinese officials to disprove reports that a prominent Uighur musician had died in custody. Separately, in the United States, over 130 Muslim clerics, scholars, and community leaders signed an open letter calling for the release of all Uighurs from the Xinjiang camps, and calling on fellow Americans to stop buying products that may be produced in such camps.
  • Spanish theater cancels Shen Yun performance: A series of classical Chinese dance and music performances by New York–based Shen Yun Performing Arts, scheduled for January 31 to February 2 in Madrid, were abruptly canceled under apparent pressure from Chinese officials. Many of the troupe’s performers practice Falun Gong, and some of the show’s pieces—in addition to scenes from imperial dynasties and literary classics—portray stories of Falun Gong adherents facing persecution in China. The Royal Theater of Madrid claimed that the cancellation was due to “technical difficulties.” However, on January 22, an official from the Chinese embassy admitted to activists posing as Chinese government officials that he had pressured the theater manager to cancel the performances. In a recording of the call published in the Epoch Times, the official explains how he held out access to the Chinese market as part of the “International League of Theaters of the Silk Road” in exchange for cooperation on “politics.” Shen Yun performances have been targeted by Chinese officials since the group’s inception in 2006. Over 60 incidents—ranging from intimidating theaters and elected officials to online hacking and tire slashing—have been documented around the world, in some cases resulting in last-minute cancellations.
  • Cultural Revolution film pulled from Berlin festival: The premiere of One Second, the latest work by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, was canceled at the Berlinale film festival on February 13, two days before it was scheduled to screen. The reason cited was “technical difficulties.” However, the film is set during the Cultural Revolution, and it may have failed to garner approval or an additional procedural exit visa from Chinese state censors, particularly given that the Communist Party took more direct control over the entertainment sector in a bureaucratic restructuring last March.
  • US arts center removes Xi paintings: Organizers of an art exhibition in the town of Cary, North Carolina, showing works by US-based Chinese artist Weng Bing removed three paintings, two of which portrayed Xi Jinping in an unfavorable fashion, just prior to the exhibition’s January 22 opening. According to Weng, the town’s cultural arts manager told her that he personally liked the paintings very much and wanted to protect free speech, but that they were “political works” and “government departments have to take all views into account,” implying a possible backlash from either Chinese diplomats or members of the diaspora who are sympathetic to Xi’s rule. Weng said she was inspired to include the more political pieces in the show after learning about a Shanghai woman who was forcibly sent to a psychiatric hospital for defacing a poster of Xi last year. 

FEATURED PUSHBACK: Regulating Chinese state media abroad

Chinese state media have long had a presence in foreign countries, and Beijing has sought to expand their footprint in recent years. But as their growth gains momentum and international attention, host governments are stepping up enforcement of relevant laws and broadcast codes to regulate the outlets’ activity.

On February 1, China Global Television Network (CGTN) America registered in the United States under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The move followed media reports last September that the US Department of Justice had asked CGTN and Xinhua News Agency to register, closing a long-standing gap in FARA enforcement. (The distribution company for state-run newspaper China Daily had been registered since 1983.) In its filing, CGTN said that it operates as a division of state-owned broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), but it also asserted that it was registering “in the spirit of cooperation with US authorities” rather than admitting that it properly fell under FARA jurisdiction. CGTN’s new status will require it to submit periodic reports to the Department of Justice and increase transparency surrounding its activities in the United States.

In a similar vein, civil society activists have called on Britain’s communications regulator, Ofcom, to review the operations of CCTV in the United Kingdom and assess whether the station had violated the country’s broadcast code—including provisions on privacy and fairness—and the Human Rights Act by airing the forced confessions of political prisoners, at least one of whom was a British citizen. In November 2018, the regulator said it would investigate the complaints but as of late February had not yet issued any decision.

A December 2018 update by Safeguard Defenders to an earlier report on the forced confession phenomenon suggests that more countries should be reviewing CGTN and CCTV programming on their airwaves. Researchers found that of 48 video confessions involving at least 106 people that were aired in China, “at least 29 of those videos aired internationally, often in stark violation and in clear breach of target countries’ TV broadcast regulations.” In at least 27 cases, televised confessions by foreigners were aired in the person’s home country, including in Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States. In many but not all instances, the problematic programming is broadcast in Chinese to the Chinese diaspora via CCTV4, a subsidiary that typically operates separately and holds its own licenses. From this perspective, regulators seeking to fully enforce relevant foreign influence laws and broadcasting codes would be well advised to examine CCTV4’s operations, as well as those of other Chinese-language state-owned media like China Radio International and their foreign affiliates. 

[Photo caption: Screenshot of forced confession by Swedish activist Peter Dahlin aired on CCTV in January 2016]


Censorship and policy announcements during the ‘Two Sessions’: The annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress will open in Beijing on March 5, as will the parallel gathering of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body. During the “Two Sessions,” watch for directives to media on coverage or avoidance of sensitive topics, travel restrictions on activists, and new legislation related to media and internet policy, including the contentious practice of forced technology transfers.

Restrictions around Tibet unrest anniversary: March 10 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet and serve as a reminder of popular Tibetan protests against Chinese rule in March 2008, which provoked a major crackdown. During this sensitive period, watch for increased internet censorship and restrictions on access to Tibet. Tour operators have reportedly already announced the closure of the Tibetan Autonomous Region to foreigners through April 1.

Huawei’s foreign prospects: Over the past month, debate has continued in countries around the world regarding the benefits and potential security risks of allowing Chinese firm Huawei to take part in the development of national telecommunications infrastructure, particularly 5G, the next generation of mobile service technology. Watch for whether individual countries or the European Union announce new bans on Huawei, how countries try to mitigate the risks of the firm’s involvement in 5G projects, new evidence of past problematic behavior, and the responses of both the company and the Chinese government to their critics.


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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. Learn more about how to reach uncensored content and enhance digital security here
  • Support a prisoner: Learn how to take action to help journalists and free expression activists, including those featured in past issues of the China Media Bulletin here.
  • Visit the China Media Bulletin Resources section: Learn more about how policymakers, media outlets, educators and donors can help advance free expression in China and beyond via a new resource section on the Freedom House website.