China Media Bulletin: U.S.-China Tensions, upgraded police surveillance, Africa influence (No. 130) | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin: U.S.-China Tensions, upgraded police surveillance, Africa influence (No. 130)

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

Photo of the Month: 

Skeletons in the Communist Party’s closet
This seemingly innocuous image was shared 12,000 times on Sina Weibo within 11 hours on September 23 before being deleted by censors. The caption accompanying the image said it portrayed a caving expedition in Guilin, Guangxi Province, that discovered the skeletons of 93 people who were killed at the height of the Cultural Revolution:  “From October 2 to 3, 1967 … the militia battalion commander of Sanjiang Commune … pushed 93 local rich people into the bottomless sinkhole…. One of the big landlord families had a total of 76 people, young and old; all were all pushed into the pit, including married daughters and their children. The youngest one is less than one year old and the oldest is 65 years old." Weiboscope


ANALYSIS: Amid U.S.-China Tension, Beijing’s Propaganda Machine Charges On

The regime’s recent media interventions may have unintended consequences.

By Sarah Cook

As friction between Washington and Beijing has intensified this year over issues including trade and the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s propaganda and censorship apparatus has sought to keep pace.

During the past month in particular, three existing trends in the Communist Party’s media policy have gained new prominence: a revival of Mao-era themes, suppression of negative content about the economy, and a push to deliver official narratives directly to US audiences.

But even as these efforts accomplish certain goals, particularly within China, they are also detrimental for the party in a number of important ways.

Maoist revival

China’s leaders are bracing for the economic impact of a trade war with the United States, and state media have reverted to an old emphasis on “self-reliance.” On September 30, the flagship evening news program on state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) was dedicated to President Xi Jinping’s tour of three northeastern provinces. The coverage and Xi’s own comments stressed the need for China to be more economically self-reliant, invoking terminology that was used most commonly during the revolutionary period in the 1940s, in the midst of the Great Leap Forward famine of 1958–62, and in the latter years of the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution. Indeed, images of Xi visiting with Chinese peasants echoed famous iconography of Mao Zedong doing the same.

On October 16, another prime-time CCTV program focused on the quintessentially Maoist “reeducation” effort taking place in Xinjiang. The program sought to portray detention facilities for Muslim minorities as compassionate, humane, and air-conditioned “vocational training” centers. Grateful “students” reported in clearly scripted interviews that they have had an opportunity to improve their Mandarin, learn new skills like making pants, and better understand how to avoid “religious extremism,” concluding that “the party and the government saved me.”

No bad news on the economy

The authorities have actively intervened in news coverage to suppress any negative reporting on China’s economic situation. On September 11, for example, the popular online portal Netease was forced to suspend updates of its financial news channel. The company announced that it had undergone a profound “self-criticism” and intended to conduct a comprehensive “rectification” of content. In a similar vein, on September 26, the Cyber Administration of China (CAC) imposed a one-month suspension on the technology, news, and financial channels of Phoenix New Media, allegedly because the website and mobile app had violated rules on permissible news sharing.

On September 28, the New York Times reported that it had obtained copies of government directives sent to journalists and news websites requiring “management” of news and commentary on economic matters. The request covered any signs of a potentially slowing economy, the impact of trade tensions with the United States, and the negative effects these may have on ordinary Chinese.

Spikes in censorship of economic news have occurred before. A Freedom House analysis of leaked censorship directives found that in 2015, the year of a dramatic plunge in Chinese stock markets, the economy was the second most frequently targeted topic. But a September 9 article in Hong Kong’s Initium relayed interviews with several Chinese journalists who indicated that the current chill on economic reporting is likely to be a longer-term trend. Numerous interviewees covering finance, economics, and business said their beats were becoming steadily more “controlled” and “censored.” Some cited daily censorship notices that are copied by hand to counter leaks and monthly ideological training by CAC staff. One reporter from a radio station covering financial news explained, “The most invariable redline is that ‘singing of the decline of China’ is unacceptable.”

US propaganda push

In late September, the print edition of the Des Moines Register included a four-page China Watch supplement, paid for by the state-owned China Daily. Although such supplements have appeared for years in major newspapers like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, this was the first known instance of China Watch appearing in Iowa. Moreover, the content of the propaganda was more targeted and politicized than is typical for China Watch features.

For example, rather than touting the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative or the promising investment climate in a Chinese province, two of the front-page articles described how a trade war would harm American soybean farmers and promoted a new book fondly recalling the time Xi had spent in Iowa as a young man. In addition to the supplement, China’s ambassador to the United States gave two high-profile media interviews in the last month that seemed designed to reach left- and right-leaning audiences—one on October 3 with National Public Radio and another on October 12 with Fox News.

While the Des Moines Register supplement was unusual, it was not the first instance of Chinese state media targeting soybean farmers in an apparent effort to sway US voters. In July, CCTV’s China Global Television Network (CGTN) released a two-minute animated video about the impact of trade tensions on the soybean industry, concluding with the question, “Will voters [in the 2018 midterm elections] there turn out to support Trump and the Republicans once they get hit in the pocketbooks?”

Financial data extracted by the Center for Responsive Politics from China Daily’s reports to the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) show the scale of Beijing’s propaganda efforts in the country. Since January 2017, the paper’s distribution company has reportedly spent over $15.7 million to influence US policy and public opinion, accounting for almost 60 percent of all spending by FARA registrants from China. In 2017, China Daily was the ninth largest foreign principal in terms of spending and the largest that was not itself a government.

Impact and backlash

The Communist Party’s censorship and propaganda tactics within China have suppressed the flow of information and generated self-censorship on a broad range of topics. But they could easily backfire by undermining public trust in official pronouncements. CCTV’s fawning program on so-called vocational centers in Xinjiang reinforced the broadcaster’s reputation as a government mouthpiece, and tighter censorship of economic news risks exacerbating fears about the country’s actual economic health.

Outside China, Beijing’s media efforts may be even more counterproductive. Several observers have questioned whether the China Watch supplement in Iowa would have the desired effect. Kirk Leeds, who heads the Iowa Soybean Association, told reporters, “I doubt farmers or many Iowans will be swayed.” Meanwhile, the animated CGTN video garnered just 21,000 views on YouTube, a miniscule drop in the ocean of American media.

Rather than persuading US audiences, the campaign has galvanized fierce criticism from top US officials, including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. US ambassador to China and former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has long been friendly with Xi, appears to have been taken aback by the China Daily content in the Des Moines Register. In a September 30 op-ed in the same paper, he criticized China for “running propaganda ads in our own free press,” while noting that “one of China’s most prominent newspapers dodged the offer to publish” his article in response.

The Chinese regime’s media controls have long had a detrimental effect on US-China ties, but as propaganda and censorship continue to escalate, bilateral relations are likely to get even rockier. 

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 Diplomat on October 24, 2018.

New rules and innovation enhance police surveillance

New regulations issued by the Ministry of Public Security in September and set to take effect on November 1 allow authorities to enter the premises of all internet service companies to examine and copy any data that are deemed relevant to cybersecurity. The regulations also empower authorities to remotely inspect companies’ network security vulnerabilities, though they must provide advance notice.

The new rules are broad in scope, applying to entities ranging from mobile service providers to internet cafés. They are also vaguely written, granting authorities considerable discretion in defining “relevance to cybersecurity.” Amnesty International’s William Nee told the South China Morning Post that while the regulations may ensure that “users aren’t going to become victims of hacking due to company negligence,” they are also “designed to more effectively implement China’s censorship directives and its surveillance state.”

The new regulations provide a legal basis for existing police activities and could increase security agencies’ already robust ability to categorize and share data about individual citizens. An anonymous post in August by a self-described public security staff member, translated in full by China Digital Times, lists the many categories used to rate Chinese citizens based on their perceived tendency toward criminal behavior or political and religious dissent. The post, in which the author criticized the practice as an “instrument of persecution,” included screenshots attesting to the minute detail and widespread use of the citizen categorization system. An anonymous revelation by a technology industry insider, also published in August, lays out the wide range of information that Chinese authorities are able to track via mobile phones, and how keyword triggering can help identify individuals like practitioners of Falun Gong as “sensitive.”

The new regulations were issued over a year after the controversial Cybersecurity Law came into effect in June 2017. That law increased the risk that foreign companies would be forced to turn user data over to police, as it requires that they store business and user data on domestic Chinese servers. Multinational companies have been taking steps to comply with the Cybersecurity Law: Apple, for example, announced in January that its iCloud services in China would be operated by a state-owned firm in Guizhou Province. More recently, the company changed the hardware specifications of new iPhones for the Chinese market to comply with real-name registration rules and improve authorities’ ability to track user identities.

Meanwhile, increased international pressure amid a trade dispute with the United States and global concern about the government’s crackdown on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has compelled authorities to develop new surveillance technology. For example, an American ban on exports of laser imaging devices to China has stifled the expansion of China’s “Skynet” surveillance system, but national security officials are encouraging the development of a domestic substitute that could prove superior in gathering data needed for facial recognition. At China Change, Matthew Robertson noted in an October 11 post that foreign artificial intelligence researchers partnering with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese firms like iFlytek are effectively aiding the development of technologies that will be used by the security apparatus.

Xinjiang crackdown: Writers jailed, foreign investment questioned, state responds to outcry 

  • Prominent Uighur writers, journalists, professors jailed: Several recent news stories tell of ethnic Uighur intellectuals who have been swept up in an intensifying crackdown on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The campaign includes a network of “reeducation camps” where up to a million Uighurs have reportedly been held extralegally. Last month, it was reported that at least five Uighur professors from Xinjiang University were being held in the camps. An October 2 profile of one of them, 77-year-old Abdukerim Rahman, on the website Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia highlights his robust knowledge of Uighur culture and literature, but also notes surprise at his detention, since he has been a Communist Party member for 40 years. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on October 10 that three Uighur men—two education officials and a prominent writer—who disappeared from public view early last year are now known to be serving life terms or suspended death sentences on separatism charges, apparently in retribution for promoting Uighur culture. An October 8 article published on Hong Kong’s Initium news site relays the experiences of an ethnic Chinese student who had studied in Xinjiang and speaks of an increasing security presence, disappearing teachers, and pressure on ethnic Chinese graduates to join the surveillance apparatus. Meanwhile, on September 27 Reporters Without Borders denounced the arrests of four Uighur Xinjiang Daily journalists. In an indication of the potential danger faced by detained Uighurs, an October 10 RFA Uighur service report noted that Uighur university student Iham Qari, who was forcibly returned from Egypt to China last year, had died in one of the region’s internment camps.
  • International outcry and scrutiny of foreign investment: International outcry over the repression in Xinjiang has grown louder in recent months, with Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, which has close relations with Beijing, beginning to issue their own protests. Increased awareness of the problem has also prompted scrutiny of business activity in the region. A list of Fortune 500 companies doing business in Xinjiang was published on October 2 by the Asia Society’s ChinaFile. The chart indicates that several foreign firms—such as Western Digital, Cisco, and Dell—have operations in the region that appear to be directly contributing to state surveillance. A petition was initiated this month by American economics professor Christopher Balding, calling for the investment bank Morgan Stanley to divest from Chinese companies involved in mass internment and surveillance in Xinjiang.
  • Beijing responds with propaganda and legal revisions: The Chinese government has responded to the global criticism with official denials that the Xinjiang reeducation camps exist and state propaganda alleging that “anti-China forces” are raising false accusations for “political purposes.” Reuters reported on October 1 that official propaganda had begun appearing in foreign media, including an opinion piece published in the Jakarta Post by China’s ambassador to Indonesia and letters from China’s ambassador in Britain to the Economist and the Financial Times in which he defended the government’s policies in Xinjiang. China’s ambassador to the United States told National Public Radio that the authorities’ efforts in the region were meant to improve Uighurs’ economic prospects and “prevent terrorism from spreading all over the place.” Meanwhile, on October 9, the standing committee of Xinjiang’s legislature revised a local law in what many media outlets described as an attempt to legalize the reeducation centers. In a post on Lawfare, however, China law expert Donald Clarke pointed out that the revision does not legalize the detention policy under current national law. He added that the recently revealed practice of moving Xinjiang detainees to detention elsewhere in China is also illegal.

Censorship updates: Online religious content, foreign television, VPN crackdown

  • New draft rules restricting online religious content: Last month, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs published a draft “Regulation for Internet Religious Information Services” (互联网宗教信息服务管理办法) that would significantly limit online religious content. Certain topics and terms related to religion and spirituality—like Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama’s name—are already heavily censored, but the new rules would restrict a much broader array of content, including text, images, and videos of preaching, burning incense, or even wedding ceremonies, unless they are posted by an officially licensed organization. A 2017 Freedom House report on religious revival, repression, and resistance in China noted believers’ widespread use of online tools to circumvent onerous religious controls. The new rules may be an effort to close those loopholes. The draft was open to public comment until October 9; no news has yet emerged on when it would come into force. The regulation is officially aimed at promoting “social stability” while limiting religious fraud, cults, and extremism, and it comes amid steadily increasing persecution of believers, especially Muslims and Christians. The draft was released just ahead of the announcement of a long-awaited and highly controversial deal between the Vatican and Beijing regarding the appointment of bishops. Coverage of the draft rules by state-affiliated tabloid Global Times quotes several officials on the need for greater regulation, while the Union of Catholic Asian News highlighted the danger it posed to religious liberty and the spread of Christianity.
  • Proposed foreign television regulation: Another draft rule, open for public comment until October 20, aims to further restrict foreign television programming and foreigners in Chinese productions. The draft “Regulation on the Introduction and Dissemination of Overseas Audiovisual Programming,” released last month by the National Radio and Television Administration, would allow foreign content to make up no more than 30 percent of the daily output of Chinese television stations and online video platforms. The regulation also prohibits the broadcast of foreign shows during prime time (7 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and places quotas on the number of foreigners who can appear in or play a leadership role in domestic productions. The move comes amid a broader effort by the authorities to limit foreign influence in the cultural, entertainment, and educational spheres.
  • Prison sentence in VPN crackdown: A Shanghai-based software engineer was sentenced to three years in prison for the illegal sale of virtual private networks (VPNs) earlier this month. The man, surnamed Dai, also faces three years of probation and a 10,000 yuan ($1,400) fine. Last December, a man in the Guangxi region was sentenced to five and a half years in prison and fined 500,000 yuan ($72,000) for running a VPN service. Early last year, the Chinese government began cracking down on VPNs, which netizens have long used to “scale” the Great Firewall and reach uncensored content on the global internet. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology claims that its aim is not to completely block the use of VPNs but rather to more tightly regulate the market, ostensibly to favor government-approved services.

HONG KONG: Expulsion of ‘Financial Times’ editor undermines press freedom

Hong Kong’s already deteriorating environment for media freedom hit a new low in early October when authorities rejected the visa renewal application of Victor Mallet, the Asia news editor of the Financial Times. The Hong Kong Immigration Department made the decision after Mallet, in his capacity as acting president of the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), hosted an event on August 14 that featured a speech by Andy Chan, convenor of the Hong Kong National Party. Though authorities offered no explanation for their decision on Mallet’s visa, observers have linked it to the FCC event. Chan’s party calls for Hong Kong’s independence from China, a stance that the Chinese Communist Party considers intolerable. Hong Kong authorities banned the group on September 23 in what the Guardian described as an “unprecedented move.”

The FCC said in a statement on October 5 that it was “deeply concerned” about the decision not to renew Mallet’s visa, calling it “extraordinary” and asking that it be rescinded. The Sydney Morning Herald said the incident was not just a knee-jerk reaction to the FCC event, but part of a deliberate campaign to “tame dissent in the former British colony,” potentially by enacting harsh national security legislation called for in Hong Kong’s Basic Law that would strengthen the government’s ability to crack down on political speech. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch noted that the visa decision represents an expansion of tactics used in mainland China to the autonomously governed city, saying it “smacks of Beijing-style persecution of critics… it indicates a quickening downward spiral for human rights in Hong Kong.”

The China Media Project, in an analysis of how the case was reported by Chinese media, found that the authorities generally sought to minimize coverage of the case and push back on the idea that it represented increasing “mainlandization” of Hong Kong. The nationalistic state-owned tabloid Global Times was one of the few official outlets to respond to the uproar, arguing that Mallet’s de facto expulsion was a justified reaction to “political provocation that goes far beyond the scope of freedom of speech.” The paper dismissed concerns about press freedom as “a way of fighting for some Western forces and Hong Kong extremists.”

BEYOND CHINA: Africa influence, US campuses, CCTV heckler, Malaysia Uighurs, motherboard chips

  • China’s problematic influence in Africa: The Globe and Mail reported on October 9 about several recent incidents that illustrate the Chinese government’s attempts to leverage its economic aid to Africa with the aim of suppressing critical voices or promoting its image on the continent. Ross Anthony, a director of Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, was denied entry to China because of the content of his classes; he was told he would be allowed in if he focused on China’s positive achievements. Separately, around 1,000 African journalists are brought to China each year for “training” courses, and Beijing is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its own media entities in Africa. A Chinese diplomat sought unsuccessfully to influence the content of a speech by Namibia’s president at a summit in Beijing. And on September 29, officials in Zambia, which depends on China for billions of dollars in loans, deported a respected Kenyan law professor who was set to give a presentation about Chinese influence in Africa.
  • New research on academic influence: Political scientists at the University of Missouri and Princeton University published an analysis of survey and interview data from over 500 China scholars and other researchers on September 23, finding that about 9 percent of scholars report being “taken for tea” (summoned for informal questioning or intimidation) by Chinese authorities within the last decade, and that more than a quarter of archival researchers were denied access. The paper reports that 68 percent of respondents consider self-censorship to be a concern for the China studies field, though this comes with various caveats, including that the primary concern for scholars is not necessarily risk to their own careers, but rather danger for their Chinese contacts. A September 6 study by the Wilson Center on China’s influence on higher education in the United States finds that Chinese diplomats have infringed on the academic freedom of American universities—including faculty, students, administrators, and staff—by applying political pressure, offering inducements, potentially collecting intelligence, attempting to intimidate, and otherwise exerting undue influence.
  • CCTV reporter heckles panelists at UK event on Hong Kong: Kong Linlin, a longtime London-based reporter for state-run China Central Television’s China Global Television Network (CGTN), was briefly arrested after causing a disturbance at a UK Conservative Party conference on September 30. Kong interrupted one of the speakers, Benedict Rogers, who was discussing human rights conditions in Hong Kong. As she continued to heckle, she was approached by volunteer and security staff, who sought to prevent her from interfering. She then repeatedly slapped a volunteer, Enoch Lieu, and was restrained and escorted from the event. CGTN defended her actions, while analyst James Palmer noted that her outburst may have been motivated by a desire to impress bosses with her nationalistic fervor.
  • Malaysia refuses to deport Uighurs: Defying an official Chinese request, Malaysian authorities on October 11 released a group of Uighur Muslims from detention rather than deport them to China. The men had escaped from a Thai jail last year and sought to travel to Turkey, which Malaysia allowed on humanitarian grounds. Reuters reported that Beijing put “great pressure” on the Malaysian government to repatriate them, and the refusal may add to bilateral tensions after recently elected prime minister Mahathir Mohamad canceled $20 billion in infrastructure and other projects that had been awarded to Chinese firms. Malaysia’s bar association played a critical role in the case, explaining in its advocacy why the deportation would be problematic under Malaysia’s own laws (as noted in CMB No. 126).
  • Bloomberg alleges Chinese spying via motherboard chips: In what would be a hugely consequential cybersecurity revelation if proven true. Bloomberg reported on October 4 that Chinese authorities had successfully infiltrated the global supply chain for motherboards and other computer components, secretly installing chips that could allow hackers to gain access to entire computer networks. Firms and entities left vulnerable would include the US Central Intelligence Agency, Apple, Amazon, and many others. However, the report was met with outright denials by the companies in question and skepticism by some experts. Bloomberg published a follow-up article on October 9 that appeared to demonstrate the existence of a similar—but not identical or as far-reaching—hardware penetration by Chinese actors, though the initial report remains unconfirmed, according to experts. China does have a history of launching hardware attacks on US targets, leading one intelligence contractor to remark that “we don’t know the level of exploits within our own systems.”


A year after the #MeToo movement gained momentum internationally following sexual misconduct exposés involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, it survives in China despite government censorship. New stories of sexual harassment or assault shared by women on Sina Weibo or Tencent’s WeChat platform go viral on a regular basis, in some cases resulting in repercussions for the accused men, even if the initial post was censored. Examples since the summer include a former CCTV intern’s July account of forcible kissing by a prominent host, a report circulated the same month in which the head of the state-approved Buddhist Association was accused of pressuring nuns to have sexual relations with him, and a female human rights lawyer’s 4,000-character description of being assaulted and strip-searched by a police officer in Guangzhou this month.

These outbursts of public discussion have occurred in the context of targeted censorship (of the hashtag #MeToo itself and of related social media accounts like Feminist Voices), official nervousness about any grassroots mobilization online, and an overall decline in space for digital activism compared with several years ago. A diverse network of passionate and web-savvy youth have helped to circulate content, for example by using homophones—like “rice bunny” emojis to replace #MeToo—to evade censorship. The sustained momentum online has in turn led to real-world change. In August, the accused Buddhist abbot resigned. In July, Jiangsu Province enacted the country’s most proactive and detailed sexual harassment law to date, requiring companies to conduct trainings and establish complaint mechanisms, among other provisions. And a section on sexual harassment has been added to the draft of the national civil code, expected to be adopted in 2020.


Fifth World Internet Conference: The city of Wuzhen in China’s Zhejiang Province will host the next in a series of “World Internet Conferences” from November 7 to 9. Organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China and the provincial government, the annual event is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to shape global conversations about internet governance and legitimize its own form of digital authoritarianism. Past conferences have included speeches by prominent executives from global tech companies like Apple, who have subsequently come under criticism for their comments. Watch for any participation this year by international tech executives, including Apple’s Tim Cook, who recently concluded an independent trip to China, during which he met with high school students, tech entrepreneurs, and Communist Party officials.

Google’s Dragonfly project: Watch for whether Google’s project to create a censored search application for the Chinese market continues to move forward despite concerns from within the company, as well as from US officials and human rights groups. Should the product be introduced in China, watch for studies on the extent of censorship, the degree to which authorities have access to users’ search queries, and whether arbitrary regulatory decisions stymie its market growth despite the company’s efforts to please the Chinese government.

Investigation into Chinese government harassment of US residents: In an action that coincided with the publication of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s annual report on October 10, the commission’s cochairs—Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ)—wrote to Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to raise concerns about Chinese government intimidation of ethnic Chinese, Uighur, and Tibetan individuals living in the United States. The letter requests additional information about the scale of the phenomenon, recent trends, and steps taken by the FBI to counter such efforts by Chinese officials and intelligence agencies. Watch for a reply from Wray and any additional developments emerging from the exchange.


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