Not Free
A Obstacles to Access 8 25
B Limits on Content 4 35
C Violations of User Rights 0 40
Last Year's Score & Status
13 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Key Developments, June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • A new cybersecurity law came into effect on June 1, 2017, increasing censorship requirements, mandating data localization, codifying real-name registration requirements for internet companies, and obliging them to assist security agencies with investigations (see Content Removal; Legal Environment; and Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity). The new rules increased the operational costs of running an internet company in China and hindered the ability of independent media, bloggers, and writers to sustain themselves financially (see Media, Diversity, and Manipulation).
  • Censorship tightened in the months leading up to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 and around the March 2018 annual meetings of the national legislature and its main advisory body, during which constitutional changes to end term limits for President Xi Jinping were announced (see Content Removals). The overall trend of censorship, propaganda, and prosecutions increasingly focused on controlling and protecting Xi’s image, coinciding with his evolution into the country’s “paramount leader” (see Content Removals; Media, Diversity, and Manipulation; and Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
  • The government took new measures to restrict the use of circumvention tools to bypass blocking and filtering; Apple complied by removing hundreds of virtual private network (VPN) services from its online app store (see Blocking and Filtering). Apple, along with other international and local companies, also complied with the new data localization requirements in the cybersecurity law (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity). Despite the crackdown on VPNs, millions of Chinese netizens continued to “jump” the so-called Great Firewall in order to access uncensored news and social media services.
  • New regulations requiring online publishers to register for permits led to the closure of dozens of social media accounts that disseminated celebrity gossip or other entertainment news, signaling an expansion of censorship to a news sector that had been considered relatively free (see Content Removals and Media, Diversity, and Manipulation).
  • As the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and harassment gained traction in China, a number of Chinese students spoke out about their experiences despite heavy censorship online, in some cases resulting in real-world accountability for the accused (see Digital Activism).
  • Known dissidents received heavy penalties for their online activities in the past year, while religious and ethnic minorities continued to be heavily surveilled and persecuted for their spiritual and cultural expression or for criticizing and exposing rights violations against their communities (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities). Users of mobile devices in the Xinjiang region were forced to install the surveillance app Jingwang, which can search for files that match blacklisted content (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).
  • As part of President Xi’s plan to transform China into a “cyber superpower,” announced at the Communist Party Congress in October 2017, state officials and local companies took major steps to export the technical infrastructure and expertise behind the country’s information control system to countries around the world (see Introduction).

header2 Introduction

China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom in Freedom on the Net for the fourth consecutive year. The level of internet freedom in the country declined due to the new cybersecurity law, which strengthened repressive restrictions on online activities and placed onerous financial burdens on technology companies, independent media, and bloggers.

The cybersecurity law, which took effect on June 1, 2017, increased censorship requirements, mandated data localization, and codified real-name registration rules for internet companies, in addition to obliging them to assist security agencies with investigations. New regulations and guidelines that stemmed in part from the cybersecurity law were continually introduced—at a rate of nearly one every two days in 2017—to further refine online restrictions.

Domestic companies complied immediately, faced penalties, or were shut down. In June 2017, the social media platforms Sina Weibo and WeChat shuttered dozens of accounts that disseminated celebrity gossip or other entertainment news. Over 3,000 websites were shut down or had their licenses revoked in 2018, likely for failing to abide by the new regulations. To remain in operation, many sites have had to hire more internal censors. For example, after the live-streaming app Kuaishou was penalized in April 2018 for “inappropriate” content, the company sought to hire 3,000 more internal censors to add to its existing team of 2,000.

With a billion potential users at stake, foreign tech companies also began to adhere to the new restrictions. In June 2017, Apple removed hundreds of VPNs from its online app store to comply with new bans on circumvention tools. Apple also acted on the new data localization requirements, transferring the storage of Chinese user data on its iCloud service to state-owned Guizhou-Cloud Big Data in February 2018. The notetaking platform Evernote followed suit with plans to transfer all local users’ data to Tencent Cloud.

Censorship further tightened in the months leading up to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017, at which President Xi Jinping, the party’s general secretary, cemented his leadership for the next five years. Officials regard the congress, which convenes twice every decade, as an important propaganda period and consequently sought to suppress competing content from foreign countries, including entertainment. Foreign movies and television shows were removed from China’s top video-sharing websites, while popular American shows such as Saturday Night Live were labelled as “illegal content” and removed. Censorship also spiked around the March 2018 annual meetings of the national legislature and its main advisory body, during which constitutional changes to end term limits for Xi were announced and approved.

Meanwhile, rapid advances in surveillance technology—including artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps—coupled with growing police access to user data have turned China into a “techno-dystopia” and helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. Known activists and journalists received heavy penalties for their online activities in the past year, while ethnic and religious minorities continued to be heavily surveilled and persecuted for their spiritual and cultural expression or for exposing rights abuses against their communities. In a new development, residents of the Xinjiang region, home to a large Muslim population, were forced to install the mobile app Jingwang (“Web Cleansing” or “Clean Net”), a surveillance program designed to search for files that match blacklisted content.

Despite the heavy censorship and increasingly restrictive environment, citizens continued to push back, finding creative ways to access and share critical information. For example, the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and harassment, which originated in the United States, galvanized a number of Chinese students to speak out online about their experiences, in some cases resulting in real-world accountability for the accused. To evade censorship of the #MeToo hashtag, users have referred to the campaign with the homophone “rice bunny,” or “mi tu” in Mandarin, though this was also censored after the authorities caught on.

In a development with global ramifications, Xi announced plans at the Communist Party Congress to transform China into a “cyber superpower,” offering the country’s authoritarian model of governance—including its tight management of online information—as “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” The announcement dovetailed with a growing trend in which Chinese companies and state officials have exported telecommunications hardware and technical expertise to countries around the world (more details in the Major Developments section of Freedom on the Net 2018).1

A Obstacles to Access

China boasts the world’s largest number of internet users, but there are still obstacles to access, including poor infrastructure in mountainous and rural areas, a telecommunications industry dominated by state-owned enterprises, centralized control over international gateways, and sporadic localized shutdowns of internet service to quell social unrest.

Availability and Ease of Access

There were 772 million internet users (55.8 percent of the population) in China as of January 2018,1 according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). From December 2016 to December 2017, the number of mobile internet users grew from 695 million to 753 million, accounting for 97.5 percent of all internet users.2

Though the digital divide between urban and rural areas narrowed marginally in previous years, 73 percent of users are based in cities, according to recent government figures.3 Penetration rates vary significantly by province, from 77.8 percent in Beijing to 39.9 percent in Yunnan.4 The CNNIC reported that 52.6 percent of all internet users were male. The share of internet users connecting through cybercafés and public computers remained relatively constant in 2017, at 19.3 percent and 18.7 percent, respectively.5 Demand for such access points is higher in rural areas and small towns.

Internet speeds in China ranked below global averages in 2018, with average broadband speeds at 2.4 Mbps, according to tests conducted by the Broadband Speed League.6 Among 200 countries tested, China placed 141st.7 By contrast, the China Broadband Development Alliance reported nationwide average broadband speed at 19 Mbps in the fourth quarter of 2017. The highest available rate was in Shanghai, which averaged 20.52 Mbps, while the lowest was in less prosperous regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, which averaged 16.77 Mbps and 15.65 Mbps, respectively.8 “Broadband China,” a government strategy issued in 2013, aims to boost penetration to 70 percent nationwide by 2020 and increase connection speeds to 50 Mbps in cities and 12 Mbps in rural areas, with even faster Gbps speeds promised in bigger cities.9

The costs of accessing the internet are relatively affordable for the average citizen, though roaming charges can be double the regular cost per minute of phone use. To reduce costs for consumers, state-owned China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom announced plans in July 2017 to eliminate mobile roaming charges beginning in September.10 In the 2018 government work report, Premier Li Keqiang further urged telecom companies to remove data roaming fees and reduce the overall cost of data fees by 30 percent before the end of 2018.11

Restrictions on Connectivity

Nine state-run operators maintain China’s gateways to the global internet, giving authorities the ability to cut off cross-border information requests.12 All service providers must subscribe via the gateway operators overseen by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

The government is known to shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events, notably imposing a 10-month internet blackout in Xinjiang—home to 22 million people—after ethnic violence in the regional capital, Urumqi, in 2009.13 Since then, authorities have continued the practice on a smaller scale. For example, after a knife attack by three assailants reportedly resulted in eight deaths in February 2017, networks in Xinjiang’s Pishan County were cut off.14 A similar outage was reported in a Tibetan area following a reported self-immolation in protest against Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.15 Popular social media applications have also been disabled in certain localities in order to “maintain stability.”16

Human rights activists and their families can be subject to targeted network disconnections. Yang Maoping, sister of imprisoned rights activist Guo Feixiong, told international journalists that her home broadband service was repeatedly disconnected in August 2016 in a pattern suggesting deliberate disruption, though the provider said there had been a technical error.17 Her access to WeChat Moments, a timeline feature in the WeChat app, appeared to have been blocked during the same period.

Network shutdowns are often explained as national security precautions. Article 84 of an antiterrorism law passed in 2015 introduced fines and detentions of up to 15 days for telecommunications operators and internet service provider (ISP) personnel who fail to “stop transmission” of terrorist or extremist content, “shut down related services,” or implement “network security” measures to prevent the transmission of such content.18 The cybersecurity law in effect since June 2017 also provided legal grounds for officials to instruct network operators to stop transmission of certain content to protect public security, among other restrictions (see Legal Environment).

ICT Market

State-owned China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom dominate the mobile market, though the government has authorized new players to enter the sector over the past few years, resulting in price cuts.19 A landmark antimonopoly investigation against China Telecom and China Unicom’s manipulative fixed-lined broadband pricing in 2011 led to a network leasing framework that allowed for the growth of smaller, privately-owned ISPs.20 In some cities, municipal governments proposed regulations to ensure telecommunication market diversity so that residents in a single community could have a choice of providers.21

Despite the gradual lifting of long-standing market controls, network leasing represents only a small part of the telecommunications sector. Licenses for basic telecommunications services are still effectively monopolized by the three state-owned incumbents, and no other companies are involved in other key services such as public network infrastructure construction.22 In May 2016, state-owned China Broadcast Network (CBN) received a license for basic telecommunications business from MIIT,23 but it would only provide infrastructure and data-transmission services and was not seen as a threat to the three dominant players.24

Authorities exercise tight control over cybercafés and other public access points, which are licensed by the Ministry of Culture in cooperation with other state entities.25 In 2018, cybercafés in Henan Province within 200 meters of primary and middle schools were forced to close down.26 In practice, restrictions can be difficult to enforce.

Regulatory Bodies

Several government and CCP agencies are responsible for internet regulation at the local and national levels, but the process has been consolidated under Xi Jinping, with relevant bodies placed under tighter party control.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the CCP’s Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs—launched in 2014 and renamed as the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission in March 2018—oversee the telecommunications sector and regulate internet content.27 The new cybersecurity law in effect since July 2017 consolidated the role of the CAC, which it identified as the principle agency responsible for implementing many of its provisions.28 Xu Lin, a former deputy of Xi Jinping, currently heads the CAC; he replaced Lu Wei,29 who was removed from office in 2016 and later accused of a long list of corruption charges in February 2018.30

The CAC reports to the party’s Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, which is headed directly by Xi Jinping, making it the highest authority on internet policy in China.31 Since 2014, the party commission has also been in charge of the CNNIC, an administrative agency under the MIIT that issues digital certificates to websites.32

Another regulatory body, the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), is tasked with overseeing the media and entertainment sector in China, which includes internet-based television, online videos, and streaming services.33 In March 2018, the state news agency announced plans to reorganize the SAPPRFT as a new body—the National Radio and Television Administration—overseen directly by the State Council, which would place media and entertainment under closer government control.34 Meanwhile, the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department continues to oversee the political and ideological inclination of online content.

The nonprofit Cyber Security Association of China was established in March 2016 to promote online security.35 It is made up of more than 200 member technology and cybersecurity companies and research institutions, and headed by Fang Binxing, who is recognized as the developer of the Great Firewall.36

B Limits on Content

The CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, government agencies, and private companies employ hundreds of thousands or even millions of people to monitor, censor, and manipulate online content. Material on a range of issues is systematically censored, with the most censored topics in 2017 involving breaking news related to health and safety, media censorship, official wrongdoing, foreign affairs, the reputation of the party or officials, or civil society activism. Censorship further tightened in the months leading up to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 and around the March 2018 annual meetings of the national legislature and its main advisory body, during which constitutional changes to end term limits for President Xi were announced. The government also took new measures in the past year to restrict the use of circumvention tools to bypass blocking and filtering. Growing censorship demands, new licensing requirements, and data localization mandates under the cybersecurity law that took effect in 2017 have all increased the operational costs of running an internet company in China. Onerous regulations have also hindered the ability of independent media and individual bloggers, journalists, and writers to sustain themselves financially.

Blocking and Filtering

The Chinese government maintains the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship apparatus, known informally as the Great Firewall, which includes both automated mechanisms and human monitors tasked with blocking online criticism of individuals, policies, or events considered integral to the one-party system. A government document published in 2017 revealed that more than 13,000 websites have been blocked or closed since 2015.1

In 2017, Freedom House analysis of leaked censorship directives indicated that the most censored topics usually involved breaking news related to health and safety, followed by media censorship, official wrongdoing, foreign affairs, the reputation of the party or officials, and civil society activism.2 There is also consistent and systematic censorship of content that violates long-standing taboos on topics such as the Cultural Revolution, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Taiwanese independence, repression of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. In addition, censors have increasingly blocked international news outlets for reporting on issues like corruption and illicit wealth among high-level officials, especially those with Chinese-language websites. At least 12 global news websites tracked by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica were inaccessible inside China in 2017–18.3 In August 2018, all British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) websites were blocked after the company switched from the “HTTP” web protocol to the encrypted “HTTPS.”4 Only a few major international sites, such as CNN English, Huffington Post, the Guardian, and the Washington Post, were not blocked as of mid-2018. A wide range of other websites that might provide information of interest to Chinese users are blocked as well, including those of human rights groups and international businesses.5

Several social media and messaging platforms are completely blocked in China, isolating the Chinese public from global networks. According to the censorship monitor, 185 of Alexa’s top 1,000 websites in the world were blocked as of September 2018.6 These include Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, Dropbox, Instagram, SoundCloud, WordPress, and Pinterest.7 A number of services operated by Google, including Google Maps, Translate, Calendar, Scholar, and Analytics, remained blocked in 2018, while Skype was subject to throttling, according to

In the past year, foreign publishers began selectively obscuring their own content in China to comply with censorship demands and avoid being blocked entirely. In August 2017, Cambridge University Press (CUP) blocked online access to certain articles and book reviews published in the academic journal China Quarterly at the government’s request. The affected content dealt with sensitive topics including the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Cultural Revolution, Tibet and Xinjiang, Falun Gong, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.9 After an outcry from the academic community around the world, CUP eventually reversed its censorship decision.10 In November 2017, the publisher Springer Nature ceded to censorship demands and blocked all articles from two journals, the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, that discussed Tibet, Taiwan, or the Cultural Revolution.11

The government took new measures in 2017 and 2018 to restrict the use of circumvention tools to bypass blocking and filtering. VPNs offered by domestic or international software developers reroute the user’s traffic through a server outside the Great Firewall to access blocked sites. In 2014, China boasted the largest number of VPN users in the world, according to Global Web Index.12 The MIIT launched a campaign to crack down on unauthorized domestic VPNs between January 17, 2017, and March 31, 2018.13 Service providers are now barred from setting up VPNs without licensing, and illegal VPN operations will be subject to closure or blocking.14 In June 2017, Apple removed over 600 applications providing VPN services from its China App Store as part of its compliance with the new cybersecurity law (see Content Removal).15 In July 2017, GreenVPN told its customers that it had received an order from regulators to cease operations in China.16

Even the last few havens for unregulated VPNs received government attention. The Wi-Fi services of international hotel lobbies, for example, can usually bypass the Great Firewall. In August 2017, the authorities warned companies providing internet networks for hotels to stop installing VPNs in hotel systems.17

Not all circumvention tools are illegal, since businesses and the government also rely on them to communicate and access information beyond China’s borders.18 But the authorities have tried to regulate access to the software. China Telecom informed its corporate clients in 2017 that authorized VPNs were for “internal office use only” and can only connect to a company’s headquarters abroad.19 Despite these restrictions, millions of Chinese each month still made use of various paid and unpaid circumvention tools to access uncensored information and international social media sites, with demand often exceeding supply.

While the term “Great Firewall” is often used to refer to China’s internet censorship system as a whole, it alludes more specifically to the automated, technical blocking of websites and services based outside China. In some cases, whole domain names or internet protocol (IP) addresses are blocked, with users receiving an explicit message about illegal content. Other interventions are less visible. Over the past several years, observers have documented unusually slow speeds that indicate deliberate throttling, which delays the loading of targeted sites and services.20

Authorities also use deep packet inspection (DPI) to scan for any blacklisted keywords in both a user’s request for content and the results returned. Once the keywords are detected, the technology signals both sides of the exchange to temporarily sever the connection. Such granular control is less noticeable to users because specific pages can be blocked within otherwise approved sites, and because the interruption appears to result from a technical error.21 Returning fake pages, or replacing the requested site with content retrieved from an unrelated IP address using a technique known as DNS poisoning, is another routine method of disrupting access to specific content.

Censorship decisions are arbitrary, opaque, and inconsistent, in part because so many individuals and processes are involved. The impact may vary depending on timing, technology, and geographical region. ISPs reportedly install filtering devices differently, in the internet backbone or even in provincial-level internal networks.22 Blacklists periodically leak online, but they are not officially published. There are no formal avenues for appeal. The government has generally not been transparent about content controls,23 and criticism of censorship is itself censored.24

Content Removal

Websites and social media accounts are subject to deletion or closure at the request of censorship authorities, and internet companies are required to proactively monitor and delete problematic content or face punishment. The cybersecurity law that took effect in June 2017 requires network operators to “immediately stop transmission” of banned content.25 Such requirements are costly for content providers and platforms to implement. In 2017, one company estimated that 20 to 30 percent of its labor costs were dedicated to “auditing” content.26

Sina’s efforts to manage content on its Weibo platform are well documented. Staff members delete individual posts or accounts, often within 24 hours of an offending post, but sometimes long after publication.27 They also make published posts visible only to the account owner or personally warn individual users about illicit content.28 Hundreds of terms have been automatically filtered from Weibo search results over time.29 WeChat censorship is also increasingly sophisticated, and the company no longer informs users when content has been censored.30 Research by Citizen Lab from March 2018 found that WeChat employs AI technology to filter images for censorship, countering a previously popular method of sharing sensitive content.31

Locally hosted websites are frequently targeted for shutdown, removing the site from the internet altogether, in contrast to blocking, which leaves the site accessible outside the blocking parameters. Xinhua news agency reported that in 2017, as many as 128,000 websites were taken offline for containing "harmful" information.32

A number of sensitive events provoked high levels of censorship in the past year, as demonstrated by notable spikes in the deletion of social media posts on Weibo.33 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s death in custody from liver cancer in July 2017 triggered the highest rate of deletions on Sina Weibo over the past 2.5 years.34 WeChat users reported that images depicting Liu and his wife Liu Xia were also blocked; those sent via private messages were not visible to the recipient,35 as SMS and instant messages are subject to blocking and filtering. Citizen Lab research on both Weibo and WeChat found that the scope of keyword and image censorship related to Liu Xiaobo had greatly expanded after his death.36

Censorship further tightened in the months leading up to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017. Officials regard the congress, which convenes twice every decade, as an important propaganda period and consequently sought to suppress competing content from foreign countries, including entertainment. Foreign movies and television shows were removed from top video-sharing websites such as ACFun and Bilibili, while popular American shows such as Saturday Night Live and the Jimmy Kimmel Show were labelled as “illegal content” on Weibo and removed.37 Keyword censorship on WeChat affected negative words criticizing the government, neutral terms, and even CCP slogans such as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”38

Similarly, censorship spiked before and during the March 2018 annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), known as the “two sessions.”39 A key topic targeted by censors was the announcement of constitutional changes that lifted term limits for Xi Jinping, which critics said would enable him to rule for life, like an “emperor.”40 A long list of keywords related to Xi’s ability to rule the country indefinitely were banned on social media, including “constitution amendment,” “consecutive terms,” “monarchy,” and “long live.”41 In a new extreme, even the letter “N” was briefly banned to prevent citizens from using it in the equation “N>2,” with N signifying the number of presidential terms.42 The popular question-and-answer platform Zhihu was also suspended for seven days, possibly because of a post that alluded to the dangers of Xi being president for life.43

In general, content related to Xi, especially anything that might reflect negatively on the president, is heavily censored. In June 2017, a video showed Xi alone in a meeting with Russian delegates at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit due to the late arrival of his team. Russian president Vladimir Putin jokingly called Xi a “lone warrior,” and Xi laughed. The video and related comments by internet users were swiftly deleted from Chinese cyberspace.44

Apolitical news or content is also frequently subject to harsh censorship. In June 2017, a Caixin article titled “Villagers Seek Accountability over Ignored Reports of Large Fissure in Mountainside before Maoxian Landslide” was removed from the publication’s website following instructions from the authorities.45 The article had focused on officials’ failure to respond to residents’ warnings of a possible disaster before a landslide hit Xinmo village in Sichuan Province, leaving 10 dead and 93 missing.46

In November 2017, staff at a private nursery school in Beijing were allegedly involved in child abuse and sexual molestation. The news became a hotly discussed topic but abruptly disappeared from social media.47 In early 2018, the website and apps of the Marriott hotel company were shut down for a week after it was discovered that the firm had listed Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, and Tibet as “countries” instead of territories claimed or ruled by China.48

Censors target video content and live-streaming services as well, including popular platforms used by millions of people. In 2017, the Culture Ministry launched a campaign to crack down on parody videos of revolutionary classics and heroes. Thousands of videos from Youku Tudou, Tencent, Iqiyi, Baidu, and Sina were removed as a result.49 In June 2017, the live-streaming services of Sina Weibo, iFeng, and ACFUN were shut down because of their alleged promotion of negative comments on social issues.50 In April 2018, the popular news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and three other news apps were temporarily suspended from Android app stores, apparently as punishment for “inappropriate” video content.51

In the past year, officials tested new capabilities to shut down websites on demand, conducting a nationwide drill for an “emergency response” system involving internet data centers and cloud companies that host website servers.52 On August 3, 2017, the Ministry of Public Security ordered internet companies to participate in the three-hour drill, during which they were tested on their ability to shut down designated “harmful” websites within three minutes upon receiving a request.53 The ministry explained that the drill was carried out “to step up online security for the 19th Party Congress and tackle the problem of smaller websites illegally disseminating harmful information.”54

Companies also remove entire social media accounts. Weibo announced on January 30, 2018, that a total of 1,132 accounts had been shut down because of pornography.55 On June 7, an estimated 80 Sina Weibo and WeChat accounts that disseminated celebrity gossip or other entertainment news were shut down.56

A number of noteworthy social media accounts were shuttered in the past year. In February 2018, internet celebrity MC Tianyou was banned from all media outlets in China for mentioning his experiences with drug use in his songs. His social media accounts were closed accordingly.57 In March, on the eve of International Women’s Day, the media and advocacy platform Feminist Voices was suspended on both Weibo and WeChat.58

The authorities pressure Chinese internet companies and applications to tightly enforce censorship regulations or risk suspensions, fines, or even closure. Such pressure has intensified since the new cybersecurity law came into effect in June 2017. In August 2017, Weibo, WeChat, and Baidu Tieba were investigated by the authorities for allegedly violating the law after local watchdogs found that some users had disseminated rumors that “endangered national security, public security, and social order.”59 In September 2017, Tencent, Weibo, and Baidu received heavy fines as a penalty for allowing users to post banned content such as pornography and “ethnic hatred.”60 Such pressure pushed tech companies to hire more human censors to purge "illegal content." In October 2017, Sina Weibo reportedly recruited 1,000 content supervisors.61 In January 2018, Jinri Toutiao, China's top news app, said it was hiring 2,000 content reviewers.62

International companies also complied with government requests to remove content. Apple has been a prominent target in the past few years. In June 2017, the company was required to remove hundreds of VPNs from its app store to comply with the new cybersecurity law. The calling platform Skype was subsequently removed in November 2017.63 Apple had previously complied with a request to remove the New York Times app in December 2016.64

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

The digital news media and other online platforms are subject to significant control, and several new regulations limiting user-generated content have been passed over the past few years. Websites and social media accounts, other than those operated by print and broadcast outlets, are not allowed to produce news content by law, though the definition of news is not clear.

In June 2017, new CAC regulations on managing internet news and information services (hulianwang xinwen xinxi fuwu guanli guiding) came into effect,65 allowing only traditional media or state-controlled enterprises to obtain a license to gather or disseminate news in any online format.66 Critics said the regulations were unconstitutional and violated China’s trade agreements.67 Meanwhile, regulations in effect since March 2016 place restrictions on foreign investment in online publishing and require at least eight full-time editorial or publishing staff members.68

The new CAC regulations had an immediate impact. On June 7, an estimated 80 Sina Weibo and WeChat accounts that disseminated celebrity gossip or other entertainment news were shut down (see Content Removal), signaling an expansion of censorship to a news sector that had been previously considered relatively free.69 On June 22, the media and entertainment regulator SAPPRFT ordered three major websites, including Sina Weibo, to stop streaming audio and video with political and social content that was deemed to be in violation of state regulations.70

Growing censorship demands, new licensing requirements, and data localization mandates have all increased the operational costs of running an internet company in China. While large companies have been better able to absorb the new costs, it has become less feasible for new and smaller players to enter or stay in the market. According to the CAC, over 3,000 websites were shut down or had their licenses revoked in 2018, likely in part for failing to abide by the new regulations.71 To remain in operation, many sites have had to hire more internal censors. For example, after the live-streaming app Kuaishou was penalized in April 2018 for “inappropriate” content, the company sought to hire 3,000 more internal censors, adding to its existing team of 2,000.72 Arbitrary regulatory decisions have also contributed to an unstable stock market for China’s tech sector.73

In addition, new rules from the CAC have made it harder for both independent media and individual bloggers, journalists, and writers to sustain themselves financially.74 Commercial media outlets such as Caixin, known for more aggressive and investigative reporting, have suffered from falling profits due to censorship and new rules requiring news portals and other aggregators to favor state media. As a result, Caixin was forced to introduce a paywall in November 2017.75

As a result of the growing restrictions, online journalists regularly practice a high degree of self-censorship. Editors and reporters who post banned content—or content that is critical of the CCP, its high-ranking members, or its actions—risk disciplinary warnings, job loss, or even criminal detention. News websites in Hong Kong operate with considerably more freedom but have been subject to periodic obstruction.76

Online content is subject to extensive manipulation. As part of a newer strategy of information control in recent years, propaganda officials systematically instruct internet outlets to amplify content from state media and downplay news, even from some state-affiliated media, that might generate public criticism of the government. An analysis of leaked censorship directives throughout 2017 found that nearly one-third of the directives issued to editors, web portals, and other online content administrators urged them to downplay stories that might otherwise garner greater public attention.77

Trending topics on Weibo are also periodically manipulated. In the lead-up to the March 2018 NPC and CPPCC meetings, Weibo’s trending topics were reduced to innocuous discussions on matters like “super-rich girlfriends” and “can you eat a cup of noodles on a high-speed train,” while topics related to the NPC were conspicuously lacking.78 Popular news aggregating apps are also instructed not to “hype” certain stories while using a “super algorithm” to put stories about Xi Jinping and his “New Era” propaganda themes at the top of news feeds.

Web commentators known colloquially as the “50 Cent Party” are paid to post progovernment remarks and influence online discussions.79 Commentators often report users who post offending statements, target government critics with negative remarks, or deliberately muddy the facts of a particular incident.80 They also coordinate smear campaigns to discredit high-profile government critics.81 According to a 2017 study, the web commentators are strategically deployed to distract the public from certain issues, with about 80 percent of posts by 50-Centers dedicated to “cheerleading” the government’s activities.82 Content manipulation extends even to platforms that are blocked in China, like Twitter, demonstrating an effort to influence online commentary beyond China’s borders.

In addition to paid commentators, local authorities have mobilized ziganwu, volunteer commentators motivated by ideology rather than cash, to promote the government’s image online.83 This activity forms part of a propaganda strategy to “spread positive energy among society.”84 A document leaked in 2015 revealed hundreds of thousands of “youth league online commentators” in China’s higher education institutions, tasked with swaying students against supposed Western values.85 In 2016, a handful of ziganwu were appointed to a social media division of the Communist Youth League.86 The league’s new media working group uses Weibo, WeChat, and other social media platforms to tailor political messages to younger audiences.87

The CCP has also sought to reach younger readers through new, more appealing state-backed online media outlets such as The Paper, launched in 2015, and an English-language version called Sixth Tone, unveiled in April 2016. In tandem with the decline in investigative journalism and restrictions on original reporting by online portals, state-sponsored content generation has given the party greater control over the online news narrative in recent years.

In a newer trend, the government has encouraged Chinese internet companies to engage in “party building” efforts to strengthen the “ideological security” of their firms as part of Xi Jinping’s push to exert greater control over business enterprises.88 To showcase party loyalty, Weibo, Jingdong, Baidu, Sohu, Qihoo 360, and LeTV have had party branches within their companies since 2016. Smaller internet enterprises started to follow suit more recently. The popular bike-sharing start-up Ofo established a party committee on July 1, 2017. In August, Zhihu established a party branch.89

Despite extensive censorship and online manipulation, the internet still provides a forum for discussion and enables the sharing of information on important social and political issues, including sensitive topics like democracy and constitutional government.90 A certain amount of open debate has allowed officials to monitor public sentiment, debunk “enemy” ideology,91 and conduct internal power struggles, though the space for such online expression has dwindled in recent years.

Civil society organizations involved in social and cultural issues often have a vigorous online presence, while others that are perceived as a political threat are often penalized (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities). A growing crackdown on organizations and websites that focus on human rights and social issues in recent years has effectively diminished the space for civil society in the country. Ethnic minorities and persecuted religious groups attempt to use the internet to disseminate banned content, but they remain underrepresented.

Many internet users bypass censorship with circumvention technology or creative work-arounds. Humorous neologisms, homonyms, and cryptic allusions substitute for banned keywords, forcing censors to filter seemingly innocuous terms like “rice bunny,” which is pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin and became an alternative for the intermittently censored #MeToo hashtag in the past year (see Digital Activism).92 The cartoon character Winnie the Pooh has also been systematically censored since it became a meme to caricature Xi Jinping.93 A crackdown on VPNs (see Blocking and Filtering) and advances in keyword filtering raised new obstacles for those seeking to evade censorship over the past year, although at least several million people each month continue to do so.

Despite heavy censorship, investigative journalists continued to try to hold powerful companies and officials accountable for their actions. Some stories on social issues evaded restrictions and triggered national conversations. In 2017, five of the top 10 “society news stories” listed by the Baidu search engine in an annual report were the result of investigative reporting from within the country.94 Some of the stories were also recognized among the year’s best by the international nonprofit Global Investigative Journalist Network, including a series of stories on abuse scandals at child care facilities in different parts of the country.95

Digital Activism

Social media used to provide a vibrant space for activism in China but have waned amid stricter internet controls in recent years.96 The word “netizen”—a translation of the Chinese wangmin, or citizen of the internet—conveys the sense of civic engagement associated with online exchanges, but the term was less common in China by 2015.97

Some activists continue to make an effort. On July 9, 2017, Chinese scholar and social activist Li Yinhe posted a long article on her Weibo page calling for the censorship system in China to be removed. Her post received many likes and retweets before it was quickly deleted.98

Authorities remain responsive to public opinion online, though the ultimate impact is limited. In one positive example of digital activism, the #MeToo campaign reached China in 2018 despite heavy censorship, galvanizing a number of Chinese students to speak out online about their experiences with sexual harassment. In one notable case, a prominent professor at Beihang University was dismissed from his job as a result of harassment allegations that were aired online. In addition, university professors across the country signed a declaration to urge the Ministry of Education to offer policy guidance for preventing sexual harassment on campus.99

C Violations of User Rights

The new cybersecurity law that came into effect in June 2017 strengthened internet companies’ obligation to register users under their real names and required that information about Chinese users be stored on servers located within the country. Known dissidents received heavy penalties for their online activities in the past year, while ethnic and religious minorities continued to be heavily surveilled and persecuted for their spiritual and cultural expression or for exposing rights abuses committed against their communities.

Legal Environment

Article 35 of the constitution guarantees freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and publication, but such rights are subordinated to the CCP’s status as the ruling power. The constitution cannot generally be invoked in courts as a legal basis for asserting rights. The judiciary is not independent and closely follows party directives, particularly in politically sensitive freedom of expression cases. Government and CCP agencies issue regulations to establish censorship guidelines. These are highly secretive and subject to constant change, and they cannot be challenged in the courts. Prosecutors exploit vague provisions in China’s criminal code; laws governing printing and publications; subversion, separatism, and antiterrorism laws; and state secrets legislation to imprison citizens for online activity. Trials and hearings typically lack due process.

A new cybersecurity law came into effect on June 1, 2017, increasing censorship requirements, mandating data localization, codifying real-name registration requirements for internet companies, and obliging them to assist security agencies with investigations.1 The law also consolidated the role of the CAC (see Regulatory Bodies), which it identified as the principle agency responsible for implementing many of its provisions.2

In addition to the new cybersecurity law itself, the CAC continually introduced new rules and guidelines to further refine online restrictions. A review of the agency’s website found that it had published 176 new rules in 2017, averaging nearly one every two days.3 Several regulations released in August and September 2017 strengthened controls over user-generated content on social media, reinforcing strong requirements for real-name registration.4 In February 2018, the CAC published the “Regulation on Microblogging Information Service Management” (weiboke xinxi fuwu guanli guiding), which requires microblogging service providers to take measures to dispel rumors once they are found on their platforms.5

Other laws and regulations have implications for online speech. Relevant offenses include defamation, creating disturbances, illegal commercial activities, and extortion.6 Defamation—which has been interpreted to include “online rumors,” content deemed false, or online expression that “seriously harms” public order or state interests7 —carries a possible three-year prison sentence under “serious” circumstances,8 defined as online content that receives more than 5,000 views or is reposted more than 500 times.9 Online messages deemed to incite unrest or protest are also subject to criminal penalties. Crimes such as “subversion” and “separatism” can draw sentences as severe as life in prison under some laws, especially for religious and ethnic minorities.10

An amendment to the criminal code in November 2015 introduced penalties of up to seven years in prison for the dissemination of misinformation on social media.11 Separately, the antiterrorism law adopted in December 2015 instructed companies to delete terrorist content or face administrative detention for their personnel. It also barred social media users from sharing information about acts of terrorism or spreading “inhuman” images that could encourage copycat attacks, and increased pressure on private companies to provide the government with user data (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

Some detentions, including administrative detentions authorized by public security bureaus, do not require approval by a court.12 Chinese authorities abolished the form of administrative detention known as “reeducation through labor” in 2013 in response to domestic and international calls for reform,13 but individuals can be detained without trial under similarly poor conditions in drug rehabilitation and “legal education” centers.14 State agents also abduct and hold individuals in secret locations without informing their families or legal counsel. The criminal procedure law provides a legal basis for detaining suspects considered a threat to national security in undisclosed locations.15 This provision has been used in recent years to hold human rights defenders and online activists in incommunicado detention for indefinite periods of time.

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

Citizens are regularly jailed for their online activities, including advocates of political reform, human rights workers, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and ordinary users who stir dissent or criticize CCP leaders. A number of long prison sentences were issued during the reporting period, and online speech was also frequently punished with brief administrative detentions. Though the people imprisoned represent a tiny percentage of the overall user population, prosecutions have a chilling effect on activism and encourage self-censorship in the broader public. Rapid advances in surveillance technology—including AI, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps—and growing police access to user data have helped facilitate arrests and prosecutions in recent years (see Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity).

Known dissidents received heavy penalties for their online activities in the past year:

  • In December 2017, blogger Wu Gan was sentenced to eight years in prison in Tianjin after being held in detention for two years. Known for shedding light on government abuse of power, Wu was convicted of using “information networks to spread a great deal of rhetoric and to attack state power.”16
  • Prominent lawyer Jiang Tianyong was sentenced in November 2017 to two years in prison in connection with his online writings criticizing the Chinese government’s human rights record and the torture of prisoners.17
  • Also in November, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che was sentenced in China to five years in prison for his social media commentary about Taiwanese democracy, which was considered a subversion of state power.18 He had mysteriously disappeared while on a trip to China in March. In the same trial, Chinese rights activist Peng Yuhua was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.19

In a new development, activists and journalists were increasingly arrested and held for long periods in pretrial detention for operating websites about civil society and human rights issues. At least one individual was prosecuted and sentenced to prison:

  • In June 2017, Yang Xiuqiong, a contributor to the human rights news website 64 Tianwang, was arrested on charges of “illegally providing state secrets overseas,” though she had been targeted in the past for reporting on protests.20
  • A volunteer reporter for 64 Tianwang, Li Zhaoxiu, was arrested in September 2017 on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”21 The publisher of 64 Tianwang, Huang Qi, has remained in custody since November 2016 after years of harassment, serving prison sentences for various articles posted by the outlet.22
  • Citizen journalist and former migrant worker Lu Yuyu was sentenced in August 2017 to four years in prison for his work documenting strikes and protests on labor and environmental issues throughout China.23 Working with his girlfriend, Lu had shared his reporting on blogs and social media. Reporters Without Borders recognized their work with a press freedom award in 2016.24
  • On September 1, 2017, the executive editor of the anticensorship website Across the Great Firewall,25 Zhen Jianghua, was detained by police in Guangdong Province for "incitement to subvert state power.”26 As of mid-2018, Zhen remained in detention without trial and access to a lawyer.27 If eventually convicted, he faced penalties of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.
  • After 20 months in pretrial detention, the founder of the rights website Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, Liu Feiyue, stood trial in August 2018 on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.”28

In general, online journalists are frequently imprisoned for their work. As of December 1, 2017, at least 41 journalists were behind bars in China, 37 of whom worked online, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.29

A growing focus of prosecutions—alongside censorship and propaganda—in the past year has been controlling and protecting the image of Xi Jinping:

  • In September 2017, human rights activist Zhang Guanghong was detained for 24 hours for sharing criticism of Xi in a private WhatsApp group. He was later officially arrested in December for insulting the president.30 Authorities claimed they retrieved Zhang’s WhatsApp communications through back-door access to the encrypted app, though observers believe the evidence came from a spy embedded in the WhatsApp group.
  • Numerous netizens were detained ahead of the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017. They included activists Li Xuehui, Wang Xiuying, and Wang Fengxian, who were detained in September 2017 for making and posting a video on YouTube that mocked Xi.31

Prison sentences and other penalties have also been handed down for the sale of VPNs as part of a crackdown on circumvention tools (see Blocking and Filtering):

  • In December 2017, Wu Xiangyang of Guangxi Province was sentenced to five and a half years in prison and fined 500,000 yuan (US$78,000) for selling VPN services without a proper license.32
  • Deng Jiewei was sentenced to nine months in prison in Guangdong Province in September 2017 for selling circumvention software.33

Religious and ethnic minorities face particularly harsh treatment for sharing information online about their persecution by the Chinese government. Tibetans are often targeted for advocating for their religious and cultural freedom:

  • Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced in May 2018 to five years in prison after he was featured in a New York Times video and article about his campaign to preserve the Tibetan language.34
  • In January 2018, a former Tibetan political prisoner and journalist was sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting separatism” based on his WeChat posts criticizing the government’s policy of promoting ethnic unity and marginalizing the unique cultural identities of minority groups.35
  • In July 2017, Tibetan monk Jamyang Ladroe from Sichuan Province was sentenced to three years in prison for politically sensitive articles he wrote and shared on WeChat.36 Tibetan monks also received long prison sentences in 2016 for involvement in a WeChat group about commemorating the Dalai Lama’s birthday.37

Muslim residents of the Xinjiang region are heavily persecuted for their religious and cultural expression. In November 2017, for example, five ethnic Kazakhs and six Uighurs in Xinjiang were detained for allegedly disseminating terrorist content online, though the detentions fit into the authorities’ broader crackdown on “extremist” activities that often amount to standard Islamic practices.38 In December 2017, around 40 ethnic Kazakhs were arrested for disseminating content in WeChat groups that celebrated the independence of Republic of Kazakhstan from the Soviet Union.39 In a September 2018 report, Human Rights Watch chronicled the Chinese government’s systematic campaign to repress Xinjiang’s roughly 13 million Muslims through mass arbitrary detentions, intrusive surveillance, and torture.40 An estimated 1 million people have been held in political reeducation camps,41 some of whom were targeted for their online activities.42

Other religious minorities are also persecuted. Many Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed in recent years for posting messages about the spiritual group or human rights abuses on WeChat or QQ, accessing banned websites, and possessing VPN technology.43 In March 2018, Falun Gong practitioner Yang Rong was sentenced to one and half years in prison for sharing information about the group on social media.44

Ordinary citizens are often penalized for their online speech. In June 2017, an internet user with the pseudonym Zhang Qiang was sentenced to nine months in prison and a 1,000 yuan (US$160) fine for making a joke in a private WeChat group that his friends should "come join ISIS with me.”45

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

Direct surveillance of internet and mobile phone communications is pervasive and highly sophisticated, while privacy protections under Chinese law are minimal.

Companies offering web services are required to register users, compromising user anonymity and placing user communications at risk of direct government surveillance. While businesses must gain users’ consent to collect their personal electronic data and must outline the “use, method, and scope” of the collection, there are no limits placed on law enforcement requests for personal records.46 Mobile phone users have been required to register since 2010, so providing a phone number is a common way of registering with other services.47

The new cybersecurity law and subsequent rules issued by the CAC in 2017 codified and reinforced existing real-name registration requirements (see Legal Environment). Companies quickly fell into line. Baidu announced that after June 1, 2017, accounts without real names registered would have restricted access to functions such as posting comments.48 On September 8, 2017, Sina Weibo announced that all users needed to register with their real names before September 15 to post content and comments.49

Before the new requirements, news portals, bulletin boards, blog-hosting services, and email providers had long enforced some form of user registration.50 The MIIT requires website operators themselves to register as part of the licensing process.51 Past reports from Sina Weibo to the US Securities and Exchange Commission had noted the company’s exposure to potentially severe penalties due to its inability to fully comply with real-name registration rules.52

The authorities justify real-name registration as a means to prevent cybercrime, but experts warn that uploaded identity documents are vulnerable to theft or misuse,53 especially since some verification has been done through a little-known, government-linked contractor.54 In December 2016, millions of personal data records, obtained through an app that allows customers of the State Grid Corporation to pay for electricity online, were sold on the black market by unknown actors.55

Cybercafés check photo identification and record user activities, sometimes in cooperation with law enforcement. The Public Security Bureau in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, developed a real-name registration app for cybercafés in the city in 2015.56 In March 2017, local news reports said facial recognition technologies had been used to match customers’ faces and ID photos in cybercafés in the city of Xingtai, Hebei Province.57 Hebei authorities also instructed public Wi-Fi providers to comply with user registration requirements.58 In September 2018, Shanghai police launched a facial recognition system for user registration at cybercafés that is expected to cover all cybercafés in the city by the end of October.59

Chinese companies generally score poorly in assessments of the user protections incorporated in their technology,60 and there are limits on tools that help internet users conceal their location or the nature of their activity, including VPNs (see Blocking and Filtering). The 2015 antiterrorism law requires companies to offer technical support to decrypt information at the request of law enforcement agencies, among other provisions.61 Regulations for the Administration of Commercial Encryption dating to 1999, and related rules from 2006, separately require a government regulator to approve encryption products used by foreign and domestic companies.62

Various regulations outline requirements for companies to retain user data, which companies are legally obligated to make available to officials, despite new penalties on companies that infringe on privacy introduced by the 2017 cybersecurity law.63 CAC rules issued in June 2016 require Chinese app providers to register users and keep user activity logs for 60 days.64 Other ISPs are required to retain user information for 60 days, and submit it to the authorities upon request without judicial oversight or transparency.65

Meanwhile, the State Secrets Law obliges telecommunications operators to cooperate with authorities investigating leaked state secrets or risk losing their licenses.66 An amendment to the criminal procedure law that took effect in 2013 introduced a vague review process for allowing police surveillance of suspects’ electronic communications, which the Ministry of Public Security permits in many types of criminal investigations.67

Investigations can provide the authorities with unfettered access to user communications and data on certain popular platforms, as evidenced by growing reports of users being punished for their presumed private communications, particularly on WeChat. In April 2018, for example, a leaked directive from an internet policing department in Zhejiang Province revealed instructions to investigate an individual who had criticized Xi Jinping in a WeChat group with only eight members. Though the individual had used a pseudonym, the instructions identified him with his real name, address, and phone number.68

The new cybersecurity law also mandated data localization, which can ease government access to user information. Apple quickly complied, announcing plans in July 2017 to open a data center in China.69 In February 2018, Apple’s iCloud began storing the data of its Chinese users in partnership with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a state-run company.70 The notetaking platform Evernote followed suit, announcing plans in February to transfer all local data to Tencent Cloud.71

As with censorship, measures that erode privacy disproportionately target groups perceived as threats to the regime. In Xinjiang, Uighurs have been required to register with their real names when purchasing electronic devices with storage, communication, and broadcast features since 2015. Stores selling such equipment are also required to install software that provides police with real-time electronic records on transactions.72

In a newer, more repressive development, residents of Xinjiang have been forced to install spyware on their mobile phones. On July 10, 2017, internet users in the region were informed that they had 10 days to install Jingwang (“Web Cleansing” or “Clean Net”)—a surveillance app designed to search for files that match blacklisted content—on their mobile devices.73 In April 2018, researchers at the Open Technology Fund confirmed the app’s intrusive capabilities and also discovered inherent vulnerabilities in the channels used to relay user data to government servers.74

Separately, companies and municipalities have begun testing “social credit” schemes that will allow an assessment of individuals’ online activities alongside other personal data before they are granted financial credit or access to certain services.75 The schemes have been subject to criticism within China due to privacy and other concerns, but plans to expand the idea continued to move forward in the past year. The central government plans to launch a nationwide, mandatory social credit system by 2020.76

Intimidation and Violence

Reports of torture and extralegal harassment are widespread, and many are well documented, particularly those involving political prisoners and freedom of expression cases. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, detainees in ordinary criminal cases face “physical and psychological torture during police interrogations, including being hung by the wrists, being beaten with police batons or other objects, and prolonged sleep deprivation.” Political prisoners often experience even worse treatment.77

Such abuse has resulted in deteriorating health conditions among prisoners and even death in custody. In one prominent case, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in custody from complications of liver cancer in July 2017 after authorities refused to let him travel abroad for treatment. In November 2017, writer Yang Tongyan—who was serving a 12-year prison sentence for “subversion” related to his online writings—passed away from brain cancer, only months after being released on medical parole.78

In March 2018, Amnesty International issued an urgent alert about the declining health of imprisoned human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was sentenced to two years in November 2017 for his online writings about the torture of political prisoners (see Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).79 Amnesty International issued another alert in May 2018, calling attention to the serious health condition of Huang Qi, the founder of the human rights news website 64 Tianwang, who has been in detention since November 2016.80

Internet users also risk being held under house arrest. The conditions and degree of confinement can be adjusted arbitrarily over time. Poet Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, had been confined in her Beijing home since 2010, often without an internet connection,81 until she was released and left China in July 2018.82 She had gone missing for several weeks after her husband’s funeral in July 2017.83 Some groups monitor the number of dissidents under house arrest, but there are no statistics showing how many were targeted specifically for online activity.84

Law enforcement officials frequently summon individuals for questioning in relation to online activity, an intimidation tactic referred to euphemistically as being “invited to tea.”85 Activists have also been forced to travel within the country during sensitive political events, effectively keeping them away from their normal online activities.86

Technical Attacks

Hackers, known in Chinese as heike (dark guests), employ various methods to interrupt or intercept online content with political implications. China remains a top source of global cyberattacks,87 though those with commercial targets have declined or become harder to trace.88 Attacks known to have originated in China can rarely be linked directly to the state, and much of the activity appears decentralized and uncoordinated. But many attacks employ sophisticated technology, and experts believe that Chinese military and intelligence agencies either sponsor or condone technical attacks on political targets.

Tibetans, Uighurs, and other minority groups in exile are persistently targeted with spear-phishing attacks, in which customized email messages are used to trick recipients into downloading malicious software such as spyware by clicking on a link or a seemingly legitimate attachment. In January 2018, the Canada-based monitoring organization Citizen Lab published new research on an extensive phishing operation against the Tibetan community that spanned 19 months.89 Other groups were potentially targeted as well, including other ethnic minorities, social movements, and a media group.

Domestic and overseas groups that report on China’s human rights situation also suffer from distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which temporarily disable websites by bombarding host servers with traffic. 90 In 2015, Citizen Lab analyzed a massive DDoS attack targeting the anticensorship group, along with content that the group hosted on GitHub. “While the attack infrastructure is co-located with the Great Firewall, the attack was carried out by a separate offensive system, with different capabilities and design, that we term the ‘Great Cannon,’” the group reported. Both the technology and the target offered “compelling evidence” of Chinese government involvement.91

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