China

Not Free
10
100
A Obstacles to Access 8 25
B Limits on Content 2 35
C Violations of User Rights 0 40
Last Year's Score & Status
10 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Conditions for internet users in China continued to deteriorate, confirming the country’s status as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the sixth consecutive year. Censorship and surveillance were pushed to unprecedented extremes as the government enhanced its information controls, including in response to persistent antigovernment protests in Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic that began in the city of Wuhan. Indeed, at the center of the official cover-up that enabled COVID-19 to spread globally were the regime’s restrictions on internet freedom, particularly police interrogations of and forced retractions by medical professionals who shared early reports on social media of a SARS-like illness in the city. The intensified internet controls and systematic surveillance evident during the coverage period affected hundreds of millions of internet and mobile phone users, resulting in increased self-censorship. Despite the tighter constraints and risk of criminal penalties, investigative journalists, video bloggers, and ordinary internet users took courageous action to trace the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, report from within the locked-down city of Wuhan, share information on other sensitive topics, and archive deleted news reports.

China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades, but his actions have also triggered rising discontent among elites within and outside the party. The country’s human rights advocates continue to seek avenues for protecting basic rights, despite intensifying restrictions.

Editor’s Note: Tibet and Hong Kong are not covered in this report. Certain territories that are assessed separately in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report are excluded from the relevant country reports in Freedom on the Net, as conditions in such territories differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 – May 31, 2020

  • According to government figures, China added 49 million new internet users during the coverage period, including 50 million subscribers to fifth-generation (5G) technology for mobile networks—the most in the world (see A1).
  • The full spectrum of internet controls were put into effect to police information about the coronavirus outbreak and the government’s response to it, including localized internet shutdowns, restrictions on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), content removals, account closures, criminal penalties, and hundreds of user arrests (see A3, B1, B2, C2, C3, and C7).
  • The Hong Kong protests, the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, critical reporting on CCP leaders, and the mass detention of Uighur and other Muslims in Xinjiang were among the most heavily censored topics during the coverage period (see B2).
  • As a result of intensifying controls, the online presence of independent civil society, human rights documentation, and prodemocracy viewpoints declined. Encouraged by authorities, the volume and aggressiveness of nationalistic voices increased, contributing to more self-censorship (see B4 and B7).
  • Despite authorities’ reduced tolerance for online mobilization and the associated threat of criminal penalties, investigative journalists, video bloggers, and their sources took significant risks to trace the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, identify those responsible for the initial cover-up, and report from within the locked-down city of Wuhan. Many ordinary internet users devised creative methods to share or archive deleted reports (see B4 and B8).
  • A wide array of individuals were targeted with legal and extralegal reprisals—including arbitrary detention, torture, and draconian prison terms—for their online activity. In addition to users who shared information about COVID-19 or criticized the government’s response to the pandemic, online journalists, critics of Xi Jinping, supporters of Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, operators of human rights websites, members of ethnic and religious minority groups, and anticensorship activists were imprisoned (see C3 and C7).
  • New evidence emerged of Chinese technology companies systematically aiding government surveillance, including through the development of mandatory or semimandatory propaganda and public health mobile phone applications that were found to collect data and transfer it to authorities. Chinese technology firms are also creating “key individual” databases through which security forces in different parts of the country can target certain people for particular scrutiny (see C5 and C6).

A Obstacles to Access

China added a reported 49 million new internet users between June 2019 and March 2020, as well as 50 million 5G subscribers, the most in the world. However, the country’s internet infrastructure and regulatory environment remain tightly controlled by the government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In June 2020, after the coverage period, new measures requiring cybersecurity audits for suppliers of “critical information infrastructure operators” came into effect.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 5.005 6.006

According to the government’s China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), there were 904 million internet users in China—representing 64.6 percent of the population—as of March 2020.1 That figure represents an increase of 49.1 million since June 2019. The number of users reaching the internet via mobile devices grew from 847 million to 897 million between December 2019 and March 2020.

Internet speeds in China ranked below global averages in 2020. The country had a mean download speed of 2.09 Mbps, according to tests conducted by Cable.co.uk, earning it a rank of 200 among the 221 countries tested,2 although Chinese government sources reported significantly higher broadband speeds. The speed of the country’s fourth-generation (4G) technology for mobile networks is higher, averaging 24.02 Mbps as of late 2019, although only there were only 128 million 4G users as of March 2020.3 Connection speeds in China are slowed by the government’s extensive censorship apparatus (see B1), which filters all cross-border traffic and makes the loading of content from foreign-hosted websites sluggish.4 Internet speeds can vary significantly in different parts of the country. According to government data, the fastest available connections were in Shanghai,5 while the slowest were in less prosperous and more heavily censored regions such as Xinjiang.6 Nevertheless, in April 2020, Chinese state media reported that broadband services covered more than 98 percent of all administrative villages in China.7

Chinese companies have been at the forefront of building and deploying 5G networks. In June 2020, after the coverage period, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced plans to build 600,000 5G base stations by the end of 2020.8 As of March 2020, China was home to an estimated 50 million 5G subscribers, the most in the world. 9

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 1.001 3.003

Internet access is relatively affordable for the average user, but other digital divides limit access for certain populations.

To reduce costs for consumers, state-owned mobile providers China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom cancelled the national data roaming fee as of July 2018.1 In January 2020, at the urging of the government,2 the three companies further lowered their rates to 5.1 renminbi ($0.72) per GB.3

Though the digital divide between urban and rural areas narrowed marginally in previous years, 71.8 percent of users are based in cities, according to March 2020 government figures.4 The CNNIC reported that same month that 51.9 percent of all internet users were male.5 As of March 2020, 496 million people did not have access to the internet, and 59.8 percent of those lived in rural areas.6

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 1.001 6.006

The Chinese government maintains control over China’s gateways to the global internet, giving authorities the ability to cut off cross-border information requests in order to restrict connectivity or access to content hosted on servers outside the country.1 This arrangement is the foundation for the ”Great Firewall,” as the country’s comprehensive internet censorship system is informally known. All service providers must subscribe via the gateway operators, which are overseen by the MIIT. In June 2020, after the coverage period, new Cybersecurity Review Measures came into effect.2 Under these rules, 3 all critical information-infrastructure operators must submit purchases of network products and services to a thorough national security review conducted by a government agency.4

The government has shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events. The most dramatic example occurred in 2009, when authorities imposed a 10-month internet blackout in Xinjiang—home to 22 million people—after ethnic violence in the regional capital, Urumqi.5 Since then, the practice has continued sporadically on a smaller scale. In May 2019, several regions reportedly experienced temporary network shutdowns caused by government tests of a new, simplified mechanism for restricting connectivity.6 The “one button” shutdown tests affected citizens in Guangdong Province, Shanghai, and Chongqing, among other metropolitan areas, and may have been conducted as a preemptive censorship measure ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 2019. In early March 2020, as parts of the country were placed under lockdown due to COVID-19, several reports emerged of localized, temporary connectivity restrictions in districts of Wuhan and in other parts of Hubei province, either in residential or commercial areas.7

Human rights activists and their families are sometimes subject to targeted network disconnections. For instance, Ding Zilin, one of the founders of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of activists who lost loved ones during the Tiananmen Square protests, was closely monitored in the weeks leading up to the June 4 anniversary in 2019, and her mobile phone connection was reportedly cut off.8

Network shutdowns are often explained as national security precautions. The cybersecurity law and Article 84 of a 2015 antiterrorism law introduced fines and detentions of up to 15 days for telecommunications firms and internet service providers (ISP), as well as relevant personnel, who fail to restrict certain forms of content including “shut[ting] down related services”(see B3 and C2).9

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 1.001 6.006

State-owned China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom dominate the mobile market,1 though the government has authorized new players to enter the sector over the past few years.2 In January 2019, BT (formerly British Telecom) became the first foreign telecommunications company to receive permission to provide internet services across the country.3 Similarly, in August 2019, the Beijing municipal government announced that it would allow foreign firms to invest in virtual private network (VPN) services for other foreign companies operating in the city on a trial basis, although their share would be capped at 50 percent.4

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.5 In practice, restrictions can be difficult to enforce. Overall, internet cafés are no longer as popular as they once were, although many remain gathering venues for video gamers. The total number of cybercafes was estimated to be between 130,000 and 150,000 in late 2019, 6 but the coronavirus outbreak caused many to close temporarily or go out of business, further weakening the industry.7

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

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

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)1 and the CCP’s Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs—launched in 2014 and reorganized as the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission in March 2018—oversee the telecommunications sector and regulate internet content.2 The cybersecurity law in effect since 2017 identified the CAC as the principle agency responsible for implementing many of its provisions.3 The CAC reports to the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, a party entity that is headed directly by Xi Jinping, making it the highest authority on internet policy in China.4 Since 2014, the commission has also overseen the CNNIC, an administrative agency under the MIIT that issues digital certificates to websites.5

The CCP has exerted greater control over state regulation of the press, film, radio, and television industries in recent years, including online video and streaming services. Since administrative restructuring occurred in March 2018, more agencies involved in media regulation, including online content, have been directly subordinated to the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, although several continue to report to the State Council. Regardless, the Propaganda Department plays the leading role with regard to the political and ideological inclination of online content.

Zhuang Rongwen has served as director of the CAC since mid-20186 and continued in that position during the coverage period, while simultaneously serving as deputy director of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.7 Both entities are extremely active issuing rules and instructions regarding technical, legal, administrative, or content dimensions of internet activity in China and ensuring party control.

B Limits on Content

The Chinese government and technology firms deployed the full spectrum of content controls to police information about the coronavirus outbreak and the government’s response, including VPN restrictions, automated deletions, large-scale content removals, and social media account closures. The tighter constraints, increased risk of penalties, and more dominant nationalistic voices encouraged self-censorship and diminished the space for online public mobilization on human rights. Nevertheless, investigative journalists, video bloggers, and ordinary internet users took significant risks to trace the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, report from within the locked down city of Wuhan, share information on other sensitive topics, and archive deleted news reports.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 0.000 6.006

The Chinese government’s Great Firewall is the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship apparatus. The resources targeted for blocking, including major social media platforms, usually contain criticism of individuals, policies, or events that are considered integral to the one-party system. The breadth of the affected content is constantly growing, leaving Chinese users with access only to a highly censored, monitored, and manipulated version of the internet.

According to GreatFire.org—an anticensorship group tracking filtering in China—as of mid-2020, at least 171 out of the top 1,000 most visited websites and social media platforms around the world were blocked in China.1 Many international news outlets and their Chinese-language websites are blocked. For example, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Wall Street Journal have been unavailable for years, while the websites of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) were blocked in 20182 and those of the Washington Post and the Guardian were blocked in June 2019. In October 2019, Quartz reported that its website was blocked in China. The websites of most privately owned and independent Chinese-language news services from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora—such as Liberty Times (Taiwan), Apple Daily (Hong Kong/Taiwan), Initium (Hong Kong), China Digital Times (United States), and New Tang Dynasty TV (United States)—are also blocked, with the exception of a few that closely follow the CCP line. A wide range of other websites that might provide information of interest to Chinese users are also blocked, including those of human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

Most international social media and messaging platforms are completely blocked in China, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, Snapchat, Line, and Pinterest, among others.3 The popular discussion forum Reddit was blocked in August 2018,4 while all languages of Wikipedia were blocked in late April 2019, ostensibly as part of the censorship sweep associated with the Tiananmen Square crackdown anniversary.5 Previously, only the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia and individual pages on sensitive topics were inaccessible.6 A number of Google services—including Maps, Translate, Calendar, Scholar, and Analytics—remained blocked in 2020. The long-standing blocks on international communications platforms have enabled the exponential growth of local services such as Tencent’s WeChat and Sina Weibo, which are subject to the government’s strict censorship demands (see B2).

Blocks on global search engines also severely limit the content available on the Chinese internet. Google’s search engine has been blocked since 2012,7 while the Yahoo search function was blocked in September 2018.8 Microsoft’s Bing has generally remained accessible due to its compliance with the government’s censorship requirements.9 Nevertheless, Bing accounts for only 2.4 percent of the search engine market in China, which is dominated by the Chinese companies Baidu and Sogou, with their market share as of May 2020 being 71.5 percent and 16.7 percent respectively.10

A minority of Chinese internet users (albeit tens of millions of users) are able to access blocked websites with circumvention tools, such as VPNs, that reroute traffic through a server outside the Great Firewall to bypass censorship. VPNs are also essential to businesses operating in China. However, the government has intensified its restrictions on these tools since new regulations in 2017 placed a ban on the use of unlicensed VPNs.11 Service providers are barred from setting up VPNs without government approval, and illegal VPN operations have been increasingly targeted for closure or blocking.12 Blocks on VPNs typically escalate ahead of high-profile events, such as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 2019.13 There were also reports of slower connectivity in mid-February as the Chinese government cracked down on free discussion of the coronavirus outbreak.14 VPN providers have reported growing technical sophistication deployed in the VPN blocking incidents of the past year.15

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 0.000 4.004

The government requires locally hosted websites and internet companies to proactively monitor their content and remove banned material, and they can face severe punishment for failure to comply. Thus, in addition to blocks that occur at the network level, some mobile phone devices and content providers—including foreign-owned ones—were revealed over the past year to be restricting access to banned sites or content. In October 2019, Quartz reported that Apple had since 2017 been blocking a list of sites generated by Tencent on its iPhone browser, restricting websites deemed politically sensitive by the CCP in much the same manner as it would combat malware or phishing content internationally.1 In November 2019, news emerged that the stock image firm Shutterstock had implemented a new feature of its search functions for users with a mainland China IP address—removing from search results images associated with Chinese-government-banned keywords; the effort prompted an employee petition criticizing the change.2 In December 2019, Reuters reported that Refinitiv—a financial information provider that distributes news to investors on a trading and analytics platform—had restricted access within China during the summer of 2019 to hundreds of stories about the Hong Kong protest movement or that otherwise cast the Chinese government in an unfavourable light.3

Private companies are required to delete significant amounts of information and close user accounts. This results in the outright elimination of certain content from the internet, as opposed to blocking, which leaves the affected sites accessible to users outside China or to those using circumvention tools.4 The scale of content removals, website closures, and social media account deletions continued to expand over the past year, reaching new types of platforms and topics that were previously uncensored.

The CAC regularly launches “rectification” and “clean-up” campaigns to pressure websites and social media platforms to more effectively police content. In the context of these campaigns, the CAC has reported several rounds of large-scale website closures and social media account deletions, including: over 11,000 website and 737,000 social media account and chat group closures in 2019; 5 816 website closures and 33,000 social media account or chat group deletions during the first quarter of 2020 for publishing information which had an “extremely vile impact on society;”6 and deletion of 6,126 articles and closure of 18,576 accounts in March and April for spreading “fake news,” “rumor mongering,” and harming the reputation of Communist Party figures.7 Separately, in 2019, Baidu reported deleting over 53 billion items of “harmful” information from its search engine results,8 an increase from 50 billion in 2018.9

The terms used by the CAC and reports of accounts and websites closed show that such mass removals and “rectification” campaigns target content recognized internationally as problematic, but also legitimate information on political, religious, and social issues deemed undesirable to the regime. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many accounts of ordinary users sharing information about the emerging coronavirus outbreak and early government attempts to cover it up were shuttered. This fits with a longer-term trend of censors increasingly targeting “self-media,” a category that includes independent writers, bloggers, and social media celebrities. Competing with official state propaganda, self-media accounts have become a major source of independent news for Chinese users. Overall, tens of thousands of these types of accounts have been shut down in the past two years, delivering a major blow to one of the few remaining avenues for independent and critical news and analysis.10

The government tightly regulates which media outlets and journalists are permitted to conduct and publish original reporting, with many websites and popular web portals barred from independent reporting and restricted to republishing content from state-run media or otherwise approved news outlets. Over the past year, the CAC has shut down several news websites and online photo services for violating this or other vague provisions. Thus, in November 2019, the CAC shut down the news website Business Times for conducting journalistic work without a permit,11 and closed the financial news aggregator Wallstreetcn.com for breaching cybersecurity laws, without specifying the particular offense.12 The following month, the CAC shut down two of China's largest online photo services—C Photos and Visual China Group—for operating without a permit and “illegally” partnering with foreign news organizations.13

The authorities apply pressure to Chinese internet companies to tightly enforce censorship regulations or risk suspensions, fines, blacklisting, closure, or even criminal prosecution of relevant personnel. Such pressure has intensified under the cybersecurity law that took effect in 2017. During the coverage period, several major news and online portals were subject to short-term punitive suspensions, leading them to intensify their own efforts to control content. In early 2020, the CAC placed major internet companies like Sina Weibo, Tencent, and Bytedance under tightened supervision and management14 in order to create a “good online environment” after ordering them to remove content that involved independent reporting on COVID-19.15 From June 10 to 17, 2020, the CAC imposed a suspension of the trending topics list for the popular Sina Weibo microblogging service, saying messages on the platform had been “disrupting online communication order” and “spreading illegal information.”16

As the number of smartphone users in China has skyrocketed in recent years, mobile phone apps have increasingly become a focus for censorship, content deletion, and forced removals. In June 2019, companies producing music apps for the Android system—including Lizhi FM, Ximalaya FM, NetEase Cloud Music, and Soul—were punished by the CAC for hosting content considered sexually suggestive or which promoted “historical nihilism” and “superstition,” common euphemisms for historical content diverging from official narratives and unofficial religious or spiritual content.17 In November 2019, executives in charge of ByteDance's news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, one of China's largest mobile news apps with 120 million daily users,18 were told by the CAC to punish personnel after the app’s search engine was found to direct users to content criticizing the late Communist Party military hero Fang Zhimin.19 In April 2020, the CAC ordered Baidu to further “rectify” the mobile app version of the search engine and remove “illegal” content.20 In February, the CAC ordered app stores to remove Pipi Gaoxiao, a short-video sharing platform, apparently because of clips circulating about the coronavirus outbreak.

During the coverage period, Apple continued to remove apps at the apparent request of the Chinese government, including the app of the Quartz news outlet due to its coverage of the Hong Kong protest movement.21 Hundreds of VPN services were expelled from Apple’s iPhone App Store in China since 201722 (though many others remain available in the country).23 As of August 2020, a website run by the anticensorship group Greatfire.org, which tracks the availability of apps in different countries, had identified 3,487 apps that were unavailable in Apple’s China store compared to other app stores, including 148 news apps in China, as well as entertainment, gaming sports, weather, and travel apps.24

Faced with increasing state demands, major content-hosting companies have hired more human censors to purge “illegal” material and avoid penalties. Entire departments are often dedicated to content moderation and removals, with personnel controlling content on major apps—like the microblogging platforms Sina Weibo, 25 China’s top news app Jinri Toutiao,26 and live-streaming app Kuaishou27—numbering in the thousands. Many companies now outsource their content-removal activities to so-called censorship factories, which pay low-wage workers to identify and delete content deemed objectionable.28 This new industry has grown rapidly, with one company, Beyondsoft, employing 8,000 workers.29 In addition to the growing ranks of human content reviewers, automation is playing an increasingly important role in censorship. The University of Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab in August 2019 revealed image-filtering capabilities on the popular social media platform WeChat that targeted users’ creative efforts to circumvent text-based censorship through image-based commentary.30 People.cn, the online version of the official CCP newspaper People’s Daily, has been improving its artificial intelligence–assisted censorship capabilities.31 Given the outlet’s close ties to the party and its presumed knowledge of the government’s red lines, People.cn’s censoring services have become a lucrative side business. Other websites and mobile apps, such as Jinri Toutiao, have outsourced their content review activity to People.cn. According to news reports, People.cn’s chairman predicted that content moderation in China will grow to employ one million people over the next three to five years.32 As of March 2020, Alibaba and Tencent had also emerged as industry leaders in content moderation and censorship technologies that intentionally target political content, selling the systems to other Chinese companies as well as foreign clients. The systems reportedly err on the side of caution for potentially politically sensitive content, such as even positive references to Xi Jinping.33

Security officials have increasingly resorted to harassing and coercing users to delete content, particularly from Twitter, which is blocked in China. A small but savvy community of internet users access Twitter via circumvention tools, enabling participation in the types of conversations that are heavily censored within the Great Firewall. Official media outlets like the People’s Daily, China Global Television Network, and Xinhua News Agency actively use Twitter to reach global audiences, as do a growing number of Chinese diplomats and government spokespeople, even as most Chinese internet users are unable to access the platform. Over the past two years, numerous users faced reprisals for their Twitter activities (see C3 and C7), with many forced to delete their posts en masse.34

The Chinese authorities have attempted to justify the country’s censorship system by claiming that it targets pornographic or violent content. However, independent studies have repeatedly found that content related to politics, religion, economics, and social movements are a primary focus.

Censored topics often involve breaking news related to the reputation of the party or officials, official wrongdoing, foreign affairs, health and safety, and civil society activism.35 Any negative or unauthorized content related to President Xi is heavily censored. There is also consistent and systematic censorship of content that violates long-standing taboos on subjects such as the 1989 June 4th massacre, Taiwanese independence, repression of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. The CCP’s Propaganda Department and its local subsidiaries issue almost daily instructions to news websites and social media platforms on what content to restrict.36

One of the most censored topics during the coverage period was the coronavirus pandemic, which first emerged in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province in December 2019. A brief period of relatively free discussion of the virus took place between January 19 and February 1, 2020. However, the Chinese government and government-owned technology firms then deployed the full spectrum of content-control tools to constrain talk of the virus and its effects.37 Users of social media platforms like WeChat had their accounts blocked for publishing even innocuous questions about the state of the viral outbreak.38 Government directives warned online news platforms that using material taken from self-media accounts was prohibited.39 Following the death of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang in early February, censorship instructions were sent out to online platforms warning them against sensationalizing coverage.40 Other censorship directives included orders to websites to delete an article analysing how the Chinese economy could be affected by the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring a pandemic,41 and restrictions on content showing law enforcement agents using excessive force while taking actions to prevent the spread of the virus.42 Research conducted by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab between January and May 2020 identified more than 2,000 keywords related to COVID-19 that triggered censorship on WeChat, likely affecting tens of millions of posts;43 the same research team also found evidence of virus-related censorship on the live-streaming platform YY as early as December 2019.44 The researchers found that the thematic focus of censored keywords evolved over time, having been initially centered on the outbreak in China and then shifting to refuting global criticism of the Chinese government, and U.S. domestic politics, among other topics.

As more aspects of daily life moved online due to social distancing during the pandemic, online classes on subjects like politics, history, and obstetrics and gynecology were also subject to censorship.45 As activists sought to use Zoom to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in early June 2020, the company terminated sessions or accounts of organizers at the behest of the Chinese government.46

Other sensitive events and news developments during the coverage period provoked high levels of censorship, including the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, in which the military opened fire on peaceful prodemocracy protesters in Beijing,47 and other politically sensitive anniversaries; critical or independent reporting on political and business elites;48 continuing protests against a proposed extradition law and in favour of greater democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, as well as Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ responses;49 the worsening human rights crisis and mass detention of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang;50 and the May 2020 annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), with online discussion of a new national security law for Hong Kong being particularly curtailed.51

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 0.000 4.004

Censorship decisions are arbitrary, opaque, and inconsistent, due to weak rule of law in China’s political system and because so many individuals and processes are involved. The impact of content restrictions may vary depending on factors like timing, technology, and geographic region. ISPs reportedly install filtering devices differently, including in the internet backbone or even in provincial-level internal networks.1 Lists of prohibited websites and sweeping censorship directives are periodically leaked, but not officially published. There are no formal avenues for appeal. Criticism of censorship is itself censored.2 There is also no transparency and a lack of opportunity of appeal for users within private companies’ day-to-day censorship in China.

A recent example of the arbitrariness of regulatory decision-making and the ease with which permissions can be reversed was the rollout in September 2019 of a new web browser, Kuniao, reportedly approved by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The browser purported to allow users to bypass internet censorship, though critics suggested that it simply reduced the scope of censorship, rather than allowing people to fully circumvent controls.3 Within two days of its launch, Kuniao’s website crashed from the high demand and was subsequently blocked entirely. Online references to the browser were also deleted, indicating a reversal of the official position on it.4

Article 84 of a 2015 antiterrorism law introduced fines and detentions of up to 15 days for telecommunications firms and internet service providers, as well as relevant 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.5 The cybersecurity law in effect since 2017 also provides legal grounds for officials to instruct network operators to stop transmission of certain content to protect public security, among other restrictions (see A3 and C2). In July 2019, the Cyberspace Administration of China further introduced draft regulations that would penalize the social credit of internet service and content providers and the responsible personnel if they are deemed to be “seriously untrustworthy” because they did not take necessary actions to prevent the circulation of banned content.6 It appeared that as of October 2020, the regulations had not yet been approved or implemented.

The CAC and other bodies routinely introduce new rules and guidelines to further refine online restrictions, with an increasing focus on user-generated content. For example, in January 2019, the industry group China Netcasting Services Association released new rules to increase censorship and vetting of content on popular platforms for sharing short videos.7 They include 100 detailed categories of banned content, including many forms of potential humor and satire.8 The rules also require at least one human reviewer for every 1,000 videos posted per day.9

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 0.000 4.004

Self-censorship among ordinary users and journalists continued during the coverage period, particularly in response to the increased risk of account closures, real-world reprisals, and legal penalties for online commentary (see B2, C3, and C7). Various forms of online intimidation and verbal abuse by nationalistic netizens against government critics or others perceived to have harmed the reputation of China also contributed to self-censorship during the coverage period.

There is evidence that WeChat users are increasingly self-censoring to preempt the closure of their accounts or other penalties, as the platform continues to shut down people’s personal accounts for sharing information on political, social, religious, or current affairs topics in chat groups.1 With over a billion daily active users, WeChat is relied on for messaging, banking, ride hailing, ordering food, booking travel, and more.2 The app’s critical role in daily life in China, alongside platform moderators’ growing propensity to close accounts rather than delete objectionable posts, has increased pressure on users to self-censor.

Research on the types of content removals on WeChat public accounts (accounts that broadcast post to a large group of followers as distinct from personal accounts used for instant messaging and other functionalities) in 2018 found that the majority of deletions were initiated by the accounts themselves, as opposed to WeChat administrators.3 Self-censorship is pervasive among members of persecuted groups, especially Uighurs, whose WeChat activities are closely monitored. Many block their own family members living abroad to avoid being detained for their foreign contacts.4 In addition to encouraging pervasive self-censorship, this blunt form of punishment has narrowed avenues for civic mobilization and further suppressed online activism (see B8).

Despite these pressures, various examples emerged during the coverage period of internet users speaking out on sensitive topics. Following the November 2019 publication by the New York Times of a trove of internal documents on how Chinese authorities built the system of repression in Xinjiang, reports emerged of various Sina Weibo users expressing support and admiration for a local party secretary who was himself investigated for having released between 7,000 and 20,000 detainees from local reeducation camps.5

More widespread instances of overcoming self-censorship emerged in late January and February 0, when netizens and journalists initially defied government restrictions, shared information and spoke out against censorship during the coronavirus lockdown. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, netizens openly criticized the authorities’ initial cover-up of the outbreak and efforts to stifle open discussion of the government response to the crisis, while citizen journalists posted unvarnished videos of events on the ground. In early February, as news of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang spread, the hashtag “I want free speech” began to trend on Weibo, garnering millions of views before being censored within hours.6 Prominent voices also spoke out, with the noted Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang publishing an online diary recounting her experiences living in the city under lockdown, despite repeatedly encountering censorship.7

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 0.000 4.004

The government has significant control over digital news media and other information sources. Online discussion is subject to extensive manipulation, and user-generated content is highly regulated. Websites and social media accounts, other than those operated by official news outlets, are not legally allowed to produce news content, though the definition of news is unclear. Propaganda officials systematically instruct internet outlets to amplify content from state media and downplay news that might generate public criticism of the government.1

On March 1, 2020, new rules called the Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem came into effect.2 These provisions place online content in three categories: encouraged positive content, discouraged negative content, and illegal content. Encouraged material includes “spreading Party doctrine,” while negative categories include “excessive celebrity gossip” and sensationalist headlines. The illegal category includes terrorist and obscene content, as well as information “harming the nation's honor and interests,” “subverting” the CCP regime, or challenging the government’s social, ethnic, religious, or economic policies.3 According to the rules, the encouraged content must be actively promoted in prominent online locations such as on web portal home pages, pop-up windows, hot topic lists, default search results, and other “key areas that can easily attract attention.”4 They also call for the use of algorithms by online content providers to promote officially approved “mainstream values.”5 Most actions required by the provisions have already been occurring for many years, but the new regulations consolidate them into a single set of rules.6

Paid web commentators, known informally as the 50 Cent Party, are employed to post progovernment remarks and influence online discussions.7 Such commentators are known for reporting users who post offending statements, deliberately muddying the facts of particular incidents,8 and coordinating smear campaigns against government critics.9 According to a 2017 study, progovernment web commentators are strategically deployed to distract the public from certain issues, with about 80 percent of their posts dedicated to “cheerleading” the government’s activities.10 Since 2017, content manipulation and disinformation campaigns have increasingly extended even to platforms that are blocked in China, demonstrating an effort to influence online discourse internationally.11 The Oxford Internet Institute reported that in 2019, the Chinese government displayed “new-found interest in aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube” to spread propaganda and disinformation.12

In addition to paid commentators, local authorities have mobilized ziganwu—volunteer commentators motivated by ideology rather than money—to promote the government’s image online.13 This activity forms part of a propaganda strategy to “spread positive energy among society.”14 A document leaked in 2015 revealed hundreds of thousands of “youth league online commentators” in China’s higher education institutions, tasked with turning students against supposed Western democratic values.15 In 2016, a handful of ziganwu were appointed to a social media division of the Communist Youth League.16 The league’s new media working group uses Weibo, WeChat, and other social media platforms to tailor political messages for younger audiences.17

The government encourages Chinese tech companies to engage in “party-building” efforts to strengthen the “ideological security” of their firms.18 Alibaba, Weibo, Jingdong, Baidu, Sohu, Qihoo 360, and LeTV have had CCP branches within their companies since at least 2016, and many smaller enterprises have followed suit.19 According to Chinese state media, as of 2018, Alibaba had a CCP committee, nearly 200 party branches, and 7,000 CCP members; its founder Jack Ma is himself a CCP member.20 One Tencent office projects the number of party members among its employees (over 8,000 in 2018) on the wall, alongside a monthly schedule of party education training sessions offered to employees.21 During the coverage period, senior members of the Ministry of Propaganda and the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission gave speeches at tech companies encouraging employees to study and help implement government policy.22

Government pressure has also led private companies to promote state propaganda through their services. In April 2019, Bytedance signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Press and Publicity Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security to help deepen the “influence and credibility” of public security bureaus across China.23

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 0.000 3.003

Growing censorship demands, new licensing requirements, and data-localization mandates have made it more expensive to run an internet company in China. While large companies have been able to absorb the rising operational costs, it is increasingly difficult for new and smaller players to enter and stay in the market. Arbitrary regulatory decisions have also contributed to an unstable investment climate for China’s technology sector.1

Independent news media have been hit especially hard. Under new CAC regulations on managing internet news and information services that came into effect in 2017,2 only traditional media or state-controlled enterprises may obtain a license to gather or disseminate news in any online format.3 Regulations in effect since 2016 place restrictions on foreign investment in online publishing and require at least eight full-time editorial or publishing staff members.4 In addition, CAC rules have made it harder for both independent media and individual bloggers, journalists, and writers to sustain themselves financially.5 Commercial media outlets such as Caixin, known for relatively aggressive and investigative reporting, have suffered from falling profits due to censorship and ad hoc directives requiring major news portals and other aggregators to favor state media. Caixin was forced to introduce a paywall in 2017.6

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 1.001 4.004

China’s online information landscape is significantly less diverse than it was even six years ago due to increasing censorship, especially of content produced by civil society activists, investigative journalists, and “self-media.” The robust censorship of critical viewpoints and foreign information sources has also empowered nationalist and conservative voices, contributing to their being disproportionately represented in Chinese cyberspace.1 Nevertheless, the internet still provides a narrow avenue for critical discussion and enables the sharing of information on some important social and political issues, particularly when users devise creative workarounds.

The stringent penalization of groups perceived as a political threat—including organizations, websites, and social media accounts that address human rights and social subjects such as labor activism, public health, and gender equality—has effectively diminished the space for civil society in recent years.2 While groups that work on less sensitive issues have a vigorous online presence, organizations and topics that were tolerated in previous years—such as feminist groups—have faced increasing scrutiny. In some cases, netizens have been able to evade censorship through the use of wordplay to disguise discussion and expressions of support for activists, such as the prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong.3

Many members of ethnic, religious, and linguistic marginalized groups attempt to use the internet to disseminate banned content, but these views remain underrepresented online and those who post them risk severe reprisals, including imprisonment and torture, if they are identified as the source of content deemed politically sensitive. Amid the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, for example, Uighur-language content and relevant news reporting have been heavily censored and many ordinary Uighur users detained, while Islamophobic commentary is permitted to circulate widely.4 In August 2020, after the coverage period, authorities banned the popular Mongolian-language social media platform Bainu amid protests in Inner Mongolia among parents and students over an abrupt and sharp reduction in the number of school subjects to be taught in Mongolian, and their replacement by Mandarin classes.5

Other, mostly Han Chinese religious and linguistic minority populations are also disproportionately silenced or restricted. Keywords related to the persecuted Falun Gong spiritual group consistently appear on leaked lists of prohibited terms. Reference to the banned Church of the Almighty God spiritual groups are also reportedly marked as politically sensitive by censors employed by mobile phone operators, with users facing account deactivation for sharing religious information.6 Following the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020, reports emerged of Christian congregations being prevented from conducting live-streamed meetings and of individual parishioners being compelled to delete religious imagery from their social media accounts.7 Many Cantonese live-streamers using ByteDance's popular Douyin app (the Chinese version of TikTok, which has 400 million daily active users)8 have been banned for not broadcasting in Mandarin, possibly because the company does not have enough Cantonese-speaking content moderators and is therefore worried that they will not be able to identify objectionable speech.9

LGBT+ content has been heavily restricted on China’s internet since 2017, when the China Netcasting Services Association labelled homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior.”10 The courts have upheld the restrictions despite multiple legal challenges.11 Access to the overseas fan fiction site Archive of Our Own was blocked in China in February 2020, seemingly for LGBT+ content related to a prominent Chinese actor.12

Despite the tight censorship system, tens of millions of internet users—including from among persecuted minorities—bypass censorship with circumvention technology or creative workarounds. According to a survey by GlobalWebIndex published in 2019, 29 percent of Chinese netizens use VPNs.13 Researchers found that more than 50 percent of respondents said their motivation was to access entertainment content, but many Chinese also use VPNs to reach news and overseas social media platforms.14 Although hundreds of VPN services have been banned since 2017 or expelled from Apple’s iPhone App Store in China,15 various options remain available in the country.16

Within the Great Firewall, netizens deploy humorous neologisms, homonyms, and cryptic allusions to substitute for banned keywords, forcing censors to filter seemingly innocuous terms like “rice bunny,” which is pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin and has become a well-known alternative for the intermittently censored #MeToo hashtag.17 The cartoon character Winnie the Pooh has also been systematically censored since it became a meme used to caricature Xi Jinping.18 In early 2020, netizens used the term “F4” to refer to the four politicians seen as responsible for the coronavirus outbreak: the governor and party secretary of Hubei province and the mayor and party secretary of Wuhan.19 During antiextradition protests in Hong Kong in mid-2019, netizens used the phrase “Pearl of the Orient” to discuss developments in the city in order to evade online censors.20

Although the space for investigative journalism has shrunk dramatically over the past decade,21 some intrepid reporters continue to expose wrongdoing by companies and officials, focusing on topics that are less likely to draw censorship online and occasionally triggering national conversations. During 2019, journalists broke stories on a chemical plant explosion, corruption in Inner Mongolia, and trafficking in pangolins, many of which circulated online in China.22 In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, investigative journalists, video bloggers, and their sources took significant risks to trace the origins of the pandemic, identify those responsible for the initial cover-up, and report from within the locked-down city of Wuhan.23 Even after the reporting was censored, internet users devised creative methods—including replacing Chinese characters with emojis and translating an article profiling a doctor in Wuhan into Korean24—in order to share important articles or archive deleted materials.25

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 1.001 6.006

The role of social media in providing a vibrant space for activism in China has waned significantly due to stricter internet controls under Xi Jinping.1 Growing censorship of popular apolitical platforms such as dating, video-sharing, live-streaming, and blockchain applications in recent years has effectively closed avenues users had exploited to disseminate information and mobilize around topics that could not be discussed elsewhere.

A November 2018 CAC regulation requires internet companies “of public-opinion nature” or which have “the capacity for social mobilization” to undergo “voluntary” assessments of how effective they are at preventing “security risks.”2 Under the regulation, which includes a mechanism for on-site inspections, companies are obliged to keep detailed records of user data, such as real names, internet protocol (IP) addresses, activity logs, and the type of device used (see C6).3

Activists continue to face harassment, arrest and mistreatment in detention at the hands of the police.4 Yet while overt activism on political issues is exceedingly rare, China's #MeToo movement continues to demonstrate that citizens can organize around select social causes, and that their efforts sometimes have a real-world impact. Despite heavy censorship of the global campaign, #MeToo encouraged a number of Chinese students to speak out online about their experiences with sexual harassment (see B7), leading to a few instances of positive change. China's new Civil Code, released in June 2020, bans sexual harassment,5 a move seen as a response to numerous cases of professors harassing female students on college campuses across China.6

Some internet users are finding alternative ways to mobilize and to communicate with one another and the outside world. In August 2019, dozens of short videos by Uighurs emerged on the video-sharing platform Douyin, typically showing a Uighur with a photo of a loved one, who had ostensibly been detained, while silently crying or making mourning gestures. Although many of the clips were deleted within China, they nevertheless spread globally, as Uighur activists shared them on international social media platforms.7

Amid the pandemic, netizens have also used GitHub—a global code-sharing site that is not blocked in China—to save and share material related to the coronavirus and the Chinese government's response to it. However, the reach of some such repositories was restricted after police detained activists in China managing them.8 In February and March 2020, Chinese netizens also organized themselves on social media platforms to secure assistance for people who had contracted the coronavirus in Wuhan, as well as frontline healthcare workers.9 In other cases, businesses and civil society organizations also made use of the internet to organize support for people in Wuhan.10 Before new censorship requirements were placed on blockchain platforms in January 2019, users turned to blockchain’s decentralized public ledgers to embed, share, and preserve critical information that is censored on other systems.11 In March 2020, some users were again able to resort to an Ethereum blockchain transaction to preserve a profile of a Wuhan doctor recalling the days in late 2019 when suspicions of a new SARS-like illness first emerged.12

C Violations of User Rights

A wide array of individuals were subject to legal and extralegal reprisals—including arbitrary detention, torture, and draconian prison terms—for their online activity. These included users who shared information about COVID-19 or criticized the government’s response to it, online journalists, critics of Xi Jinping, supporters of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protests, operators of human rights websites, members of ethnic and religious minority groups, and anticensorship activists. New evidence emerged of Chinese technology companies systematically aiding government surveillance, including via provision of “key individual” database technologies and data transfers to police from propaganda and public health mobile phone applications.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 0.000 6.006

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 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 cases involving freedom of expression. Regulations issued by government and CCP agencies establish censorship guidelines. These are highly secretive, subject to constant change, and cannot be challenged in the courts (see B3). Prosecutors exploit vague provisions in China’s criminal code; antiterrorism laws, laws governing printing and publications; subversion, and separatism; and state-secrets legislation to imprison citizens for online activity. Trials and hearings typically lack due process. It can take years for cases to move through the court system, and pretrial detention is often long-lasting.

Some detentions, including administrative detentions authorized by public security bureaus, do not require approval by a court.1 The form of administrative detention known as “reeducation through labor” was abolished in 2013 in response to domestic and international calls for reform,2 but individuals can be detained without trial under similarly poor conditions in drug rehabilitation3 and “residential surveillance at a designated location.”4 Under residential surveillance orders, state agents have abducted and held individuals in secret locations without informing their families or legal counsel. 5 In November 2019, a woman was released from an extrajudicial psychiatric detention following her imprisonment without trial in July 2018 for live-streaming herself throwing ink on a picture of Xi Jinping, and denouncing the Communist Party.6

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 0.000 4.004

Numerous laws and regulations place strict limits on the activities of internet users and the companies that provide information and communication technology services. The sweeping cybersecurity law that took effect in 2017 increased censorship requirements; mandated data localization; and codified real-name registration requirements for internet companies and obliged them to assist security agencies with investigations.1 The law also consolidated the role of the CAC, which it identified as the principle agency responsible for implementing many of its provisions.2

Laws prohibiting offenses including defamation, creating disturbances, illegal commercial activities, and extortion have implication for online speech.3 Defamation has been interpreted to include “online rumors,” content deemed false, or online expression that “seriously harms” public order or state interests.4 It carries a possible three-year prison sentence under “serious” circumstance, defined to apply when the content in question receives more than 5,000 views or is reposted more than 500 times.5 Online messages deemed to incite unrest or protests are subject to criminal penalties under provisions punishing citizens for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Crimes such as “subversion” and “separatism” can draw sentences as severe as life in prison, with members of religious and ethnic minorities periodically receiving life sentences when charged.6 Article 300 of the criminal code punishes “using heterodox religion to undermine implementation of the law” and is often invoked against members of banned religious groups such as Falun Gong, whose members exercise their right to free expression and access to information online.7 A 2015 amendment to the criminal code increased the maximum penalties from 15 years to life imprisonment.8 The same 2015 legislation introduced penalties of up to seven years in prison for the dissemination of misinformation on social media.9

Separately, the 2015 antiterrorism law also barred social media users from sharing information about acts of terrorism or spreading “inhuman” images that could encourage copycat attacks.

In February 2020, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s top judicial and law enforcement agencies released new guidelines for judges, prosecutors, and others working in the legal system urging strong action against crimes seen as weakening disease control efforts and undermining the CCP’s authority during the pandemic. Among the ten categories of crimes listed for tighter enforcement was “spreading false information and rumours online.” Besides false information related to the virus itself, the provisions also covered speech deemed to be “disrupting social order, especially maliciously attacking the party and government, taking the opportunity to incite subversion of state power, or overthrow of the socialist system.”10 In addition to calling for punishment of individual users for proscribed speech under relevant provisions of the Criminal Law, the guidelines also warn that network service providers who refuse regulator demands to stop the spread of “false” or other “illegal” information should be prosecuted under the criminal code for not performing “the obligation of information network security management.”11

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 0.000 6.006

Chinese 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 express dissent or mock or criticize CCP leaders, particularly Xi Jinping. Chinese citizens’ risk of being detained or imprisoned for accessing or sharing information online or via smartphone has increased considerably over the past several years. Rapid advances in surveillance technology and growing police access to user data have helped facilitate the rise in arrests and prosecutions (see C6).1

During the coverage period, police detained hundreds of users accused of “spreading rumors” or government criticism related to the coronavirus outbreak. Judges also imposed several long prison sentences on both prominent activists and ordinary users. 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. This is especially true among communities like Uighur Muslims, where the proportion of detained netizens is greater than among the wider Chinese population.

The culpability of government and party officials in covering up the first evidence of a new pandemic heightened regime insecurity, prompting security agencies to be especially aggressive in punishing users for sharing information about the coronavirus or online criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis. A variety of internet users in China faced detention, prosecution, and imprisonment over the past year. Perhaps most prominent among them was Li Wenliang, the doctor who in late December 2019 first raised concerns on WeChat about the emergence of a SARS-like illness in Wuhan.2 He and seven of his colleagues were detained by local police for “spreading rumors,” and Li was compelled to sign a letter “admitting” that he had made “false comments” about the virus.3

As of early May 2020, China Human Rights Defenders had documented 897 cases of people being punished for publishing material related to COVID-19,4 with punishments including verbal warnings, fines, administrative detention, and criminal charges. In February 2020, prodemocracy activist Ren Ziyuan was detained for 15 days for criticizing the government's response online5, while activist Tan Zuoren was visited by the police and had his social media accounts frozen for his online comments.6 Police detained women's rights and labour activist Li Qiaochu in February after she tweeted in late January about the Chinese government's attempts to coverup the outbreak of the coronavirus.7

Detentions continued throughout the spring. In May, prominent constitutional lawyer Zhang Xuezhong was temporarily detained by police after publishing a WeChat post (which was later deleted) criticizing the Chinese government's response to the coronavirus outbreak and calling for greater political reforms in China.8 That same month, police in Shanghai arrested citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who had posted a YouTube video criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak;9 Zhang was charged in June with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”10 Others faced more severe charges. In late January, the academic and former political prisoner Guo Quan was arrested on charges of “inciting subversion” for critical remarks he made online about the government’s handling of the virus.11

Professional and citizen journalists in China are frequently imprisoned for their work and online writings or video posts, including those who reported on the pandemic and lockdown in Wuhan. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 49 journalists were behind bars in China as of December 2019.12 In an unusually harsh sentence for an ethnic Chinese journalist, Chen Jieren was sentenced to 15 years in prison in April 2020 for publishing material critical of the Communist Party and exposing corruption in Hunan Province via WeChat.13 In early 2020, security forces in Wuhan detained three citizen journalists—Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua—who had filmed and uploaded videos of themselves from within the city during the coronavirus lockdown; their videos ran counter to official narratives and were disseminated widely within and outside China. 14 As of September 2020, Li Zehua and Chen Qiushi had both been released, with Chen reportedly under tight surveillance at his parents home in Shandong Province.15

Criticism or questioning the authority of Xi Jinping remains a dangerous online activity. During the coverage period, several activists, lawyers, and a CCP member faced detention or prosecution for overt or veiled critiques of Xi’s leadership. Prominent rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong was detained in Guangdong Province on February 15.16 Xu had been on the run from authorities since December, when he attended a dinner meeting of activists, but the nationwide effort to track him down appeared to accelerate after he published on social media and blog platforms a scathing letter17 calling for President Xi Jinping to step down over the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus.18 The following month, property tycoon and party member Ren Zhiqiang was placed under investigation for “serious violations” after publishing an online critique of Xi’s response to the pandemic. After the coverage period, in July 2020, he was expelled from the CCP and in September, sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges; many experts interpreted the punishment as a warning to Xi’s many critics within the party not to challenge his authority. 19 In May, Shandong poet Lu Yang was detained after releasing a video online calling on Xi to step down, and then charged with “inciting subversion.”20

In other instances, prosecutions continued for netizens who had been arrested in previous years. In June 2020, rights lawyer Chen Jiahong was put on trial behind closed doors in Guangxi province on charges of “inciting subversion;”21 Chen had been detained in April 2019 after posting a video online criticizing Xi’s abolition of term limits in early 2018 and calling for democratic reforms.22 In a possible indication of the kinds of punishments awaiting the above detainees, blogger Liu Yanli was sentenced to four years in prison in April 2020 for making critical remarks concerning past and present government leaders.23 And on June 17, 2020, a court in Jiangsu Province sentenced human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng to four years in prison for “inciting subversion” after he posted an online call24 in January 2018 for constitutional reforms and democratic elections.25

At least 30 netizens and grassroots activists in mainland China have been harassed or detained by police for making statements online in support of the antiextradition bill and prodemocracy protest movement in Hong Kong, according to data collected by Chinese Human Rights Defenders.26 In August 2019, Chongqing-based activist Huang Yang was detained and later placed under surveillance at his home after he expressed support for the protests on his social media account.27 In September 2019, police threatened activist Chen Siming of Hunan Province for making similar statements online, while Zhejiang Province-based activist Wei Xiaobing was given 15 days of administrative detention in June 2019 for sharing Facebook posts and tweets in support of the movement.28 Police also arrested prominent feminist activist Sophia Huang in October 2019 after she posted online about her support for the Hong Kong protesters,29 though she was later released in January 2020.30

A number of other online activists and website administrators faced penalties during the coverage period. In July 2019, Huang Qi, founder of the human rights website 64 Tianwang, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of “intentionally leaking state secrets.”31 In December 2019, labor activist Chen Weixiang was released after spending fifteen days in police detention in Guangdong Province for discussing the legal rights and problems of sanitation workers in a WeChat group he ran.32 That same month, human rights lawyer Qin Yongpei was arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” as a result of criticism of the Chinese government he had posted on Twitter.33

Users sharing information from or with foreigners were also penalized. In June 2019, Liu Pengfei, the moderator of a popular WeChat account that posted news from outside China, was sentenced to two years in prison.34 Liu's arrest came after state media warned that WeChat group administrators could be held responsible for the content in their group under regulations in effect since 2017.35 Similarly, on July 7, 2020, Chen Zong from Guangzhou was reportedly sentenced to 15 months in prison on charges of “picking quarrels” after he set up WeChat groups to share information he had collected from blocked overseas websites;36 Chen had been detained in August 2019.

In a reflection of the flexibility and reach of Chinese legal interpretations, in July 2019, a Chinese international student was arrested by authorities in Wuhan and detained for six months due to comments critical of the Chinese government he had posted on Twitter while studying at the University of Minnesota.37 In September 2019, a Taiwanese businessman was detained in Shenzhen on national security grounds for using Line to share pictures of the Hong Kong protest movement with his friends.38

Authorities selectively enforce the ban on unapproved VPNs, often prosecuting activists who provide access to them—some who do so as a form of anticensorship activism. Prison sentences and other penalties were handed down during the coverage period in several cases for the use or sale of VPN services as part of a broader crackdown on circumvention tools (see B1). In December 2019, a graduate student in Jiangsu Province was arrested for providing a VPN service to at least 28,000 customers.39 That same month, police in Shenzhen arrested another man for selling VPNs.40 In May 2020, a man was fined by local police in the city of Ankang, Shaanxi Province, for using a VPN to access content blocked by Chinese censors.41 In addition to those sharing VPNs, in April 2020, Beijing police detained three netizens who had archived and shared through the code-sharing site GitHub censored articles and other material related to the coronavirus outbreak, later charging them with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” 42

Members of persecuted religious and ethnic minority groups face particularly harsh treatment for their online activities. Since early 2017, a systematic Chinese government campaign has been underway to repress Xinjiang’s roughly 13 million Muslims through mass arbitrary detentions, intrusive surveillance, and torture.43 An estimated one million people are being held in political reeducation camps or forced labor facilities,44 some of whom were targeted for their online activities, including communication with relatives living abroad via WeChat.45 During the coverage period, reports emerged of prison sentences being imposed on some of these detainees. A leaked Chinese government document with details of dozens of Uighurs and other Muslims jailed or taken away for reeducation in Xinjiang that was made public in February 2020 included in its list someone who was friends on WeChat with a Uighur in Turkey, an individual who accidentally clicked on an overseas website on their phone, and a woman sentenced in August 2017 to 15 years in prison for making contact online with Uighurs outside the country.46 There are also reports that ethnic Hui Muslims inside and outside Xinjiang have come under greater state surveillance and experience periodic detention.47 In January 2020, Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet, was detained by police in the city of Jinan, Shandong Province, for tweeting about repression in Xinjiang and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”48 That same month the Washington Post reported on the case of a Hui woman who was held at a reeducation camp for five months after she used a VPN to submit homework to the University of Washington when visiting her father in Xinjiang.49

Tibetan Buddhists, including those living outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, have also been targeted, particularly for views and information shared via WeChat. In August 2019, authorities in Qinghai Province issued a notice calling for intensified monitoring of messaging apps like WeChat and warning that sharing of banned information, including related to politics, Hong Kong, or “unverified news reports” would result in prison terms of between one and eight years.50 In July 2019, a Tibetan man living in Sichuan Province was held in police custody for ten days after sharing a photograph of the Dalai Lama on WeChat,51 while in September 2019 a 22-year-old Tibetan monk was arrested for complaining about the negative impact of Chinese state policy on the Tibetan language on WeChat.52

Members of other religious minorities are also prosecuted for their online and digital activities. Many Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed in recent years for posting messages about the spiritual group or human rights abuses on social media, accessing banned websites, and possessing or sharing prohibited VPN technology, 53 a trend that reportedly intensified during the pandemic.54 In August 2019, police in Liaoning province detained 29-year-old Zhai Zihui after she sent a WeChat message to a friend about Falun Gong and shared a USB drive with information related to the practice with an acquaintance.55 As of September 2020, she was awaiting trial and could face several years in prison, based on the outcome of past such cases.56

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 0.000 4.004

Under data-privacy legislation in effect since 2012 and additional rules that were implemented in 2017,1 web service companies are required to register users under their real names and national ID numbers, compromising anonymity and placing communications at risk of direct government surveillance.2 Chinese authorities also introduced new guidelines for online gamers in November 2019, requiring all players to register using their name and phone number.3

Mobile phone registration requirements also greatly infringe on user anonymity, especially given that the majority of internet services require registration with a mobile phone number.4 The authorities justify real-name registration as a means to prevent cybercrime, but uploaded identity documents are vulnerable to theft or misuse.5 In December 2019, new regulations took effect that require mobile phone users (which make up the vast majority of internet users in China) to have their face scanned when registering for mobile phone services.6

The government’s tightening restrictions on VPN use and controls over available services has further reduced the options for user anonymity, while raising concerns that government approved VPN services would share user data with authorities.

Authorities in some areas have instructed public Wi-Fi providers to comply with user registration requirements.7 Cybercafés check photo identification, record user activities, and at times require facial scans, sometimes in cooperation with law enforcement. However, cybercafés are no longer as popular as they once were due to expanding broadband and mobile phone internet access, and are used mostly by gamers.

Users’ ability to use encryption communication is also undermined. The 2015 antiterrorism law requires companies to offer technical support to decrypt information at the request of law enforcement agencies, among other provisions.8 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.9 In January 2020, a new Encryption Law took effect which requires critical information-infrastructure providers to apply for a review by the CAC if their use of encryption technologies is viewed as potentially impacting national security.10

As with censorship, measures that erode privacy disproportionately target groups that are perceived as threats to the regime. In Xinjiang, Uighurs have been required since 2015 to register with their real names when purchasing electronic devices with storage, communication, and broadcast features. Stores selling such equipment are also required to install software that provides police with real-time electronic records on transactions.11

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 0.000 6.006

Direct surveillance of internet and mobile phone communications is pervasive and highly sophisticated, and privacy protections under Chinese law are minimal. In recent years, the Chinese government has increasingly moved towards big-data integration with the help of private companies, essentially consolidating in various databases a wide array of information on individuals, including their internet and mobile phone activities.

When conducting investigations, the authorities have unfettered access to user communications and data on certain popular platforms, as indicated by reports of users being punished for their presumably private conversations, 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 used a pseudonym, the instructions identified him with his real name, address, and phone number.1

Residents of Xinjiang are subject to severely invasive surveillance tactics. In February 2019, security researcher Victor Gevers discovered and exposed a large database containing the personal information of 2.6 million people in Xinjiang, including official identification numbers, addresses, employers, and a list of each individual’s physical locations over the past 24 hours.2 Some of this collected data may come from the surveillance software that individuals in the region were required to install on their mobile phones beginning in 2017. The spyware, known as Jingwang (“Web Cleansing” or “Clean Net”), scans for files that match blacklisted content.3 Researchers at the Open Technology Fund confirmed the application’s intrusive capabilities and discovered inherent vulnerabilities in the channels used to relay collected data to government servers.4 Earlier, in 2017, Chinese authorities identified more than 40,000 Uighurs for internment by monitoring their use of the video and audio-sharing app Zapya.5

Surveillance technologies and policies deployed in one part of China are often later expanded to other parts of the country, with Xinjiang emerging as a particularly important testing ground.6 Chinese border police are reported to have installed surveillance apps on the phones of tourists traveling in Xinjiang, which grant authorities the ability to extract user data and identify politically and culturally sensitive material stored on the person’s phone.7 In August 2019, reports emerged that Chinese border officers were beginning to check the photographs, messages, and apps on the phones of anyone arriving in China from Hong Kong for evidence of support for the prodemocracy protest movement in the city.8

Existing, albeit geographically disparate, data sets assembled through surveillance efforts could feed into “social credit” systems that create an assessment of individuals’ online activities and other personal data; a few municipalities are currently testing such systems,9 which have been subject to criticism within and outside China due to privacy and other concerns. Although a 2014 document referred to the full implementation of a vaguely defined “social credit” system by 2020,10 a fully integrated national social credit system does not yet exist and questions have been raised about how widespread and effective local pilot efforts have been.11 Nevertheless, being listed as problematic by municipal or provincial authorities under such systems can result in restrictions on movement, education, and financial transactions. By contrast, those highly rated in Alibaba’s Sesame Credit scoring system or in municipal ratings of local governments like Xiamen and Fuzhou can win privileged access to private services, deposit waivers, free library book borrowing, or shorter lines at airport security.12

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 0.000 6.006

Internet companies are required under numerous laws and regulations to assist the government in monitoring users’ online activities. Recent regulations include a September 2018 rule that provides security authorities with broad powers to enter the premises of all internet service companies to inspect and copy any information deemed important to cybersecurity.1 That rule formed part of the Provisions on Internet Security Supervision and Inspection by Public Security Organs, published by the Ministry of Public Security, which allows officials to supervise and inspect the “network security” of ISPs. The new regulatory package complemented the 2017 cybersecurity law’s requirement that network operators assist police and security agencies with criminal investigations or national security operations.2 Inspections under the new rules began immediately.3

While a 2012 law requires businesses to obtain users’ consent to collect their personal electronic data and outline the “use, method, and scope” of the collection, there are no limits placed on law enforcement requests for personal records. The scope of industries and companies collecting and sharing information on users has expanded in recent years. In October 2019, for example, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism released 42 regulations requiring online travel providers to store the information of users posting on their sites, document any illegal content posted, and report violations to the authorities.4

Other surveillance laws include a 2013 amendment to the criminal procedure code that lays out a vague review process for allowing police monitoring of suspects’ electronic communications, which the Ministry of Public Security permits in many types of criminal investigations.5 The State Secrets Law obliges telecommunications companies to cooperate with authorities investigating leaked state secrets, or risk losing their licenses.6

Individuals or entities that refuse to comply with government requests for surveillance assistance risk detention or criminal punishment. A National Intelligence Law adopted in 2017 states that those deemed to be obstructing national intelligence work can be subject to 15 days of administrative detention or further criminal charges.7

Various regulations outline requirements for companies to retain user data, which they must make available to officials.8 CAC rules issued in 2016 oblige Chinese app providers to register users and keep user activity logs for 60 days.9 Other ISPs are required to retain user information for 60 days and submit it to the authorities upon request, without judicial oversight or transparency.10

Tencent—the parent company of WeChat and QQ, two of the world’s most widely used social media platforms—directly assists the Chinese government with surveillance. Security researcher Victor Gevers found in March 2019 that millions of conversations and user identities on Tencent platforms were being sent from Chinese cybercafés to police stations across the country.11 Research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found in early 2020 that WeChat was also monitoring messages and images sent by users registered outside of China, scanning them for politically sensitive key words and retaining the relevant conversations in order to train the platform's censorship system.12

The e-commerce giant Alibaba also helps the government with surveillance. In October 2019, research published by the Open Technology Fund revealed evidence that the government’s Study the Great Nation app, which was designed by Alibaba to promote the CCP’s ideology and encourage the study of “Xi Jinping thought” in particular, was built with a back door that could grant the authorities access to users’ internet browsing histories, text messages, photos, and other personal information.13

Such private-government partnerships and apparent backdoors in effectively mandatory apps continued after the coronavirus struck, as regional officials partnered with major Chinese tech firms Alibaba and Tencent to develop “health code” apps. The prevailing software assigns individuals a QR code and low (green), medium (amber), or high (red) risk ratings depending on factors such as their location history and self-reported symptoms, although neither authorities nor the companies provide further information on how the risk levels are calculated. A green code is required to access certain public spaces and office buildings. Although there are variations among the dozens of apps used in each province or municipality, an analysis by the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright found that the privacy policy of Beijing’s app does not incorporate strong privacy-by-design principles or state any time limit on the retention of data.14 A New York Times investigation showed that the Alipay Health Code app automatically shared data with the police.15 As the initial outbreak was brought under control in China, certain health code apps were rolled back in cities like Shanghai. Conversely, in May, health officials in Hangzhou proposed to expand the city’s app system from simple color codes into personal “health scores” that would reflect people’s sleep patterns, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and exercise levels. The proposal led to uproar among users and even earned a rare rebuke from state-run media.

The 2017 cybersecurity law mandates that internet companies store the data of Chinese residents on servers based in the country, a practice that makes it easier for the government to access user information. Apple quickly complied with the requirement.16 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,17 while Chinese state media reported plans to open a second data center in Inner Mongolia in 2020.18 Apple has also complied with other obligations that facilitate government surveillance: in September 2018, it 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.19

Dozens of private companies in China have developed “key individual” databases for security agencies across the country. At least 13 tenders for such projects were issued by Public Security Bureaus in seven provinces or centrally administered cities between October 2015 and May 2019,20 according to information available online.21 Of 40 companies building surveillance database systems, at least 10 provide accompanying handheld devices, like Sensingtech, while 13 mention mapping or geolocation features, like Netposa.22 In addition to basic biographical data—including name, date of birth, gender—as well as biometric data, many databases collect information on targeted individuals’ social media accounts. Key individuals are broadly defined by 2007 guidelines created by the Ministry of Public Security as those “suspected of threatening national security or public order.”23 An examination of more than 70 local government notices issued in 26 of China’s 34 provinces and administrative regions between 2011 and 2019 found frequent mentions of petitioners, Falun Gong practitioners, people with mental illnesses, and those involved in “stability maintenance” or “terrorist” activities—two terms that are often applied to rights activists, protesters, and members of ethnic minority groups like Xinjiang’s Uighurs.24 Some databases also referred to migrants, foreigners, and clergy from state-sanctioned religious groups as “key individuals.”

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 0.000 5.005

Cases of extralegal intimidation and violence involving internet users are widespread. During the coverage period, instances including intimidation, aggressive interrogation, beatings, disappearances, and deaths from abuse in custody were reported.

Law enforcement officials frequently summon individuals for questioning in relation to online activity, an intimidation tactic referred to euphemistically as being “invited to tea.”1 This includes activists who expressed opposition to the Chinese government's attempts to exercise greater political control over Hong Kong.2 Chinese users of Twitter and Line also encountered harassment and intimidation during the coverage period.

Activists have also been forced to travel within the country during sensitive political events, effectively keeping them away from their normal online activities.3 Others have gone into hiding to avoid arrest, including a Falun Gong practitioner from Hunan who was sought by police after putting up posters in April 2020 with a QR code that enabled others to access blocked websites with information about the pandemic.4 Beginning in August 2018, a young Uighur man, Miradil Hesen, was in hiding after authorities noticed he had downloaded the blocked app Instagram to his cell phone. In September 2020, police in Jiangsu Province detained him after he also posted YouTube videos relaying the harassment, detention, and forced sterilization of his family members.5

According to Human Rights Watch, 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.” In February 2020, Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported that “torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment remained rampant in China in 2019.”6 Political and religious prisoners often experience even worse treatment.7 Many—like online activist Huang Qi—are denied medication and medical parole despite serious illnesses, raising the possibility that they might die in custody.8

Members of religious and ethnic minority groups are among the internet users most vulnerable to extralegal detention, torture, and killing. In Xinjiang, some of the estimated one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were taken to reeducation camps as a result of their online activities, such as downloading WhatsApp, possessing the contact information of prominent Uighur scholars, or simply clicking on links on their mobile phones.9 Those detained or imprisoned typically suffer harsh conditions and often torture,10 resulting in long-term health problems and sometimes death. In April 2020, a Tibetan monk passed away from complications resulting from severe beatings he suffered in custody in 2017, when he was detained for sharing via WeChat a recognition letter from the Dalai Lama about the reincarnation of another prominent Tibetan religious figure.11

Online commentators expressing views critical of the Chinese government or deemed to harm China’s international reputation have in recent years faced increased bullying, harassment, and real-world repercussions from nationalistic online users. For example, in April 2020, just two months after her online diary—which detailed the Wuhan lockdown and the hardships of city residents, and at times was critical of authorities—garnered much sympathetic attention within China, Wuhan-based author Fang Fang was attacked by nationalist online mobs after news emerged that the diary would be translated into English and published abroad.12 And on April 26, Hubei University announced that it was investigating Liang Yanping, a professor, after she used her social media account to express support for Fang Fang.13

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 0.000 3.003

Hackers employ various methods to interrupt or intercept online content with political implications. China remains a top source of global cyberattacks,1 though those with commercial targets have declined or become harder to trace.2 Attacks known to have originated in China can rarely be linked directly to the state, and much of the activity appears decentralized and uncoordinated. However, many attacks employ sophisticated technology, and experts believe that Chinese military and intelligence agencies either sponsor or condone technical attacks on political targets both within and outside China.

In April 2019, the human rights group Charter 08 reported that the contents of its online forum had been deleted and its Google blog removed. The organization also noted that its Twitter account had been hacked several times in recent months.3 Many Chinese Twitter users were hacked during the coverage period, apparently as part of the government’s crackdown on the platform (see B2 and C7). One activist, Wang Aizhong, had 3,000 tweets deleted from his account in December 2018, which he attributed to state-sponsored hacking.4

Websites associated with the persecuted Uighur minority group have faced frequent cyberattacks in recent years, while China-based hackers have deployed various phishing campaigns to infiltrate these communities in exile and collect intelligence. In April 2019, researchers reported that 11 websites commonly visited by members of the Uighur community had been compromised with malicious software that infected visitors’ mobile devices and intercepted user data such as unique identification numbers, phone numbers, and location information.5 These attacks continued through December 2019 to March 2020, with hackers planting malware on the iPhones of people who visited the mobile version of popular Uighur websites.6

On China

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    10 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    10 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes