Not Free
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). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Overview

Conditions for internet users in China remained profoundly oppressive, and confirmed the country’s status as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the seventh consecutive year. During the coverage period, authorities censored calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and criticism of Chinese-produced vaccines. Ordinary users continued to face severe legal repercussions for activities like sharing news stories, talking about their religious beliefs, or communicating with family members and others overseas. Separately, authorities yielded their immense power over the tech industry through new legislation, regulatory investigations, and administrative fines for alleged misuse of data. Despite the tighter constraints and risk of criminal penalties, investigative journalists, activists, bloggers, and ordinary internet users took courageous action calling for redress for government abuses, criticizing the authorities’ response to the pandemic, and sharing information about other sensitive topics.

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, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms. 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 movements continue to seek avenues for protecting basic liberties despite a multiyear crackdown.

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, 2020 – May 31, 2021

  • More mobile apps were blocked during the coverage period, including the encrypted communication platform Signal and the audio app Clubhouse. Authorities also intensified an ongoing crackdown on unapproved virtual private networks (VPNs), often prosecuting activists who provide access to them. These developments further restricted Chinese users’ ability to communicate with people abroad via a secure medium (see B1, B2, and C3).
  • Authorities censored calls for an independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, as well as criticism of Chinese-produced COVID-19 vaccines; continued prosecuting journalists and activists for reporting on the pandemic; and harassed family members of those who died of the virus for speaking up (see B2, B5, and C3).
  • In January 2021, new restrictions on online self-publishing took effect. They require administrators of independently operated social media accounts to obtain a permit and to refrain from commenting on a list of restricted topics, and their enforcement has led to the removal of several accounts (see B2 and B6).
  • 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 continue to increase, contributing to more self-censorship (see B4 and B5).
  • New legislation criminalized those who infringe on the reputation of “heroes and martyrs” and members of the armed forces, further restricting the scope of permitted speech. Violations can result in up to three years’ imprisonment (see C2).
  • The ruling party launched a crackdown on entrepreneurs who refused to toe the party line. Prominent entrepreneur and anticorruption activist Li Huaiqing was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” with evidence including a handful of Li’s WeChat posts and private messages. In July 2020, property tycoon and party member Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption after publishing an online critique of Xi’s response to the pandemic (see C3).
  • The government passed new rules and laws that more strictly regulate the ways that Chinese tech companies collect, store, and share users’ data, including the Personal Information Protection Law and the Data Security Law. Several companies were also investigated for allegedly misusing personal information (see C6).

A Obstacles to Access

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 989 million internet users in China—representing 70.4 percent of the population—as of December 2020.1 That figure represents an increase of 85.4 million since March 2020. The number of users reaching the internet via mobile devices grew from 897 million to 986 million between March 2020 and December 2020; 99.7 percent of users access the internet via mobile devices.2

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, earning it a rank of 200 among the 221 countries tested,3 although Chinese government sources reported significantly higher broadband speeds. In May 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) reported 93 percent of internet users in the country have access to fiber optics.4 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.5 Internet speeds vary significantly in different parts of the country. According to government data, the fastest available connections were in Shanghai,6 while the slowest were in less prosperous and more heavily censored regions such as Xinjiang.7

Chinese companies have been at the forefront of building and deploying 5G networks. In December 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced plans to build at least 600,000 more 5G base stations in 2021. As of March 2021, China had 910,000 5G base stations and 365 million devices connected to 5G networks.8

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.

According to the China Academy of Information and Communication Technology (CAICT), the average monthly broadband expense in the fourth quarter of 2020 was 36.3 renminbi ($5.60), and the average rate for mobile users was 3.75 renminbi ($0.58) per GB.1

The digital divide between urban and rural areas narrowed during the coverage period: 68.7 percent of users were based in cities in December 2020, comparing with 71.8 percent in March 2020, according to government figures.2 As of December 2020, 416 million people did not have access to the internet, and 62.7 percent of those lived in rural areas.3

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, 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.

Human rights activists and their families are sometimes subject to targeted network disconnections. For instance, in June 2020, police in Yunnan Province cut the internet and mobile services of the family of activist Wang Zang, preventing them from speaking out against the detention of Wang.6 In October 2020, authorities cut the internet connection as well as mobile service of Xin Na and her family in Hohhot after they protested the government’s policy to replace Mongolian as the medium of instruction in elementary and middle schools in the region of Inner Mongolia.7

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).8

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 In September 2020, the State Council approved a plan allowing foreign firms to own up to 50 percent in joint ventures providing virtual private network services for foreign companies in Beijing.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 Overall, internet cafés are no longer as popular as they once were, although many remain gathering venues for video gamers. The total number of cybercafés was estimated to be approximately 125,000 in February 2021. In 2020, just under 13,000 cybercafés were closed, partly due to restrictions implemented in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.6

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.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)1 and the CCP’s Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission oversee the telecommunications sector and regulate internet content.2 The cybersecurity law in effect since 2017 identifies 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 even greater control over 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 Central Propaganda Department plays a leading role with regard to enforcing CCP’s political and ideological priorities through online regulation.

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 frequently issue rules and instructions regarding technical, legal, administrative, or content dimensions of internet activity in China and in ensuring party control over online content.

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 0.000 6.006

The Chinese government’s Great Firewall is the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship apparatus. The content targeted for blocking, including major social media platforms, usually contains 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.

Drawing on Chinese government documents and websites, a January 2021 report by Ryan Fedasiuk of Georgetown University in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief estimated that China's Cyberspace Affairs Commissions and Public Security Bureaus have spent $6.6 billion on internet censorship since 2018, with $5.75 billion of that being spent at the county or municipal level.1

According to—an anticensorship group that tracks filtering in China—as of mid-2021, at least 165 out of the top 1,000 most visited websites and social media platforms around the world were blocked in China.2 Many international news outlets and their Chinese-language websites are blocked, such as those of the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The websites of 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)—were also blocked during the coverage period. In June 2020, amid tensions between China and India following clashes along the countries’ disputed border, the Times of India reported that China had blocked a number of Indian news websites.3 The move seems to have come prior to the Indian government’s decision to ban dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, on national security grounds.4

A wide range of other websites that might provide information critical of the Chinese government are also blocked, including those of human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Freedom House. In April 2021, authorities blocked the website of Centre for Strategic and International studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.5

Most international social media and messaging platforms are blocked in China, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, Snapchat, Line, and Pinterest, among others.6 In February 2021, authorities blocked the newly emerged mobile audio app Clubhouse, after thousands of users in China had flocked to the app to discuss detention camps in Xinjiang.7 In March 2021, the government blocked the encrypted messaging app Signal.8 The popular discussion forum Reddit was blocked in August 2018,9 while all languages of Wikipedia were blocked in late April 2019, probably as part of the censorship sweep associated with the Tiananmen Square crackdown anniversary.10 Previously, only the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia and individual pages on sensitive topics were inaccessible.11 A number of Google services—including Maps, Translate, Calendar, Scholar, and Analytics—remained blocked in 2021. The long-standing blocks on international communications platforms have helped to enable 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 2012,12 while the Yahoo search function was blocked in September 2018.13 Microsoft’s Bing has generally remained accessible due to its compliance with the government’s censorship requirements.14 Nevertheless, Bing accounts for only 2.6 percent of the search engine market in China, which is dominated by the Chinese companies Baidu and Sogou, with their market share as of March 2021 being 75.5 percent and 15.3 percent respectively.15 In October 2020, the Chinese internet security company Qihoo 360 released Tuber, an Android app that allowed China-based users to access some websites blocked in China. It required real-name registration and simultaneously censored searches for sensitive terms like “Tiananmen Square” and “Xi Jinping.” Despite these controls, government authorities took the app offline within days of its release, after over 5 million downloads. 16 Similarly, in November 2019, web browser Kuniao, which allowed China-based users to partially bypass internet censorship, was similarly taken offline within days of its release.17

A minority of Chinese internet users (albeit tens of millions of users) are able to access blocked websites with circumvention tools, such as VPNs (see B7). However, the government has intensified its restrictions on these tools since 2017, when MIIT issued a ban on the use of unlicensed VPNs.18 Service providers are barred from setting up VPNs without government approval, and illegal VPN operations have been increasingly targeted for closure or blocking (see C3).19 Blocks on VPNs typically escalate ahead of high-profile events, such as the annual plenary sessions of China’s legislature.20 VPN providers have noted that a growing technical sophistication of Chinese authorities has been reflected in VPN blocking incidents.21

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 0.000 4.004

The government requires locally hosted websites, social media platforms, and other tech companies to proactively monitor content, remove significant amounts of banned material, and close user accounts. They can face severe punishment for failure to comply. 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 extending to topics that were previously uncensored. Content censored includes information recognized internationally as problematic, but also political, religious, cultural, and social issues deemed undesirable by the regime.

In March 2021, China’s National Radio and Television Administration published draft amendments to the Radio and Television Law that expand it to cover online video broadcasters and platforms.1 It specifies nine types of banned content, including content that “endangers security,” “slanders Chinese culture,” or does not help youth “establish the correct world view.”2

The cyberspace administration of China (CAC) regularly launches “rectification” and “clean-up” campaigns to pressure websites and social media platforms to more effectively police content. Separately, in 2020, Baidu reported deleting over 51.6 billion items deemed “harmful information,” a slight decrease from 53.2 billion in 2019.3 According to a CAC report covering the second quarter of 2020, in addition to targeting “socially harmful content,” such as pornography and gambling, the CAC also targeted content that “endangers national security,” or is “politically harmful.” During this period, it suspended 281 websites, and shut down 2,686 websites and 31,000 accounts. In August, CAC shut down an additional 179,000 social media accounts.4 In December 2020, the government pulled the travel app TripAdvisor from mobile app stores after it launched a new round of “clean-up” the internet campaign.5

In November, the National Radio and Television Administration released new regulations for the country’s massive live-streaming industry, which features some 560 million users. The regulations include requirements that platforms notify authorities ahead of time of celebrity and foreigner appearances, and that they promote accounts that embody core socialist values. The administration also said that it would enforce the new regulations during a clean-up campaign in December, during which it would shut down platforms that do not comply.6

Censors increasingly target “self-media,” a category that includes independent writers, bloggers, and social media celebrities (see B6). Overall, tens of thousands of these accounts have been shut down, delivering a major blow to one of the few remaining avenues for independent and critical news and analysis.7

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. 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.”8 In March 2021, the CAC reportedly ordered Microsoft’s LinkedIn to suspend new sign-ups for 30 days and undergo a self-evaluation for not censoring enough content during the annual legislative meetings in March.9 The company issued a statement on March 9 that it was “work[ing] to ensure we remain in compliance with local law.”10

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, 11 China’s top news app Jinri Toutiao,12 and live-streaming app Kuaishou13 —numbering in the thousands.14

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, often at the behest of authorities. In October 2020, the CAC ordered companies operating mobile browsers to conduct a “self examination,” by November 9 to remove sensational headlines, rumors, and content that does not follow “socialist values,” or risk being shut down. The CAC specifically instructed companies to pay special attention to “self-media” accounts. Companies that received the order include Huawei, Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Tencent.15 In March 2021, internet companies pulled Alibaba’s web browser, UC Browser, from Chinese Android app stores following a call by Xi Jinping on March 15 for regulators to “step up” regulation of the country’s growing technology companies.16 In July 2021, after the coverage period, WeChat permanently suspended the accounts of over a dozen college LGBT+ groups.17

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.18 In June 2020, the Guardian reported that Apple had removed the podcast apps Pocket Casts and Castro from its Chinese app store after the creators refused to comply with government censorship directives.19 In March 2021, Apple’s China App store removed the viral face animator app Avatarify, which produced “deep-fakes” in which a person’s face is altered or replaced.20 While Chinese state media reported that the app was removed due to privacy concerns, some netizens suspect that the real reason was the spoofs created of CCP politicians. In May 2021, the New York Times reported that since 2017, roughly 55,000 active apps have disappeared from Apple’s App Store in China, including hundreds of virtual private network (VPN) services.21 As of August 2021, a website run by the anticensorship group, which tracks the availability of apps in different countries, had identified 7,032 apps that were unavailable in Apple’s China store compared to other app stores, including over 170 news apps, as well as entertainment, gaming, sports, weather, and travel apps.22

In June 2020, as Chinese activists around the world sought to use Zoom to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the company, following instructions from one of its employees who was secretly tied to the Chinese government, terminated sessions or accounts of organizers in the United States at the behest of the Chinese government.23

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 (CGTN), 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 three years, numerous users faced reprisals for their Twitter activities including prison time, with many forced to delete their posts en masse (see C3 and C7).24

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.25 Any negative or unauthorized content related to President Xi and the CCP is heavily censored. There is also consistent and systematic censorship of content that violates long-standing taboos on subjects such as the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre; Taiwanese independence; and repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet or of banned religious groups like Falun Gong in other parts of China. 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.26

In October 2020, the CAC issued a specific list of censorship instructions to social media and news platforms in preparation for the Fifth Plenum 19th Party Congress, asking that they “strengthen management” to find and delete banned content. Off-limits topics include speculation about power struggles and factions among CCP elite, critical coverage of China in foreign news outlets, comments that conflate stock market fluctuations with politics, and general negative commentary about CCP leadership and the PRC government system. It also instructed platforms to not prominently display news of violence or celebrity gossip, to strengthen publicity for important government speeches, and to seek approval before republishing any foreign information.27 Also in October, the CAC instructed broadcasters to only use official tapings of events covering the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, and to monitor comments sections.28

In April 2021, censors deleted from WeChat and other websites an article written by former premier Wen Jiabao, with state news outlet refusing to publish it, likely due to its implicit criticism of Xi Jinping. The article provided rare insight into Wen’s personal thoughts, with him writing, “China, in my vision, should be a country of justice and fairness.”29

Content that criticizes the government’s repression of free speech was also censored. In February 2021, censors deleted an article by Gao Yu, the deputy editor in chief at Caixin, that criticized how journalists trying to independently report information are targeted by both authorities and nationalistic “keyboard warriors.”30 In March, WeChat blocked an article from being shared that was posted by the British embassy and defended the international press. China’s Foreign Ministry also summoned its author, Ambassador Caroline Wilson, for a meeting.31

The COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in late 2019, continue to be one of the most censored topics during the coverage period. In the run-up to the anniversary of the January 23 lockdown in Wuhan, censors deleted posts critical of the government's initial handling of the outbreak, including ones with terms like “first anniversary” and “whistleblower.”32 A Citizen Lab report found that over 2,100 keywords related to the virus were censored on WeChat between January and May of 2020, affecting tens of millions of posts. Banned keywords related to the virus itself, international criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic, conspiracy theories concerning the virus’ origin, and US domestic politics. 33

Content related to marginalized ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups is also 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 services, with users facing account deactivation for sharing religious information.34 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.35 Many Cantonese live streamers using ByteDance's popular Douyin app (the Chinese version of TikTok, which has 400 million daily active users)36 have been banned for not broadcasting in Mandarin.37

LGBT+ content has been heavily restricted on China’s internet since 2017, when the China Netcasting Services Association labelled homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior.”38 The courts have upheld the restrictions in response to multiple legal challenges.39

In July 2020, a music game by Taiwanese company Rayark was suspended from China’s app stores after it was discovered that Rayark’s musical director had published on SoundCloud a song with an oblique reference to Hong Kong’s protest movement.40 In September 2020, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism released new guidelines for tighter control of artistic performances, including reviewing the content of performances and procedures for seeking approval. 41

Automation is also 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.42, the online version of the official CCP newspaper People’s Daily, has been improving its artificial intelligence–assisted censorship capabilities.43 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, sometimes removing even positive references to Xi Jinping.44

After women spoke out in solidarity with feminist Xaio Meili, Weibo reportedly deleted her account and those of around 20 other women after they were doxed or otherwise attacked for defending Xiao (see B8). One of the women targeted, New York-based Liang Xiaomen, sued Weibo under China’s new Civil Code for deleting her account without providing an explanation or evidence of wrongdoing. Social media site Douban also deleted over 10 feminist groups on its platform, including groups tied to the 6b4t women’s’ empowerment movement that began in South Korea, and refers to women who choose to be single, refrain from sex, or decline to have children, among other things.45

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. Regulations issued by government and CCP agencies establish censorship guidelines. 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 closely held secrets, but are periodically leaked. There are no formal avenues for appeal and they cannot be challenged in the courts. Criticism of censorship is itself censored.2 There is also no transparency surrounding private companies’ day-to-day censorship in China, and users similarly lack avenues for appeal.

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 (see C2).3 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).

The CAC and other bodies routinely introduce new rules and guidelines to further refine online restrictions, with an increasing focus on user-generated content (see B2).

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 is common, and takes place amid an increasing 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 (see B2).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.

Self-censorship is pervasive among members of persecuted groups, especially Uyghurs, whose WeChat activities are closely monitored. Many block their own family members living abroad to avoid being detained for their foreign contacts.3 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. On June 4, 2020, users commented on the last post of late COVID-19 whistle-blower Li Wenliang on Weibo to obliquely commemorate the Tiananmen massacre. Since his death in February 2020, Dr. Li’s final Weibo post has a place for frustrated citizens to express themselves.4 In September 2020, users criticized a ceremony honoring those who contributed to the fight against the coronavirus because it failed to recognize Li Wenliang.5

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 what constitutes “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

In March 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 report released in December 2020, a robust government-funded industry of automated online commentating has emerged to flood social media platforms with desired posts, even under the direction of small local agencies.10

Since 2017, content manipulation and disinformation campaigns have increasingly extended even to platforms that are blocked in China, demonstrating an ability 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 Their activity is 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 In March 2021, sparked by a viral Weibo post from the Communist Youth League, a widespread campaign emerged supporting cotton from Xinjiang and denouncing international brands like Swedish clothing company H&M that pledged not to use it over forced labor concerns.18

The government encourages Chinese tech companies to engage in “party-building” efforts to strengthen the “ideological security” of their firms.19 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.20 Some tech leaders, including the founders of Tencent, Baidu, and Xiaomi, are delegates of China’s National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.21

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, licensing requirements, and data-localization mandates have made it more expensive to run an internet-specific 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 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

In January 2021, the CAC instituted a new set of restrictions on online self-publishing, requiring independently operated accounts to obtain a permit and prohibiting them from commenting on a list of restricted topics (see B2).7

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

China’s online information landscape is significantly less diverse than it had been before Xi Jinping came to power due to increasing censorship—especially of content produced by civil society activists, investigative journalists, and “self-media.” The strict 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 narrow avenues 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 marginalized ethnic, religious, and linguistic 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, Uyghur-language content and relevant news reporting have been heavily censored and many ordinary Uyghur users detained (see B2 and C3), while Islamophobic commentary is permitted to circulate widely.4 Other, mostly Han Chinese religious and linguistic minority populations are also disproportionately silenced or restricted, limiting the diversity of content online (see B2).

Despite the tight censorship system, tens of millions of internet users—including from among persecuted minorities—bypass censorship with circumvention technology or creative workarounds. Although hundreds of VPN services have been banned since 2017 or removed from Apple’s iPhone App Store in China,5 various options remain available in the country.6

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.7 The cartoon character Winnie the Pooh has also been systematically censored since it became a meme used to caricature Xi Jinping.8 For the past several years, the word “Xinjiang” and the human rights abuses documented across the region had been taboo on the Chinese internet. Netizens thus used “XJ” and “new jiang” (“xin” means new in Chinese) to try to circumvent censorship.9

Although tolerance of investigative journalism has declined dramatically over the past decade,10 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. In July 2020, Guyu Story Lab, Tencent’s nonfiction media, published a story of a Tibetan woman who was burned to death by her ex-husband despite calling the police multiple times prior to her death; police had refused to intervene. The story exposed the long-standing problem of domestic violence and authorities’ lack of enforcement of anti-domestic violence laws. In September 2020, People magazine published a report shedding light on the lack of labor protections facing China’s delivery drivers. The story put a critical spotlight on two of China’s biggest online food delivery companies.11

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.

Article 35 of the constitution guarantees free assembly and association, although they are not protected in practice. 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 (see C3 and C7).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 In December 2020, a court in Beijing heard a landmark case involving Zhou Xiaoxuan, who sued a prominent television-show host for sexually harassing her. Around 100 people gathered outside the court to support Zhou, after first learning about the case on Chinese social media.7

In March and April 2021, women spoke out in solidarity with feminist Xiao Meili after her post on Weibo led to a stream of nationalistic and misogynistic trolling, ultimately resulting in Weibo deleting her account in late March (see B2).

Nascent attempts to advocate for labor rights and push for collective action against e-commerce companies took place during the coverage period. The efforts were led by delivery driver Chen Guojiang, who recorded videos and set up WeChat groups to organize delivery drivers, who work with few protections.8 However, Chen’s disappearance in February and arrest in March 2021 seems to have quelled digital activism on the issue (see C3).

C Violations of User Rights

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 and publication, but such rights are subordinated to the CCP’s status as the ruling party. 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.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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. 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, with bail routinely denied and pretrial detention often long-lasting.

Laws prohibiting offenses including defamation, creating disturbances, illegal commercial activities, and extortion have implication for online speech.1 Defamation has been interpreted to include “online rumors,” content deemed false, or online expression that “seriously harms” public order or state interests.2 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.3 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”—as well as inciting such actions—can draw sentences as severe as life in prison, with members of religious and ethnic minorities periodically receiving life sentences when charged.4 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.5 A 2015 amendment to the criminal code increased the maximum penalties from 15 years to life imprisonment.6 The same 2015 legislation introduced penalties of up to seven years in prison for the dissemination of misinformation on social media.7

An amendment to the criminal code that went into effect in March 2021 added a provision stipulating that those who “insult, slander, or infringe the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs” can be held criminally liable and punished with up to three years’ imprisonment.8 A law in June 2021 was introduced to ban “slander” of members of the armed forces.9

Separately, the 2015 antiterrorism law bars social media users from sharing information about acts of terrorism or spreading “inhuman” images that could encourage copycat attacks (see B3 and C5).10 The sweeping cybersecurity law that took effect in 2017 also increased censorship requirements (see C4 and C6).11

In February 2020, amid 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 rumors 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.”12 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.”13

Some detentions do not require approval by a court.14 One form of administrative detention known as “reeducation through labor” was abolished in 2013 in response to domestic and international calls for reform,15 but individuals can be detained without trial under similarly poor conditions in drug rehabilitation.16 Chinese law also contains a form of criminal detention termed “residential surveillance at a designated location”17 where police may hold individuals in secret locations without informing their families or legal counsel for up to six months.18

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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 minority groups, 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 C5 and C6).1

During the coverage period, authorities continued to detain or prosecute people for their speech related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The anonymous Twitter account @SpeechFreedomCN has tracked over 663 arrests for COVID-19-related speech between January 2020 and June 2021.2 In September 2020, Hubei user Zhang Wenfang was sentenced to a six-month prison term for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for a poem she posted on Weibo about the pandemic.3 In March 2021, retired professor Chen Zhaozhi went on trial in Beijing on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for posting online that the “Wuhan pneumonia is not a Chinese virus, but Chinese Communist Party virus.” Prosecutors recommended a two-and-a-half-year sentence, but the trial ended without a verdict being pronounced.

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 47 journalists were behind bars in China as of December 2020.4 In December 2020, a Shanghai court sentenced lawyer turned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Zhang had covered the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan and had uploaded more than 120 videos to YouTube prior to her arrest in May 2020. While in detention, Zhang went on a hunger strike and was reportedly force fed by police.5 As of August 2021, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, Beijing-based activists who were detained in April 2020 for archiving censored COVID-19 stories on GitHub, remained in detention awaiting trial.6 The whereabouts of Wuhan businessman and citizen journalist Fang Bin, who was detained in early 2019 for reporting on the pandemic, remained unknow as of August 2021. In April 2020, in an unusually harsh sentence for an ethnic Chinese journalist, Chen Jieren was sentenced to 15 years in prison for publishing material critical of the Communist Party and exposing corruption in Hunan Province on WeChat.7

Criticism or questioning the authority of Xi Jinping remains a particularly dangerous online activity. During the coverage period, several activists and lawyers faced detention or prosecution for overt or veiled critiques of Xi’s leadership. In July 2020, property tycoon and party member Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison on corruption charges after publishing an online critique of Xi’s response to the pandemic; many experts interpreted the punishment as a warning to Xi’s many critics within the party not to challenge his authority.8 In December 2020, 24 teens and young adults were convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking disturbances” and “infringing on citizens’ personal information,” for posting political memes and leaking personal information about Xi Jinping’s family on the websites zhina wiki and Niu Tengyu, 21, was accused of being the “main culprit,” and sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined 130,000 renminbi ($19,800). He claims that he was tortured while in detention and forced to confess.9

In February 2021, Rights Defense Network reported that it suspected that Dong Yaoqiong, known for live streaming herself splashing ink on a portrait of Xi Jinping in 2018, had been held in a psychiatric hospital after she posted to Twitter about government surveillance to which she was subjected.10 In December 2020, activist Ou Biaofeng was placed under “residential surveillance” in an undisclosed location after he posted one of Dong’s videos about her surveillance on Twitter.11 In July, Ou was formally arrested on charge of “inciting subversion.”12

Activists and human rights lawyers were prosecuted for advocating for democracy, exposing police abuses, unionizing efforts, and other activities. In June 2020, a court in Jiangsu Province sentenced human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng to four years in prison and barred him from publishing publicly and serving in public positions for three years for “inciting subversion” (see C7).13 Yu had been detained in January 2018 after posting online a call for constitutional reforms and democratic elections. In January 2021, authorities upgraded the charges against prominent rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong to “subversion of state power,” which carries a potential life sentence.14 Xu was detained in February 2020 after he attended a dinner meeting of activists, but the nationwide effort to track him down appeared to accelerate after he published online a scathing letter15 calling for Xi to step down over the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The case continued at the end of the coverage period. In February, Shandong police detained Xu’s partner, activist Li Qiaochu, for “inciting subversion.”16

In April 2021, Beijing police arrested delivery worker Chen Guojiang on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for his labor-unionizing efforts.17 Guo had recorded videos and set up WeChat groups to organize delivery drivers (see B8). His case remained pending at the end of the coverage period. In the same mouth, Shaanxi police charged human rights lawyer Chang Weiping with “subversion of state power,” which carries a potential life sentence. Chang had released a YouTube video detailing torture he reported suffering when detained in January 2020.18

The CCP also launched a crackdown on prominent entrepreneurs who refused to toe the party line. In November 2020, a Chongqing Court sentenced entrepreneur and anticorruption activist Li Huaiqing to 20 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” The evidence cited was a handful of Li’s WeChat posts and private messages.19 In July 2021, after the coverage period, a court in Hebei province sentenced billionaire Sun Dawu, head of Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, to 18 years in prison on charges including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and assembling a crowd to attack state agencies. Sun had openly accused the government of covering up a swine flu outbreak in 2019,20 and had previously supported detained activist Xu Zhiyong and praised the work of lawyers representing people who have criticized the ruling party, including online.21 He was first detained in November, along with his family and 20 executives for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Even members of the ruling party have been prosecuted for online posts critical of the government. In October 2020, Zhejiang Province official Ye Fuxing was expelled from the CCP and prosecuted for posting articles online that “vilified and slandered national leaders.”22

An increasing number of internet users were detained for “unpatriotic” speech. At least seven people were detained in February 2021 for their online comments related to the release of the names of the Chinese soldiers who died in a border clash with India.23 Former journalist Qiu Ziming was sentenced to a maximum three-year prison term for suggesting to his 2.5 million Weibo followers that the real death toll was higher than what was officially reported.24

Users sharing information from or with foreigners were also penalized. In January 2021, a court in Guizhou province sentenced former journalist Zhang Jialong to one-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after he liked and retweeted messages critical of the CCP. (In 2014, in a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Zhang urged the US to help “tear down” the Great Firewall.25 ) In July 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;26 Chen had been detained in August 2019.

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. In June 2020, Chen Yuzhen was detained for “providing programs and tools for hacking computer network illegally” and “illegal controlling computer networks” after he shared his VPN login information with his friends.27 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.28

Authorities continued to selectively punish users for accessing or sharing information blocked by the Great Firewall. In July 2020, a court in Guangdong province sentenced Chen Zong to fifteen months in prison for “picking quarrels” after he set up WeChat groups to share information he had collected from blocked websites using a VPN.29 In November 2020, a Beijing court sentenced activist Zhang Baocheng to three-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “promoting terrorism.” Prosecutors accused Zhang of using Twitter to defame the CCP.30 In August 2021, a court in Anhui province sentenced Zhou Weilin to three-and-a-half years in prison. Zhou was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” due to comments he made on Twitter and articles on human rights he produced for the Rights Defense Network website.31

A January 2021 Wall Street Journal investigation found that over the past three years, 58 Chinese users had been sentenced to prison for between six months and four years over posts on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.32 In December 2019, a man with 27 followers on Twitter was sentenced to 13 months in prison after he tweeted “glory to Hong Kong, shame on Communist bandits.”33

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.34 An estimated one million people are being held in political reeducation camps or forced labor facilities,35 some of whom were targeted for their online activities, including communication with relatives living abroad via WeChat.36

During the previous coverage period, reports emerged of prison sentences being imposed on some of these detainees. A leaked Chinese government document with details of dozens of Uyghurs 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 Uyghur 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 Uyghurs outside the country.37 There are also reports that ethnic Hui Muslims inside and outside Xinjiang have come under greater state surveillance and experience periodic detention.38 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.”39 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.40

Tibetans living outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region have also been targeted for sharing information on Chinese social media or overseas websites. In March 2021, police in Sichuan informed the family of Rinchen Tsultrim, a Tibetan monk, that he had been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for “inciting separatism” over his WeChat remarks about Tibet and for speaking with Tibetans in exile.41

People in Tibet, which is not factored in to this report’s scores (see Overview), also face prison terms for their online speech. In February 2021, Tibetan Kunchok Jinpa died in a Lhasa hospital while serving a 21-year prison sentence for “leaking state secrets” after being detained in 2013 for providing information to overseas websites about protests in Tibet.42 In September 2020, four monks were tried in secret by the Shigatse Intermediate People’s Court and found guilty for, according to Human Rights Watch, one of three offenses: communicating online with Tibetans abroad, possessing images or literature related to the Dalai Lama, or sending money abroad.43 Choegyal Wangpo was convicted to 20 years, Lobsang Jinpa to 19 years, Ngawang Yeshe to 5 years, and Norbu Dondrub, who also was critically beaten by police, to 17 years in prison.

Members of other religious minority groups 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.44

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 introduced guidelines for online gamers in November 2019, requiring all players to register using their name and phone number.3 In June 2020, the government also implemented real-name registration for online literature platforms, where many novelists have turned to discuss sensitive subjects in recent years.4

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.5 The authorities justify real-name registration as a means to prevent cybercrime, but uploaded identity documents are vulnerable to theft or misuse.6 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 faces scanned when registering for mobile phone services.7

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.8 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.

Laws also undermine encryption technology. The 2015 antiterrorism law requires companies to offer technical support to decrypt information at the request of law enforcement agencies, among other provisions.9 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.10 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.11

In May 2021, the New York Times reported that Apple abandoned the encryption technology it typically uses when storing user data in China after the Chinese government prohibited the technology’s use (see C6).12

Measures that erode privacy disproportionately target groups that are perceived as threats to the regime. In Xinjiang, Uyghurs 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.13

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 toward 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.

A new October 2020 study by ChinaFile provided clarity on the extent to which local officials have purchased intrusive surveillance technology.1 Through an examination of more than 76,000 local government procurement documents published between 2004 and May 2020, the study found that in 2019 alone authorities in one third of Chinese counties purchased surveillance equipment, including facial-recognition–enabled cameras, databases for storing citizen information and images, and Wi-Fi sniffers. Much of the equipment is connected to Project Sharp Eyes, which aims to cover all key public spaces in China by video surveillance.

In April 2021, users criticized a new app developed by the Ministry of Public Security designed to warn users of scam calls, texts, and apps, and voiced objections that they were forced to download the app in order to enter their residence buildings or to receive vaccinations by staff members. Though the app claims not to collect user data, users are required when registering to submit their name, national ID number, biometric facial data, address, and phone number, and must approve 29 access permissions including to cameras and microphones.2

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 February 2020, authorities detained Chen Geng after he mentioned Falun Gong in a private message on WeChat.3

Residents of Xinjiang are subject to severely invasive surveillance tactics. A leaked list of Uyghur detainees examined in a December 2020 report by Human Rights Watch showed how Chinese authorities are using big-data technology to arbitrarily detain Muslims in Xinjiang. Dated from late 2018, the list from Xinjiang's Aksu Prefecture names 2,000 people flagged by the police's Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) for surveillance and detention. Despite Chinese government claims that technologies like IJOP are only used against criminals, the research showed that the vast majority of the people on the list were targeted by police for nonviolent and mundane behavior like owning multiple cell phones, receiving phone calls from relatives in foreign “sensitive countries,” wearing religious clothing, using Skype, or studying the Quran. Some of the punished actions appear to have taken place years or even decades ago—such as studying the Quran in the mid-1980s, or staying overnight in another part of Xinjiang in 2013.4

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.5 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.6 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.7

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,8 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 2020,9 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.10 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.11

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 0.000 6.006

Internet-specific 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

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.4 The State Secrets Law obliges telecommunications companies to cooperate with authorities investigating leaked state secrets, or risk losing their licenses.5

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 and further criminal charges.6

Various regulations outline requirements for companies to retain user data, which they must make available to officials.7 CAC rules issued in 2016 oblige Chinese app providers to register users and keep user activity logs for 60 days.8 Other ISPs are required to retain user information for 60 days and submit it to the authorities upon request, without judicial oversight or transparency.9

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. Research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found in early 2020 that WeChat was 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.10

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.11

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 did not incorporate strong privacy-by-design principles or state any time limit on the retention of data.12 A New York Times investigation showed that the Alipay Health Code app automatically shared data with the police.13 As the initial outbreak was brought under control in China, certain health code apps were rolled back in cities like Shanghai. In March 2021, a new vaccine passport was launched on WeChat to track the health, testing, and vaccination records of Chinese citizens entering and exiting China.14 The use of a vaccine passport on WeChat is concerning in light of the app’s links to the government’s censorship and surveillance apparatus.

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.15 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,16 and a second data center is expected to open in Inner Mongolia.17 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.18 A May 2021 report from the New York Times further clarified how Chinese government workers operate Apple-owned data centers in the country, detailing their physical control of computers and administration of other technology. The company also created a new legal agreement that allows it to bypass US law in order to share data with Chinese officials (see C4).19

In November 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that a leading American executive for Airbnb resigned in late 2019 over concerns the company was sharing user data with Chinese authorities.20 The report revealed that, in the paperwork for Airbnb’s December initial public offering (IPO), the company stated that compliance with data requests from the Chinese government could result in its inability to operate in the country as well as harm to its reputation.

The government also seeks to proactively counter efforts to evade surveillance. In March 2021, the CAC announced that it started talks with 11 social media platforms, including ByteDance, Tencent, Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Kuaishou, to explore how to counteract deepfake technologies and voice-changing software, which is often used by activists to elude identification by government authorities.21 The platforms were instructed to report back with security assessments and improved risk-prevention and control measures for voice-based social media software, as well as deepfake technologies.

Several new government efforts were aimed to regulate how Chinese tech companies collect, share, and store users’ data. In August 2021, after this report’s coverage period, the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) was passed, with drafts released for public consultation in April 2021 and October 2020.22 The law, which will apply to all organizations and individuals in China or seeking to access Chinese citizens’ data, is the country’s first comprehensive piece of legislation about the protection of personal information.23 While some of its provisions come in response to Chinese users’ demands for greater protections, experts have criticized the law for not restraining the state surveillance system.24 It is set to go in effect in November 2021.

In March 2021, the CAC issued the Provisions on the Scope of Necessary Personal Information for Common Used Mobile Internet Applications, defining what constitutes “necessary personal information” that mobile internet applications can require consumers to provide.25 Regulators subsequently alleged that over 100 apps—including those from Chinese tech giants Tencent and Baidu—violated the rules.26 Separately, in July 2021, after the coverage period, authorities asserted that the ride-hailing app Didi illegally collected users’ personal information and the app was pulled from China-based app stores.27 In April 2021, regulators also fined Alibaba a record $2.8 billion for using its algorithms and unfair access to data to further entrench its market position.28

In May 2020, the National People’s Congress passed the country’s first Civil Code, which included a provision that requires an individual’s consent for private companies to collect, share, or disclose their digital and biometric data. The provisions come amid growing public concern in China over data collection, hacking, and potential leaks by private companies.29

In June 2021, after the coverage period, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the new Data Security Law,30 which will take effect in September 2021. The law imposes extensive data security obligations for businesses—not only regulating data processing and management activities within China, but also those outside of China that would purportedly harm China’s national security or public interest of Chinese citizens or organizations. It requires companies to obtain approval from the state prior to sharing data with a foreign judicial or law enforcement entity.

Chinese companies consistently ranked in the bottom half of the Rating Digital Rights evaluation of major tech companies’ policies around privacy.31 In its 2020 index, which covered 14 major digital platforms, Tencent, owner of WeChat, ranked 12th for privacy protections; Alibaba, affiliated with Ant Financial, ranked 9th; and Baidu ranked 8th.

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 relation to 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 In June 2021, in the run up to the 32nd Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, police forced activists across the country, including journalist Lu Yuyu, writer Zha Jianguo, activist Ji Feng, and academic Yang Shaozheng, to leave their residences for guarded “vacations,” barring them from communicating with others.4 Some activists have gone into hiding to avoid arrest. In August 2018, a young Uyghur man, Miradil Hesen, went into 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 In August 2020, the lawyer of detained lawyer Yu Wensheng said Yu was tortured in detention and his health deteriorated drastically, including loss of his teeth and severe tremors leaving him unable to write with his right hand.8

Members of marginalized 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 Uyghurs and other Muslims were taken to reeducation camps as a result of their online activities, such as downloading WhatsApp, possessing the contact information of prominent Uyghur 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.

People in Tibet, which is not covered by this report (see Overview), also face physical violence for their online activity. For example, Human Rights Watch reported in July 2021, after the coverage period, that Tibetan monk Choegyal Wangpo had been arrested and severely beaten in 2019 after police found his phone at a café, which contained WeChat messages to other monks in Nepal. The police then raided his village and detained approximately 20 other monks.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 other real-world repercussions from nationalistic online users. For example, in July 2020, after the Chinese government ordered the US consulate in Chengdu to close, online trolls harassed Tzu-I Chuang, the wife of the then US consul general, who had a large following on Chinese social media.12 In April 2021, Xu Xiuzhong, a China-born researcher who had published reports on repression in Xinjiang, became the target of an online harassment campaign.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 a variety of methods to interrupt or intercept online content. 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.

Websites associated with the persecuted Uyghur 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 information about them. In May 2021, cybersecurity firms Check Point and Kaspersky reported that hackers were employing malicious Microsoft Word file purporting to be from the UN Human Rights Council, detailing rights violations to Uighurs. The document would introduce malware onto a target’s electronic device if opened. The companies alleged that the likely goal of the attack was to introduce malware on a target’s electronic device, particularly prominent Uyghurs, including in China.3

In March 2021, Facebook announced that it had disrupted the actions of hacker groups using malware links on its platform to surveil Uyghurs, with targets mainly based in Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, Syria, Australia, and Canada. Targeted users were sent look-alike domains for popular Uyghur and Turkish news sites. Parts of this campaign closely resemble activity associated with Evil Eye, a previously identified threat actor that also targeted Uyghurs.4

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.5 Chinese Twitter users have also been hacked, apparently as part of the government’s crackdown on the platform (see B2). One activist, Wang Aizhong, had 3,000 tweets deleted from his account in December 2018, which he attributed to state-sponsored hacking.6

On China

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  • Global Freedom Score

    9 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    9 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

  • Websites Blocked

  • Pro-government Commentators

  • Users Arrested