China

Not Free
10
100
A Obstacles to Access 8 25
B Limits on Content 2 35
C Violations of User Rights 0 40
Last Year's Score & Status
10 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). 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 eighth consecutive year. During the coverage period, authorities censored social media posts critical of the government’s stringent COVID-19 lockdown measures. Ordinary users continued to face severe legal and extralegal 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 app store removals for alleged privacy violations. 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, though at great personal cost and 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, 2021 - May 31, 2022

  • Authorities censored online criticism of its draconian COVID-19 lockdown measures, harassed internet users for sharing coronavirus-related information, and continued to detain journalists and activists for reporting on the pandemic (see B2, B5, and C3).
  • After Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted on the social media platform Weibo alleging that she had been sexually assaulted and forced into a sexual relationship with former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in November 2021, censors removed her post and scrubbed any discussion of the allegations, alongside a broader suppression of online content relating to women’s rights (see B2 and B8).
  • As Beijing hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics in February, authorities mobilized commentators to favor progovernment narratives and manipulated online content to censor criticism (see B2 and B5).
  • Regulations that took effect in March 2022 require technology platforms to ensure that automated content-recommendation systems promote CCP ideology and remove posts deemed undesirable (see B3).
  • Authorities detained prominent journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and religious and ethnic minorities for their online activities, handing down an eight-year sentence to a Falun Gong practitioner for supplying content to be published online on a Falun Gong–affiliated website (see C3).
  • The Personal Information Protection Law and the Data Security Law went into effect in November and September 2021, respectively, more strictly regulating the ways Chinese tech companies collect, store, and share user data. While the laws impose privacy safeguards on the private sector, they exempt government agencies and at times mandate that companies store data domestically (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 1.03 billion internet users in China—representing 73 percent of the population—as of December 2021.1 That figure represents an increase of 42.96 million since December 2020. Of users in the country, 99.7 percent access the internet via mobile devices.2

Chinese internet users can access high-speed internet, though connection speeds are slowed by the country’s blocking and filtering apparatus (see B1). According to internet speed testing company Ookla. the country saw median mobile download speeds of 87.48 megabits per second (Mbps) and median fixed broadband download speeds of 181.9 Mbps as of May 2022.3 Connection speeds in China are slowed by the government’s extensive censorship apparatus (see B1), which filters all cross-border traffic and makes the loading of content from foreign-hosted websites sluggish.4 Internet speeds vary significantly in different parts of the country. According to government data, the fastest available connections were in Shanghai,5 and the slowest were in less prosperous and more heavily censored regions, such as Xinjiang.6

Chinese companies have been at the forefront of building and deploying fifth-generation (5G) technology networks. As of November 2021, China had nearly 1.4 million 5G base stations and 497 million devices connected to 5G networks.7

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 first half of 2021 was 37.50 yuan ($5.88), and the average rate for mobile users was 3.22 yuan ($0.51) per gigabyte (GB).1

The digital divide between urban and rural areas narrowed during the coverage period, according to government figures. Internet penetration in cities was 81.3 percent as of December 2021, compared to 57.6 percent in rural areas, with the gap between the two narrowing by 0.2 percent.2 As of December 2021, 382 million people did not have access to the internet, and 54.9 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 restrict connectivity or access to content hosted on servers outside the country.1 This arrangement is the foundation for the “Great Firewall,” the informal name for the government’s comprehensive internet censorship system. All service providers must subscribe via the gateway operators, which are overseen by the MIIT.

The government has shut down internet access 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.2 Since then, the practice has continued sporadically on a smaller scale.

Human rights activists and their families have been subject to targeted network disconnections in previous years. Activist Wu Lijuan disclosed in October 2021 she has repeatedly experienced connectivity disruptions after being arrested.3 In October 2020, during the previous coverage period, authorities cut the internet connection as well as the mobile service of Xin Na and her family in Hohhot after they protested the government’s policy to replace Mongolian with Mandarin as the language of instruction in elementary and middle schools in the region of Inner Mongolia.4

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 (ISPs), as well as relevant personnel, who fail to restrict certain forms of content including “shut[ting] down related services” (see B3 and C2).5 Under Cybersecurity Review Measures implemented in June 2020,6 a government agency must conduct a national security review of the purchases of network products and services made by critical information-infrastructure operators.7

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 as of the end of the coverage period, it remains unclear if BT has established operations. 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 (VPN) 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 Internet cafés remain gathering venues for video gamers. The total number of cybercafés was estimated to be approximately 125,000 in February 2021.6

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 2017 cybersecurity law 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.4 Since 2014, the commission has also overseen the CNNIC, an administrative agency under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (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.

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

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. Blocked content usually contains criticism of individuals, policies, or events that are considered integral to the one-party system. The breadth of censorship is constantly growing, leaving Chinese users with access only to a highly controlled, monitored, and manipulated version of the internet.

According to GreatFire.org—an anticensorship group that tracks filtering in China—as of mid-2022, at least 188 out of the top 1,000 most visited websites and social media platforms around the world were blocked in China.1 Many international news outlets and their Chinese-language websites are blocked, 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), 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.2

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 the Center for Strategic and International studies (CSIS), a Washington, DC–based think tank.3

Most international social media and messaging platforms are blocked, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Signal, Clubhouse, YouTube, Telegram, Snapchat, Line, and Pinterest, among others.4 The popular discussion forum Reddit was blocked in August 2018,5 while all languages of Wikipedia were blocked in late April 2019. 6 A number of Google services—including Maps, Translate, Calendar, Docs, Drive, Scholar, and Analytics—remained blocked as of the end of the coverage period.

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 2012,7 while the Yahoo search function was blocked in September 2018.8

A minority of Chinese internet users (albeit tens of millions of users) 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.9 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).10 Blocks on VPNs typically escalate ahead of high-profile events, such as the annual plenary sessions of China’s legislature.11 VPN providers have noted that a growing technical sophistication of Chinese authorities has been reflected in VPN blocking incidents.12 In November 2021, the CAC released a draft regulation, titled Network Data Security Management Regulations, that would punish individuals and institutions for helping users circumvent internet censorship. Presumably targeting app stores and hosting sites, the regulations would provide for penalties of up to 500,000 yuan ($78,000).13

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 and remove significant amounts of banned content and 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 during the coverage period, reaching new types of platforms and extending to topics that were previously uncensored. Censored topics often involve news, commentary, or criticism related to the CCP, its officials, and foreign affairs, as well as content related to health, safety, and civil society.1 Content that violates long-standing taboos is consistently and systematically censored, including the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre; Taiwanese independence; and the government's repression of marginalized communities like ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

The CAC regularly launches “rectification” and “clean-up” campaigns to pressure websites and social media platforms to more effectively police content. In March 2022, the CAC launched a campaign to “clean up” the “chaos” of live streaming, short video sharing, and other platforms. It removed over 22 million messages, “dealt with” 1.34 billion accounts, removed over 2,160 apps, and shut down over 3,200 websites.2 From the end of 2018 to October 2021, the number of apps in China’s app stores fell by 40 percent amid clean-up campaigns.3 Companies such as Douban, Zhihu and Weibo were fined by authorities throughout 2021 for allowing “illegal” information on their platforms.4

The authorities pressure Chinese internet companies to tightly enforce censorship regulations or risk suspensions, fines, blacklisting, closure, or even criminal prosecution of relevant personnel. This has intensified under the cybersecurity law that took effect in 2017. 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.5 Baidu, the country’s dominant internet search engine, reported deleting over 56 billion items deemed “malicious information” in 2021, an increase from 51.6 billion in 2020.6

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.7 In September 2021, amid an ongoing crackdown against content deemed to be financial misinformation, Weibo banned 52 accounts that specialized in financial advice, some with millions of followers.8

In May 2022, China’s largest open-source code platform Gitee closed its public repositories, stating that “all new open-source repositories shall be manually reviewed before they are officially made public.” It was believed that the closure was due to a government directive.9

International companies also respond to censorship demands or pressure from the authorities to restrict online content. In August 2021, the popular language learning app Duolingo was removed from some app stores in China.10 In October 2021, LinkedIn shut down its service in China, citing a “significantly more challenging operating environment.” For years, LinkedIn had been criticized for practicing self-censorship in the country.11 In February 2022, the popular LGBT+ dating app Grindr removed itself from app stores in China, citing a new privacy law.12 The search engine Bing, owned by Microsoft, blocks search results that the Chinese government deems sensitive in China. In June 2021, Bing restricted image and video results for the phrase “tank man”—referencing the famous image of protestor facing down tanks during the 1986 Tiananmen Square protests, which Bing likely censors in China—in countries including the United States, Germany, and Switzerland. Microsoft attributed the incident to “accidental human error.”13

Apple has since 2017 been blocking a list of sites generated by Tencent on its iPhone browser, restricting websites deemed politically sensitive by the CCP.14 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 VPN services.15 In June 2021, Apple announced that it would not roll out its new privacy measure, Private Relay, in China, citing regulatory concerns.16 As of June 2022, Greatfire.org had identified 9,835 apps that were unavailable in Apple’s China store compared to other app stores, including over 202 news apps, as well as entertainment, gaming, sports, weather, and travel apps.17

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. Over the past several 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).18 In December 2021, the New York Times reported that Chinese authorities used sophisticated investigative software to track government critics on foreign social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and to order them to delete their posts.19

Content that criticizes the government’s repression of online speech was strictly censored. In February 2022, Tencent shut down Peking University law professor He Weifang’s sixth WeChat account, prompting him to handwrite a letter in protest, stating that the shutdowns made daily activities like “transport, shopping and public health code screenings impossible,” and violated his civil rights.20 Another Peking University professor’s WeChat account was suspended for three days after he reposted He’s letter. WeChat also removed a speech by a Tsinghua University professor in which she criticized the state of rule of law in China.21

The COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in late 2019, continued to be one of the most censored topics during the coverage period. In November 2021, a performance art piece created by students at the Beijing Film Academy, in protest of the school’s strict coronavirus lockdown measures, was quickly removed by Weibo. The piece depicted iron cages with a banner “don’t leave the cage unless strictly necessary.”22

During the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai from March to May 2022, numerous social media posts criticizing the government’s draconian measures or asking for help were removed.23 In May, censors removed a video posted online that showed police had attempted to force residents into an isolation camp, despite them having tested negative for the virus. A resident was recorded in the video saying, “we are the last generation, thank you very much,” which internet users adopted as a meme to illustrate the despair many in China felt.24 Censors also pursued the removal of “Voices of April,” a video featuring audio recordings of people in Shanghai sharing about the harsh lockdown restrictions; Weibo even briefly restricted the word “April” to limit its spread.25 In another case, Weibo banned an account that belonged to the founder of Trip.com, one of China’s largest travel agencies, after he commented on the potential negative impact of the lockdown on life expectancy.26

In January, in the run up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, authorities warned athletes and others who would attend the events of “certain punishment” for behavior or speech that is against “Chinese laws and regulations.”27 In February, censors took down a screenshot of a comment made on Instagram by Eileen Gu, a US-born athlete competing for China, about using VPNs to circumvent content restrictions.28 In February, during the Olympics, authorities asked Finnish cross-country skier Katri Lylynpera to remove photos she had posted on Instagram showing water leaking in an Olympic Village building.29

In May and June 2022, around the time of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, authorities censored posts related to the event. The social media accounts of popular pro-CCP blogger Sai Lei Huajin were suspended after he posted a video on the platform Bilibili attacking the US-based news outlet CNN, which included a clip of the Tank Man, apparently by accident.30 On June 3, online celebrity Li Jiaqi’s live stream was cut off when he held up a tank-like ice cream sculpture.31

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, with mobile users facing account deactivation for sharing religious information.32 Many Cantonese live streamers using ByteDance’s popular Douyin app (the Chinese version of TikTok)33 have been banned for not broadcasting in Mandarin.34 In October 2021, the language-learning app Talkmate announced that Tibetan and Uyghur courses would be indefinitely removed due to “government policies.”35 In December 2021, five state agencies released new regulations banning the transmission of religious content online without a government license.36 In a January 2022 announcement, authorities in the province Qinghai banned all religion-related Tibetan social media groups.37

LGBT+ content has been heavily restricted on China’s internet since 2017, when the China Netcasting Services Association labeled homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior.”38 39 In July 2021, WeChat permanently suspended the accounts of over a dozen college LGBT+ groups,40 and shut down an account of an LGBT+ news site a month later.41 In February 2022, Weibo censored a hashtag referencing the removal of LGBT+ content in the American television show Friends.42

Women’s rights content, including the #MeToo movement, continues to be censored. In September 2021, a court in Beijing dismissed a landmark sexual harassment case brought against a prominent state-television host (see B8). Posts and videos of the scene outside of the courthouse were removed from Weibo, and some accounts were suspended.43 In November 2021, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted on Weibo alleging that she had been sexually assaulted and forced into a sexual relationship with former vice premier Zhang Gaoli. Her post was quickly removed. Censors also massively scrubbed away posts alluding to Peng’s case. At one point, the word “tennis” as well as the tennis ball emoji were banned, as were references to the famous Chinese historical figure Zhuge Liang, whose name shares the same initials as Zhang Gaoli.44

In June 2022, a surveillance video in which a group of men assaulted a group of women after they rejected their sexual advances and harassing behavior in a restaurant in Tangshan went viral and caused outrage online. In response, Weibo removed accounts that it deemed “incited gender confrontation.”45 A blogger reporting on the case was arrested (see C3).

In February 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese social media companies took down thousands of posts, including some that showed sympathetic views toward Ukraine. WeChat removed a joint statement by five Chinese professors protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Weibo also removed posts about antiwar protests outside of China and silenced celebrities who objected to the war.46

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.47 As of 2022, Alibaba, Tencent, and ByteDance 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.48

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 ISPs, 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. In September 2021, the CAC published a new guideline requiring platforms to “promote socialist core values” in algorithmic systems.4 Subsequent regulations issued in December 2021, which took effect in March 2022, impose requirements on platforms’ recommendation algorithms to ensure they remove “illegal and undesirable content,” adhere to “mainstream values,” and promote “positive energy.” They also impose algorithmic transparency requirements on companies and require them to permit users to decide whether to enable automated content recommendation systems.5

In June 2022, after the coverage period, the CAC published draft guidelines that would require websites with commenting features to review the contents of all comments and remove “illegal and harmful” information.6

In March 2021, China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) published draft amendments to the Radio and Television Law expanding its coverage to include online video broadcasters and platforms.7 The amendments specify nine types of banned content, including content that “endangers security,” “slanders Chinese culture,” or does not help youth “establish the correct world view.”8

In November 2020, the NRTA released new regulations for the country’s massive live streaming industry, which requires that platforms notify authorities ahead of time of celebrity and foreigner appearances, and that they promote accounts that embody core socialist values.9 In November 2021, the NRTA released a five-year blueprint specifying new rules designed to regulate content on live streaming and short video platforms, including a mechanism that will punish producers of what the CCP considers toxic culture.10

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). Self-censorship is also exacerbated by nationalistic netizens’ intimidation and online harassment of those who they perceive as harming the reputation of China.

There is evidence that WeChat users are increasingly self-censoring to preempt the closure of their accounts or other penalties, since WeChat is relied on for messaging, banking, ride-hailing, ordering food, booking travel, and more (see B2).1 The app’s critical role in daily life, 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 having foreign contacts.2

Despite these pressures, various examples emerged during the coverage period of internet users speaking out on sensitive topics. In August 2021, the CCP’s flagship mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, posted on Weibo characterizing the Taliban, Afghanistan’s new government, as a benign civic organization founded by refugee students. The article elicited a backlash by netizens, who viewed it as a whitewash of the group’s crimes. The uproar led the People’s Daily to delete the post.3 In January 2022, images of a woman chained in a hut with a padlock dangling from her neck prompted a public uproar over the Chinese government’s long-standing failure to address sex trafficking. Despite authorities’ attempts to censor discussions about the incident, users kept it in the public eye for months.4

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. 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

For instance, in January 2022, the CAC released a list of 10 online keywords and phrases that highlighted the CCP’s key propaganda narratives for 2021. The list includes the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, the digital economy, and antitrust regulations.2 In September 2021, after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was released from house arrest in Canada after the United States and China reached an agreement to defer her prosecution, authorities gave detailed guidance on how to celebrate her return, according to leaked propaganda directives. Stories of Meng’s release occupied 9 of the top 10 trending hashtags on Weibo.3

The Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem, implemented in March 2020,4 categorize online content as either encouraged positive content, discouraged negative content, or illegal content. Encouraged material includes “spreading party doctrine,” while negative categories include “excessive celebrity gossip” and sensationalist headlines. 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, and default search results.5 They also call for online content providers to promote officially approved “mainstream values” via algorithms. Most of these actions had been occurring for years, but the provisions consolidate them into a single set of rules.

Paid commentators, known informally as the 50 Cent Party, are employed to post progovernment remarks and influence online discussions.6 Such commentators are known for reporting users who post offending statements, deliberately muddying the facts of particular incidents,7 and coordinating smear campaigns against government critics.8 According to a report released in December 2020, a robust government-funded industry of automated online commentating floods social media platforms with desired posts, even under the direction of small local agencies.9

Since 2017, content manipulation and disinformation campaigns have increasingly extended even to platforms that are blocked in China, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,10 demonstrating an ability to influence online discourse internationally.11 A June 2021 report by ProPublic uncovered hundreds of videos on YouTube in which Uyghurs refuted—in almost identical language—then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claims about severe human rights violations in Xinjiang.12

According to a December 2021 New York Times study and March 2022 Associated Press reporting, Beijing has employed hundreds of “influencers” to push propaganda on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.13 A joint February 2022 investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times found a network of over 3,000 inauthentic accounts that had been created to promote Chinese state media propaganda about the Olympics.14

In addition to paid commentators, local authorities have mobilized ziganwu—volunteer commentators motivated by ideology rather than money—to promote the government’s narratives online.15 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.16 Throughout 2021, nationalistic internet users attacked science blogs and feminist and LGBT+ accounts for their being “anti-China,” leading to those accounts and websites shutting down.17

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, including online news outlets, in China. While large companies have been able to absorb the rising operational costs, new and smaller players operate with increasing difficulty. Arbitrary regulatory decisions have also contributed to an unstable investment climate.1

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 online.3 Regulations from 2016 restrict 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.

In January 2021, the CAC further restricted online self-publishing (individuals or companies that only publish through social media), requiring independently operated accounts to obtain a permit and prohibiting them from commenting on a list of topics.6

In October 2021, the CAC released an updated version of the Internet News Information Source List, containing over 1,300 authorized news outlets that can be republished by other news services—four times as many as the CAC’s 2016 list. The list removed Caixin and added the social media accounts of state media and government agencies.7 In August 2021, China’s top economic regulator released a draft regulation that would ban private investment in the media, including for the establishment or operation of news sites.8 The draft regulation would add further economic barriers for online outlets.

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. This 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 to information controls, such as wordplay, to disguise discussion.2

The stringent penalization of groups perceived as a political threat has effectively diminished the online space for civil society in recent years.3 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.

Many members of marginalized ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups attempt to use the internet to disseminate banned content, but these views remain underrepresented online. For example, Uyghur-language content and relevant news reporting have been heavily censored, and many ordinary Uyghur users have been detained (see B2 and C3); Islamophobic commentary is permitted to circulate widely.4

Tens of millions of internet users bypass censorship with circumvention technology or creative workarounds. Although hundreds of VPN services are inaccessible,5 various options remain available.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 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.8 In a similar vein, “JC” was used to reference the police (“jin cha” means police), and “zf” for government (“zhengfu” means government).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 September 2020, during the previous coverage period, a People magazine report that shed light on the lack of labor protections for delivery drivers 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 used to disseminate information and mobilize. Chinese internet users also mobilized around posts documenting the hardship of the COVID-19 lockdown imposed from March to May 2022 in Shanghai (see B2).

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 several Chinese students to speak out online about their experiences with sexual harassment, leading to a few instances of positive change. The civil code, released in June 2020, bans sexual harassment,2 a move seen as a response to numerous cases of professors harassing female students on college campuses across the country.3 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. A court dismissed her case in September 2021.4

Repression of the #MeToo movement escalated during the coverage period, leading to some setbacks. Authorities heavily censored discussion of Peng Shuai’s case online, limiting online mobilization in China (see B2). In September 2021, a court dismissed Zhou’s case.5 In August 2021, the case of an Alibaba employee accusing her male manager of rape caused an online uproar, which prompted Alibaba to fire the manager and to pressure two other senior employees to resign for failing to address the allegations. Alibaba fired the woman several months later for “false information” that damaged the company’s reputation.6

Online organizing for labor rights and pushing for collective action against e-commerce companies also suffered setbacks. Authorities in March 2021 detained delivery driver Chen Guojiang, who recorded videos and set up WeChat groups to organize delivery drivers.7 Chen was allegedly released in February 2022, but the conditions for his release were not clear.8

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 limit online activities, and prosecutors exploit vague provisions to imprison people for their online speech. Trials and hearings typically lack due process. It can take years for cases to move through the court system; the accused are routinely denied bail and placed in long-lasting pretrial detention.

Laws prohibiting offenses including defamation, creating disturbances, illegal commercial activities, and extortion have implications 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” circumstances, which 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.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.5 A 2015 amendment to the criminal code increased the maximum penalties for these crimes from 15 years to life imprisonment6 and introduced penalties of up to seven years in prison for disseminating misinformation on social media.7

A March 2021 amendment to the criminal code stipulated that those who “insult, slander, or infringe the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs” can be imprisoned for up to three years.8 Another law in June 2021 was introduced to ban “slander” of members of the armed forces.9

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

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. Among the 10 categories of crimes listed for tighter enforcement were “spreading false information and rumors online” and “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.”11

Some detentions do not require approval by a court,12 and individuals can be detained without trial under poor conditions in drug rehabilitation centers.13 Chinese law also contains a form of criminal detention termed “residential surveillance at a designated location”14 where police may hold individuals in secret locations without informing their families or legal counsel for up to six months.15

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, and the risk of being detained or imprisoned 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 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. In March 2021, retired professor Chen Zhaozhi went on trial in Beijing for posting online that the “Wuhan pneumonia is not a Chinese virus, but Chinese Communist Party virus.” Chen, who suffers from a number of illnesses, was denied bail. As of the end of the coverage period, he remained in detention.2 In September 2021, human rights activist Guo Quan was tried for “inciting subversion” after he published articles criticizing social injustice, corruption, and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.3 In November 2021, a man in the Ningxia region was detained for nine days after he sent a meme to a group on WeChat complaining about the local COVID-19 control measures. 4

In January 2022, citizen journalist and Falun Gong practitioner Xu Na was sentenced to eight years in prison for sending photos and information about COVID-19-related restrictions in Beijing to the Epoch Times, an overseas Chinese-language website affiliated with Falun Gong, for publication online.5

Journalists in China are frequently imprisoned for their work, online writing, or video posts. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 50 journalists were jailed in China and Hong Kong as of December 2021, more than any other country.6 In September 2021, Huang Xueqin, a prominent blogger and #MeToo activist, was detained by Guangzhou police on charge of “inciting subversion of state power,” along with labor and disability rights activist Wang Jianbing.7 The two remained detained a year later.8 In August 2022, after the coverage period, blogger Mao Huibin was arrested and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after reporting on police obstruction of investigations into a gender-based assault in Tangshan.9

Activists and human rights lawyers have been prosecuted for advocating for democratic rights and governance, exposing police abuses, unionizing efforts, and other online activities. In June 2022, after the coverage period, authorities held a closed-door trial for human rights activist Xu Zhiyong, who was first detained in February 2020, on charges of “subversion of state power,” which carries a potential life sentence.10 The nationwide effort to track Xu down appeared to accelerate after he called online for Xi Jinping to step down over the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus. 11 Shaanxi authorities tried human rights lawyer Chang Weiping on charges of “subversion of state power” in July 2022, after the coverage period.12 Chang had released a YouTube video detailing torture he reported suffering when detained in January 2020.

In July 2021, a court in Anhui province sentenced Zhou Weilin to three-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” in retaliation for his Twitter posts and his reporting for the human rights news site Weiquanwang.13 In November 2021, an Anhui court sentenced activist Shen Liangqing to three years in prison after convicting him of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Shen had published articles exposing the abuses in the CCP’s disciplinary system and has frequently criticized the CCP on Twitter and Facebook.14 Another three-year sentence was issued to human rights lawyer Chen Jiahong in December 2021, after a Guangxi court convicted him of “inciting subversion” for criticizing the CCP and calling for democratic reforms on social media.15

The CCP also continued its crackdown on prominent entrepreneurs who refused to toe the party line. In July 2021, 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 2019,16 had previously supported detained activist Xu Zhiyong, and had praised the work of lawyers representing people who have criticized the ruling party, including online.17

An increasing number of internet users were detained for “unpatriotic” speech during the coverage period. In October 2021, Hainan authorities detained former journalist and anticorruption activist Luo Changping after he posted on Weibo mocking the portrayal of the Chinese military in a recent propaganda film.18 He received a seven-month prison sentence in May 2022.19

Members of persecuted religious and ethnic minority groups face particularly harsh treatment for their online activities. In Xinjiang, an estimated one million people are being held in political reeducation camps or forced labor facilities,20 some of whom were targeted for their online activities that included communication with relatives living abroad via WeChat.21 A February 2020 leaked government document contained details of dozens of jailed or forcibly relocated Uyghurs and other Muslims. The document listed one individual who had been detained because he was friends on WeChat with a Uyghur person in Turkey; another individual was detained because they accidentally clicked on an overseas website on their phone; and a woman was sentenced in 2017 to 15 years in prison for making contact online with Uyghurs outside the country.22

There are also reports that ethnic Hui Muslims inside and outside Xinjiang experience periodic detention.23 In January 2020, Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet, was detained by police in the Shandong Province for posting on Twitter about repression in Xinjiang and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”24 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.25

Tibetans living outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region have also been targeted for sharing information on Chinese social media or overseas websites. Tibetan activist and writer Thupten Lodoe was arrested in October 2021 in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province and sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment in June 2022, after the coverage period, for “inciting separatism” in social media posts.26

People in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, a region which is not factored into this report’s scores (see Overview), also face arrest and prison terms for their online speech. In August 2022, after the coverage period, a teacher in Lhasa was arrested for posts on WeChat and Weibo documenting the harmful implementation of the city’s harsh COVID-19 lockdown.27

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.28

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

Anonymous communication is severely limited. Under 2012 data-privacy legislation and additional 2017 rules,1 web service companies are required to register users under their real names and national ID numbers.2

Draft guidelines released by the CAC in October 2021 direct services to use real-name registration to prevent users banned for legal or platform policy violations from reregistering, and to disclose the geographic locations of users.3 In March and April 2022, social media platforms like Weibo and Douyin began to display the cities or provinces of China-based users underneath posts. Users outside of China have their country displayed. 4

Authorities also enforce SIM card registration,5 and in December 2019 regulations took effect that require users to have their faces scanned when registering for mobile services.6 All online gamers are also required to register using their name and phone number,7 and real-name registration for online literature platforms became mandatory in June 2020, limiting online spaces where many novelists have turned to discuss sensitive subjects in recent years.8 The CAC released draft guidelines in January 2022 that extend real-name registration requirements to companies that provide image-manipulation services based on machine learning, commonly known as deepfakes.9

Authorities in some areas have instructed public Wi-Fi providers to comply with user registration requirements.10 Cybercafés check photo identification, record user activities, and at times require facial scans, sometimes in cooperation with law enforcement.

Measures that erode anonymity 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.11

The use of encryption is also severely restricted. The 2015 antiterrorism law requires companies to offer technical support to decrypt information at the request of law enforcement agencies, among other provisions.12 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.13 In January 2020, a law took effect that 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.14

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 (see C6).15

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

Online surveillance is pervasive and highly sophisticated, and privacy protections from government infringement 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 online activities.

Through an examination of more than 76,000 local government procurement documents published between 2004 and May 2020, a study by ChinaFile 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, which are used to monitor internet traffic.1 Much of the equipment is connected to Project Sharp Eyes, which aims to cover all key public spaces in China by video surveillance.

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. A June 2022 New York Times investigation into bids for government surveillance contracts compiled by ChinaFile found that police have sought to use international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI)–catchers and Wi-Fi sniffers to extract information about people’s mobile phone usage, like social media handles and whether they have downloaded apps deemed problematic.2

Residents of Xinjiang are subject to severely invasive surveillance tactics. A leaked list of Uyghur detainees examined in a December 2020 report by HRW 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. 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 2013.3

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.4 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.5 In 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 their support for the prodemocracy protest movement in the city.6

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,7 which have been subject to criticism within and outside China due to privacy and other concerns. 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.8 Nevertheless, an individual listed as problematic by municipal or provincial authorities under such systems could face 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.9

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 The 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

Other surveillance laws include a 2013 amendment to the criminal procedure code that lays out a vague review process for allowing police monitoring of people’s electronic communications, which the Ministry of Public Security permits in many types of criminal investigations.3 The State Secrets Law obliges telecommunications companies to cooperate with authorities investigating leaked state secrets, or risk losing their licenses.4

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.5

Various regulations outline requirements for companies to retain and make user data available to officials.6 CAC rules issued in 2016 oblige Chinese app providers to register users and keep user activity logs for 60 days.7 ISPs are required to retain user information for 60 days and submit it to the authorities upon request, without judicial oversight or transparency.8

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 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.9 In October 2021, after a netizen backlash over apps accessing users’ photo libraries, WeChat pledged that it would stop accessing users’ photos.10

The e-commerce giant Alibaba also helps the government with surveillance. In 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 backdoor that could grant the authorities access to users’ internet browsing histories, text messages, photos, and other personal information.11

In September 2021, a Lithuanian government security audit found that a Xiaomi phone included software modules specifically designed to leak data to Chinese authorities and censor information related to topics the Chinese government considered sensitive. The assessment also found suspicious activities on a Huawei phone.12

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. In 2018, Apple’s iCloud began storing the data of its Chinese users in partnership with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a state-run company;13 a second data center is expected to open in Inner Mongolia.14 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.

COVID-19-related “health code” apps—which determine an individual’s risk of being exposed to COVID-19—developed by regional officials in partnerships with major Chinese tech firms Alibaba and Tencent, do not adhere to privacy-by-design standards. For example, the privacy policy of Beijing’s app did not state any time limit on the retention of data.15 A New York Times investigation showed that the Alipay Health Code app automatically shared data with the police.16 Authorities appear to have used the health code app system to arbitrarily restrict movements of citizens involved in activism. For example, in June 2022, after the coverage period, people involved mobilizing to demand banks in Henan unfreeze their deposits had their health codes turned red before a planned protest.17

Location tracking under China’s “Zero Covid” strategy sparked debates about extensive surveillance. In November 2021, over 82,000 residents in Chengdu received phone messages saying that they had been marked “time-space companions” because their location data showed that they had come within an 800-meter radius with an infected person for longer than 10 minutes within the last 14 days.18

In January 2022, in the run up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, an investigation published by Citizen Lab found that the My2022 app, which all attendees of the event were required to install, included vulnerabilities that could lead to the leak of personal data.19

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 are often used by activists to elude identification by government authorities.20 The platforms were instructed to report back with security assessments and improved risk-prevention and control measures for the technologies.

Several new government efforts were aimed to regulate how Chinese tech companies collect, share, and store users’ data. The Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) went into effect in November 2021.21 The law, which applies to all organizations and individuals in China seeking to access Chinese citizens’ data, is the country’s first comprehensive legislation about the protection of personal information. However, the law exempts government agencies from data protection obligations and requires certain companies to store sensitive data on servers located in China, which leaves them vulnerable to government access.22

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.23 Regulators subsequently alleged that over 100 apps—including those from Chinese tech giants Tencent and Baidu—violated the rules.24 Separately, in July 2021, authorities asserted that the ride-hailing app Didi illegally collected users’ personal information; the app was pulled from China-based app stores.25 In December 2021, authorities ordered app stores to remove over 100 apps, including the relatively liberal forum Douban, for data privacy and security violations among other offenses.26

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.27

In September 2021, the new Data Security Law28 took effect. 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 the 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.29

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, including in detention. People detained in ordinary criminal cases often experience torture, and political and religious prisoners experience even worse treatment.1

Law enforcement officials frequently summon individuals for questioning in relation to online activity, an intimidation tactic referred to euphemistically as being “invited to tea.”2 For example, activists who expressed opposition to the Chinese government's attempts to exercise greater political control over Hong Kong have been summoned.3

Activists have also been experienced movement restrictions during sensitive political events, effectively keeping them away from their normal online activities.4 In May and June 2021, ahead of the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, police restricted the movement and communication of families of Tiananmen victims and activists, including Hu Jia, Gao Yu, and Zhang Lifan.5

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.6 Those detained or imprisoned typically suffer harsh conditions and often torture,7 resulting in long-term health problems and sometimes death.

Online commentators expressing views critical of the Chinese government or deemed to harm China’s international reputation face increased bullying, harassment, and other real-world repercussions from nationalistic online users. In August 2021, a campaign by nationalist netizens targeted prominent virologist Zhang Wenhong, accusing him of undermining Beijing’s “Zero Covid” pandemic control strategy after he suggested that China must learn to live with the virus.8 In March 2022, Zhang was again attacked online and has not appeared in public since later that month, leading to speculations that he was punished by authorities for his views.9

People in Tibet, a region that is not covered by this report (see Overview), also face physical violence for their online activity. For example, HRW reported in July 2021 that Tibetan monk Choegyal Wangpo was 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.10

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

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.

The government’s mass surveillance also leaves people’s personal information vulnerable to breaches. In July 2022, after the coverage period, hackers claimed to have accessed a Shanghai police database that contained records associated with one billion Chinese citizens.3

Websites associated with Uyghurs have faced frequent cyberattacks, while China-based hackers have deployed various phishing campaigns to infiltrate these communities in exile and collect information about them. In May 2021, during the previous coverage period, cybersecurity firms Check Point and Kaspersky reported that hackers were employing a malicious Microsoft Word file purporting to be from the UN Human Rights Council. 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.4 Uyghur activists living in exile reported hacking attempts throughout the coverage period.5

On China

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

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    9 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    9 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes