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 ninth consecutive year. Unprecedented protests were mobilized against the government’s COVID-19 policy during the coverage period. Though authorities responded with swift censorship, protesters successfully pressured the government into withdrawing its draconian zero-COVID policy. 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 wielded immense power over the technology industry through new legislation, regulatory investigations, and app-store removals. Authorities also imposed new restrictions on generative artificial-intelligence (AI) tools during the coverage period.
China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to tighten control over all aspects of life and governance, including the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious practice, universities, businesses, and civil society associations. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, secured a third term as party leader in October 2022, further consolidating personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades. Following a multiyear crackdown on political dissent, independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and human rights defenders, China’s civil society has been largely decimated.
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.
- People in China held unprecedented protests over the restrictive zero-COVID policy and other grievances in late 2022. The protests were triggered by a fire in an Urumqi apartment building that killed 10 people in November, amid an ongoing COVID-19 lockdown. Authorities removed social media posts about the protests, ordered platforms to increase their capacity for censorship, and arrested protesters, but ultimately ended the zero-COVID policy (see B2, B3, B8, and C3).
- Censors removed online criticism of President Xi’s third term and of the economy during the coverage period (see B2).
- Regulators enforced content controls of large language model–based chatbots. Firms in China were ordered to discontinue access to ChatGPT and to alert authorities of their own plans to develop AI-driven chatbots (see B3).
- In November 2022, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), a telecommunications regulator, required social media operators to register users with their real names and to roll out new moderation tools, as part of the government's ongoing efforts to control online speech (see B6).
- Authorities detained prominent human rights lawyers, journalists, activists, and members of religious and ethnic minority groups for their online activities. In April 2023, a court in Shandong Province sentenced prominent human rights lawyer and blogger Xu Zhiyong to 14 years in prison for “subversion of state power” (see C3).
- In December 2022, the CAC released new rules requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to discontinue service to anyone who had not authenticated their real identity (see C4).
|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 1.07 billion internet users in China—representing 75.6 percent of the population—as of December 2022. That figure represents an increase of 35.5 million since December 2021. Some 99.8 percent of users access the internet via mobile devices.1
Chinese internet users can access high-speed services, though connection speeds are slowed by the country’s blocking and filtering apparatus (see B1). According to Ookla, the median mobile download speed stood at 105.17 megabits per second (Mbps) in June 2023. The median fixed-line broadband download speed was 209.4 Mbps.2 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.3 Internet speeds vary significantly in different parts of the country. According to government data, the fastest available connections were in Shanghai, and the slowest were in less prosperous and more heavily censored regions, such as Xinjiang.4
Chinese companies have been at the forefront of building and deploying fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks. In November 2022, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that China had 2.2 million 5G base stations, while mobile service provider China Mobile said it had 556.8 million 5G subscribers in October 2022.5
- 1“The 50th “Statistical Report on Internet Development in China”, September 1, 2022. http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-09/01/content_5707695.htm
- 2“China Median Speeds,” Ookla Speedtest Global Index, accessed September 22, 2022, https://www.speedtest.net/global-index/china.
- 3Charlotte Gao, “China’s Great Firewall: A Serious Pain in the Neck for European and US Companies,” The Diplomat, June 21, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/chinas-great-firewall-a-serious-pain-in….
- 4China Power Team, “How web-connected is China?,” China Power, April 18, 2019, https://chinapower.csis.org/web-connectedness/.
- 5Juan Pedro Tomas, “China reaches 2.22 million 5G base stations at end-Q3”, November 16, 2022, https://www.rcrwireless.com/20221116/5g/china-reaches-2-million-5g-base….
|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, fixed-line broadband services cost an average of 36.1 yuan ($5.08) in the first three quarters of 2022, while mobile users paid an average of 2.61 yuan ($0.37) per gigabyte (GB).1
The urban-rural digital divide narrowed during the coverage period, according to government figures. Internet penetration in cities was 82.9 percent as of June 2022, compared to 58.8 percent in rural areas.2 Some 362 million people did not have internet access as of that month, 41.2 percent of them in rural areas.3
- 2“The 50th Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development” https://www.cnnic.net.cn/NMediaFile/2022/0926/MAIN1664183425619U2MS433V…
- 3“The 50th Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development” https://www.cnnic.net.cn/NMediaFile/2022/0926/MAIN1664183425619U2MS433V…
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||1.001 6.006|
The 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 Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
Human rights activists and their families are subject to targeted disconnections. In February 2023, a month ahead of the annual “Two Sessions” meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC),2 authorities disabled internet service for Wuhan-based activist Xu Wu and his family.3
The government has cut internet access in response to specific events, though authorities have relied more on other censorship tactics in recent years. The most dramatic example occurred in 2009, when authorities imposed a 10-month internet disruption in Xinjiang—home to 25.9 million people according to the 2020 census—after ethnic violence in the regional capital, Urumqi.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 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 a cybersecurity rule 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
- 1Qin Chem, “Inkstone Explains: How China engineers an alternative internet for its people,” Inkstone news, Jun 11, 2020, https://www.inkstonenews.com/tech/inkstone-explains-how-china-engineers…
- 2Helen Davidson, “Explainer: What Is China’s ‘Two Sessions’ Gathering, And Why Does It Matter,” Guardian, March 1, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/02/china-two-sessions-explai….
- 3“Xu Wu's family in Wuhan was disconnected from the Internet and communications”, February 27, 2023, https://msguancha.com/a/lanmu4/2023/0227/22565.html
- 4Alexa Olesen, “Welcome to the Uighur Web,” Foreign Policy, April 21, 2014, http://atfp.co/1jmJCYH
- 5Drew Foerster, “China’s Legislature Gears Up to Pass a Sweepingly Vague Cybersecurity Law,” American Bar Association, May 2, 2016, http://www.americanbar.org/publications/blt/2016/05/02_foerster.html; China Law Translate, “Counter-Terrorism Law (2015),” China Law Translate, December 27, 2015, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/counter-terrorism-law-2015/
- 6Ouyang Shijia and Ma Si, “Cybersecurity rule to take effect June 1,” China Daily, April 28, 2020, https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202004/28/WS5ea78912a310a8b241152323…; CAC, “网络安全审查办法[Cyber Security Review Measures], CAC, April 27, 2020, ”http://www.cac.gov.cn/2020-04/27/c_1589535450769077.htm
- 7China Law Translate, “Cybersecurity Review Measures,” China Law Translate, May 7, 2020, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/cyber-security-review/
|Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers?||0.000 6.006|
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 to reflect the state monopoly over the telecommunications sector and the extreme obstacles faced by private companies seeking to enter the market.
State-owned China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom dominate the mobile market,1 though the government has occasionally authorized new players to enter the market.2 China Mobile dominates the mobile and fixed-line broadband markets, with 975 million and 272 million subscribers, respectively, as of December 2022.3 China Telecom reported 391 million mobile subscribers and 181 million fixed-line broadband subscribers as of December 2022,4 while China Unicom reported 320 million mobile subscribers and 100 million fixed-line broadband subscribers.5
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.6 Video gamers continue to gather at cybercafés regularly. Some 125,000 cybercafés were active as of February 2021.7
- 1Alan Weissberger, “China’s big 3 mobile operators have 9 Million 5G subscribers in advance of the service; Barron’s: China to lead in 5G deployments,” Techblog, October 7, 2019, https://techblog.comsoc.org/2019/10/07/chinas-big-3-mobile-operators-ha…
- 2Lan Xinzhen, “Full-Pricing Autonomy,” Beijing Review, May 26, 2014, http://www.bjreview.com.cn/business/txt/2014-05/26/content_621017.htm; Paul Mozur and Lorraine Luk, “China to Liberalize Telecommunications Pricing,” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2014, http://on.wsj.com/1NFam3s; 毛启盈, “工信部支持民资进入转售业务 打破垄断发文还不够 [MIIT supports private capital entering network leasing business, more antimonopoly policy is needed],” 搜狐Sohu, December 30, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20180110072818/http://www.sohu.com/a/513206….
- 3“Annual Report 2022,” China Mobile Limited, 2022, https://www.chinamobileltd.com/en/ir/reports.php.
- 4“Annual Report 2022,” China Telecom, 2022, https://www.chinatelecom-h.com/en/ir/reports.php.
- 5“Shifting Gears: Annual Report 2022,” China Unicorn, 2022, https://www.chinaunicom.com.hk/en/ir/report_ar2022.php.
- 6These include the Public Security Bureau and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. “一看就明白全程图解网吧牌照申请流程图” [A look at an illustration of the whole course of the cybercafe license application process],” Detail.Zol.com, http://detail.zol.com.cn/picture_index_100/index997401.shtml.
- 7Dahe News, “2020年全国网吧共倒闭12888家 网吧行业急需解锁新技能 [In 2020, 12,888 internet cafés will close across the country. The internet café industry urgently needs to unlock new skills],” Sina.com, March 26, 2021, https://finance.sina.com.cn/chanjing/cyxw/2021-03-26/doc-ikknscsk174792….
|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 agencies and CCP bodies are responsible for internet regulation at the local and national levels, but the system has been consolidated during Xi Jinping’s tenure.
The CAC1 and the CCP’s Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (CCAC) 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 CCAC, which is headed directly by Xi.4 Since 2014, the CCAC has also overseen the CNNIC, an administrative agency under the MIIT that issues digital certificates to websites.5
The CCP has exerted greater control over the press, film, radio, and television industries in recent years, including online video and streaming services. Since an 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.6
Zhuang Rongwen has served as CAC director since mid-20187 and continued in that position during the coverage period, while simultaneously serving as deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department.8
- 1Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission website, accessed June 28, 2021, http://www.cac.gov.cn/.
- 2David Feng, “Chinese Cyber Administration Office Goes Online,” Tech Blog 86, December 31, 2014, https://web.archive.org/web/20150112152942/http://www.techblog86.com/20…; National Law Review, “More Officials Appointed to Lead Film and Media Authorities in China,” National Law Review, July 31, 2018, https://www.natlawreview.com/article/more-officials-appointed-to-lead-f….
- 3Drew Foerster, American Bar Association, “China’s Legislature Gears Up to Pass a Sweepingly Vague Cybersecurity Law,” May 2, 2016, http://www.americanbar.org/publications/blt/2016/05/02_foerster.html
- 4Paul Mozur, “In China, Internet Czar Is Taking a Blunt Tone,” Bits (blog), New York Times, October 31, 2014, http://nyti.ms/1GELosY; Shannon Tiezzi, “Xi Jinping Leads China's New Internet Security Group,” Diplomat, February 28, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/02/xi-jinping-leads-chinas-new-internet-se…
- 5Kathleen Wilson, “Revoking Trust in one CNNIC Intermediate Certificate,” Mozilla Security Blog, March 23, 2015, https://blog.mozilla.org/security/2015/03/23/revoking-trust-in-one-cnni…
- 6See, e.g., , “China's central propaganda department takes over regulation of all media,” Radio Free Asia, March 21, 2018, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5b22219ba.html
- 7Timothy P. Stratford, Jason Goldberg and Christopher Adams, “More Officials Appointed to Lead Film and Media Authorities in China,” Global Policy Watch, July 31 2018, https://www.globalpolicywatch.com/2018/07/more-officials-appointed-to-l….
- 8Xinhua, “Senior CPC official stresses united front work in Internet sector,” Xinhua Net, November 28, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-11/28/c_138590257.htm
|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 Great Firewall is the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship apparatus. Content that contains criticism of individuals, policies, or events that are considered integral to the one-party system is blocked. The breadth of censorship is constantly growing, leaving Chinese users with access 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 May 2023, at least 175 of the 1,000 most heavily visited websites and social media platforms in the world were blocked in China.1 A localized version of Duolingo became accessible in June 2022, after the app was blocked in August 2021.2 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. The websites of independent Chinese-language news services from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora—such as the Liberty Times in Taiwan, Initium in Singapore, and the China Digital Times in the United States—remained blocked during the coverage period.
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.
Most international social media and messaging platforms are blocked, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Signal, Clubhouse, YouTube, Telegram, Snapchat, Line, and Pinterest.3 The popular discussion forum Reddit was blocked in August 2018,4 while all languages of Wikipedia were blocked in April 2019.5 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 products, such as messaging service WeChat and microblogging platform Sina Weibo, which are subject to the government’s strict censorship demands (see B2).
Blocks on global search engines severely limit the content available on the Chinese internet. Google’s search engine has been blocked since 2012,6 while the Yahoo search function was blocked in 2018.7
A minority of Chinese internet users, though they number in the tens of millions, access blocked websites with circumvention tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) (see B7). However, the government has intensified its restrictions on these tools since 2017, when the MIIT banned the use of unlicensed VPNs.8 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).9 Blocks on VPNs typically escalate ahead of high-profile events, such as annual plenary sessions of the Chinese legislature.10 VPN providers have noted that a growing technical sophistication of Chinese authorities has been reflected in VPN blocking incidents.11 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 ($70,300).12
In October 2022, Chinese censors imposed more restrictions on circumvention tools, mainly affecting transport layer security (TLS)–based programs, according to the Great Firewall Report. It was reportedly the largest-scale block of TLS-based tools, which are widely used by Chinese internet users, to date.13
- 1“Online Censorship in China,” GreatFireChina, https://en.greatfire.org/analyzer
- 2Rita Liao, “Duolingo back in China app stores after 1 year, with a local twist,” TechCrunch, June 9, 2022, https://techcrunch.com/2022/06/09/duolingo-back-in-china/
- 3GreatFire, “Censorship of Alexa Top 1000 Domains in China,” GreatFireChina, https://en.greatfire.org/search/alexa-top-1000-domains; Sherisse Pham, “China adds Pinterest to list of banned sites,” CNN, March 17, 2017, http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/17/technology/pinterest-banned-china/; Stephanie Yang, “China Appears to Block Popular Encrypted Messaging App Signal,” The Wall Street Journal, March 16 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-appears-to-block-signal-one-of-last-….
- 4Chauncey Jung, “Reddit Blocked In China,” Supchina, August 12, 2018, https://supchina.com/2018/08/12/reddit-blocked-in-china/
- 5“Wikipedia blocked in China in all languages,” BBC, May 14, 2019: https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-48269608
- 6Michael Kan, “Google blocked in China by censors, unclear how long it will last,” Info World, November 9, 2012, https://www.infoworld.com/article/2615782/google-blocked-in-china-by-ce…
- 7Rachel Mok, “Yahoo search is now blocked in China,” Startup Living China, August 31, 2018, https://startuplivingchina.com/yahoo-search-now-blocked-china/
- 8BBC, “中国打击代理服务器“非法经营” 网民忧无法翻墙 [China cracks down on ‘illegal operation’ of proxy servers],” January 23, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/chinese-news-38714639.
- 9Jingjing Ma, “New regulations set rules for Internet access services sector: experts,” Global Times, January 22, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1030188.shtml
- 10Wong Siu-san and Sing Man, “China Mobilizes The 'Masses' to Join Nationwide Security Ops Ahead of Oct. 1,” RFA, September 25, 2019. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/anniversary-surveillance-0925201…
- 11Sophia Yan, “China blocks internet searches abroad as Xi under pressure ahead of major speech,” The Telegraph, March 5, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/03/05/china-blocks-internet-searc….
- 12Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, ”Notice of the Cyberspace Administration of China on Public Comments on the Regulations of the Administration of Network Security (Draft for Comment),” November 14, 2021, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-11/14/c_1638501991577898.htm
- 13Rita Liao and Zack Whittaker, “Popular censorship circumvention tools face fresh blockade by China,” TechCrunch, October 5, 2022, https://techcrunch.com/2022/10/05/china-censorship-vpn-ban-party-congre…
|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 technology 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 content related to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square 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 August 2022, the CAC announced that it “dealt with” 1.34 billion social media accounts, “cleaned up” 22 million illegal messages, and closed 3,200 websites.2
In September 2022, ahead of the 20th Congress of the CCP, the CAC launched a three-month campaign to “crack down on internet rumors and false information.”3 It ordered platforms to “strengthen accountability-seeking” and “improve rumor-countering mechanism[s].”4 Ahead of the March 2023 annual “Two Sessions” meetings, online comments on the approval of a third presidential term for Xi Jinping were systematically deleted.5 Freedom House research released in August 2023 found that almost 20 percent of a sample of 4,170 Sina Weibo posts with dissent-related language were removed.6
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 Central Propaganda Department and its local subsidiaries issue regular instructions to news sites and social media platforms on what to restrict.7 In July 2022, Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili cracked down on “malicious behavior and remarks” by virtual live streamers.8 In July 2022, people discovered that access to private files on domestic cloud-storage applications such as WPS Office could be restricted, or that the files could be removed, as providers worked to comply with existing regulations.9
Censors increasingly target “self-media,” a category that includes independent writers, bloggers, and social media celebrities (see B6). Tens of thousands of self-media accounts have been shut down.10 In August 2022, censors suspended two nationalistic Sina Weibo accounts with tens of millions of followers.11
International companies also respond to censorship demands or pressure from the authorities to restrict online content. In October 2022, Google closed its Translate service in China.12 Grindr, an LGBT+ dating app, removed itself from Chinese app stores in February 2022, citing a new privacy law.13 Similarly, LinkedIn shut down its service in China in October 2021.14
Apple has removed or otherwise restricted apps due to regulatory and political pressure in recent years. Since 2017, it has blocked websites that appeared on a Tencent-generated denylist on its Safari browser, restricting websites deemed politically sensitive by the CCP.15 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.16 Applecensorship.com counted 11,783 apps that were unavailable on Apple’s app store in China as of late May 2023.17 Apple has similarly removed or restricted iOS features; in June 2021, for example, Apple announced that it would not roll out its new privacy measure, Private Relay, in China, citing regulatory concerns.18 In November 2022, Apple restricted the use in China of AirDrop, a file-sharing feature on iPhones,19 after Shanghai subway passengers used it to spread messages about a lone protester on a bridge in Beijing.20 AirDrop, which relies on direct connections between phones, has been a crucial communication tool for protesters to evade censorship in many authoritarian countries.21
Security officials have increasingly resorted to harassing and coercing users to delete content, particularly from the platform formerly known as Twitter, which is blocked in China. A small but savvy community of internet users access Twitter via circumvention tools, enabling participation in conversations that are heavily censored within the Great Firewall, including on protests (see B8). 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).22
Content that criticizes the government’s repression of online speech was censored, with particularly strict measures taken against posts that are widely shared or associated with a popular hashtag. In November 2022, censors removed an episode by popular podcaster and film critic Bo Mi that criticized censorship of the film industry.23
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. For instance, in August 2022, authorities suspended social media accounts belonging to Dingxiangyuan (“Lilac Garden”), a popular online outlet that discussed medical issues, after it challenged the effectiveness of traditional medicine in treating COVID-19.24 In September 2022, after a bus accident killed at least 27 people being transferred to a COVID-19 quarantine facility in Guizhou Province, the government censored and supressed online discussions of the incident.25 In October 2022, a man in Beijing lowered two banners over a city bridge, demanding the end of the zero-COVID policy and the introduction of democratic rule in China. The act drew widespread attention on social media; censors removed photos of the protest, discussion of the man’s identity, and associated hashtags.26
In November 2022, during the unprecedented protests over the zero-COVID policy, censors removed social media posts about the protests, ordered restrictions on search functions, and removed posts calling for the release of protesters (see B8). The CAC ordered social media companies to hire more censors and to scrub references to circumvention technology, presumably to restrict access to discussion of the protests on the uncensored internet.27 Shortly after the protests, the government abruptly rescinded COVID-19-related lockdown restrictions, causing widespread infections and deaths. Sina Weibo censored search results for the topic “pandemic in Beijing,” preventing real-time discussions on the reopening’s impact.28 In January 2023, authorities announced an online crackdown to ensure there were no “gloomy sentiments” caused by pandemic “rumors.”29 Articles and social media comments discussing case numbers and deaths were quickly removed.30
Censorship of content discussing zero-COVID was particularly stringent in minority areas. Lockdowns lasting approximately one month in some areas in Xinjiang and Tibet in August 2022 led Uyghurs, Tibetans, and members of other minority groups to post their frustrations online, resulting in censorship and arrests.31
In May and June 2023, authorities censored posts related to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre.32
Content related to marginalized ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups is also restricted. Keywords related to the banned Falun Gong spiritual group consistently appear on leaked lists of prohibited terms. References to the banned Church of the Almighty God are also reportedly marked as politically sensitive, with mobile users facing account deactivation for sharing religious information.33 Many Cantonese live streamers using Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok,34 have been banned for not broadcasting in Mandarin.35
LGBT+ content has been increasingly censored on China’s internet since 2017, when the China Netcasting Services Association labeled homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior.”36 37 In September 2021, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) ordered broadcasters and the entertainment industry to ban “sissy men,” prompting a wave of content removals on social media platforms.38 Throughout 2022, censors removed online discussions about the bullying of young LGBT+ people, after several people died by suicide because of bullying.39 In August 2023, Sina Weibo took down several prominent LGBT+ accounts.40
Women’s rights content, including content related to the #MeToo movement, continues to be censored. Information about Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai—who posted on Weibo in November 2021 alleging that she had been sexually assaulted and forced into a sexual relationship with former CCP politburo standing committee member Zhang Gaoli—continued to be strictly censored on Chinese social media during the coverage period.41 In June 2022, a surveillance video in which a group of men assaulted a group of women after they rejected their sexual advances in a Tangshan restaurant went viral and caused outrage online. In response, Weibo removed accounts that it deemed “incited gender confrontation.”42 A blogger reporting on the case was arrested (see C3).
Since the Chinese government declared victory in eradicating absolute poverty at the end of 2020, online content that depicted poverty was frequently censored. In October 2022, streaming sites removed Return to Dust, a film on poverty. The name of the film was also censored on Sina Weibo.43 Content that otherwise hints on the state of the Chinese economy were also censored. The social media accounts of influential financial writer Wu Xiaobo were removed after he compared the Chinese and US technology sectors.44
Content that mocked Chinese leaders, particularly President Xi, was strictly censored. In October 2022, the image of former president Hu Jintao being removed from the 20th CCP Congress was strictly censored online.45 In November 2022, an account that posted a satirical reference to the zero-COVID policy—“Beijing man causes 1.4 billion people to be quarantined long-term”—was removed.46 Censors on Sina Weibo, WeChat, Douyin, and other platforms deleted a Buick commercial that could have been interpreted as a comment on Xi staying in power. The commercial invited viewers to sit in a vehicle’s seats and said they were “so comfortable” the occupants may “never want to leave.”47 According to a leaked list, 35,467 different phrases linked to President Xi were blocked online.48
In August 2022, during then US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and as Chinese internet users criticized Beijing for failing to stop her visit, social media commentary was increasingly censored.49 In February 2023, American authorities shot down an alleged spy balloon from China, which had flown over the United States. Discussions on the state of Beijing-Washington relations after the incident were censored, while searches for the phrase “spy balloon” were restricted.50
Foreign governments’ official accounts were also censored. In July 2022, UK diplomats’ Sina Weibo posts on the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong was erased 30 minutes after they were published.51 In September 2022, censors on WeChat and Sina Weibo targeted posts from the US embassy on a UN report discussing human rights abuses in Xinjiang.52
Large language model (LLM)–based chatbots were also subjected to censorship during the coverage period. In February 2023, Chinese regulators told technology firms in the country to discontinue access to ChatGPT and to disclose their own plans to develop AI-driven chatbots.53 A March 2023 Wall Street Journal report found Chinese chatbots refused to answer questions related to President Xi.54 The founder of ChatYuan, an AI chatbot, said that the chatbot would “filter certain keywords” with more layers of review than might be expected overseas.55
Automation is playing an increasingly important role in censorship. In August 2019, Citizen Lab revealed the existence image-filtering capabilities on WeChat, which targeted users’ creative efforts to circumvent text-based censorship through image-based commentary.56 Alibaba, Tencent, ByteDance, and the People’s Daily have 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.57
- 1Sarah Cook, “The News China Didn’t Want Reported in 2017,” Diplomat, January 27, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/the-news-china-didnt-want-reported-in-2…
- 3“The Central Cyberspace Administration of China deploys a special campaign of "Cracking Down on Internet Rumors and False Information", September 2, 2022, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2022-09/02/c_1663745754062601.htm
- 4“The Central Cyberspace Administration of China deploys a special campaign of "Cracking Down on Internet Rumors and False Information", September 2, 2022, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2022-09/02/c_1663745754062601.htm
- 5Alexandre Boyd, “CENSORS QUASH DISCUSSION OF XI’S UNANIMOUS RE-ELECTION AS PRESIDENT,” China Digital Times, March 13, 2022, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2023/03/censors-quash-discussion-of-xis-u…
- 6China Dissent Monitor, Issue 4, April-June 2023, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-08/CDM_4_Report_8_23….
- 7“Directives from the Ministry of Truth,” China Digital Times, accessed October 8, 2020, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/china/directives-from-the-ministry-of-tru…
- 8Tracy Qu, “Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili cracks down on malicious content, banned behaviour spread by virtual live-streamers,” South Chine Morning Post, July 22, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3186272/chinese-video-sharing-…
- 9Oiwan Lam, “A Chinese office platform confirms that users’ files on its cloud server are subject to censorship”, Global Voices, July 18, 2022, https://globalvoices.org/2022/07/18/a-chinese-office-platform-confirms-…
- 10赫海威, “中国“标题党女王”的倒下：咪蒙为何被封杀 [Why China Silenced a Clickbait Queen in Its Battle for Information Control],” New York Times Chinese, March 19, 2019, https://cn.nytimes.com/china/20190319/china-bloggers-internet/dual/
- 11Xinlu Liang, “Nationalistic blogger Sima Nan banned from Chinese social media,” South China Morning Post, August 23, 2022; https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3189923/nationalistic-…; “孔庆东微博被禁言,” 北大野史 Wiki, January 2023, https://pkuhistory.fandom.com/zh/wiki孔庆东微博被禁言; /; Liza Lin, Twitter, August 20, 2022, https://twitter.com/lizalinwsj/status/1560878098815791106.
- 12Arjun Kharpal, “Google shuts down Translate service in China,” CNBC, October 3, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/03/google-shuts-down-translate-service-in-….
- 13Scott Nover, ”Grindr removed itself from Chinese app stores in China, citing a new privacy law,” Quartz, January 31, 2022, https://qz.com/2120086/grindr-removed-itself-from-apples-app-store-in-c….
- 14Derek Saul, ”Microsoft’s LinkedIn leaves China following charges of censorship,” Forbes, October 14, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereksaul/2021/10/14/linkedin-leaves-china….
- 15Jane Li & Matthew De Silva, “This is the blacklist Apple uses to censor the internet in China,” Quartz, October 31, 2019, https://qz.com/1737232/apple-and-tencent-use-this-blacklist-to-censor-s…
- 16Jack Nicas, Raymond Zhong & Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Censorship, Surveillance and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China,” The New York Times, May 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/17/technology/apple-china-censorship-da…
- 17AppleCensorship, “China mainland”, https://web.archive.org/web/20230529090559/https://applecensorship.com/…
- 18Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave, “Apple's new 'private relay' feature will not be available in China,” Reuters, June 7, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/apples-new-private-relay-feature-wi…
- 20https://qz.com/apple-airdrop-china-protest-tool-1849824435; https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxn7nq/anti-xi-jinping-posters-are-spre…
- 21Karen Gilchrist, “Apple limited a crucial AirDrop function in China just weeks before protests”, CNBC, November 30, 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/30/apple-limited-a-crucial-airdrop-functio…
- 22Paul Mozur, “Twitter Users in China Face Detention and Threats in New Beijing Crackdown,” New York Times, January 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/business/china-twitter-censorship-on…; Yaxue Cao, “China Steps up Nationwide Crackdown to Silence Twitter Users – the Unmediated Story,” China Change, December 5, 2018, https://chinachange.org/2018/12/05/china-steps-up-nationwide-crackdown-…
- 23See 404 Archive: https://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese/689145.html
- 24Viola Zhou, “China censored a top health platform after it challenged traditional medicine,” Rest of World, August 18, 2022, https://restofworld.org/2022/china-health-platform-censored/; “Lilac Garden was "one pot" What is left of China on the Internet? “, RFA, August 10, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/meiti/cm-08102022120205.html
- 25Li Yuan, “‘We’re on That Bus, Too’: In China, a Deadly Crash Triggers Covid Trauma,” The New York Times, September 21, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/21/business/china-covid-zero-policy-bus…
- 26“China censors online chatter after anti-Xi Jinping protest; Hong Kong media muted,” Hong Kong Free Press, October 14, 2022, https://hongkongfp.com/2022/10/14/china-censors-online-chatter-after-an…; Yvette Tan, “China protest: Mystery Beijing demonstrator sparks online hunt and tributes,” BBC, October 14, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-63252559
- 27Liza Lin, “China Clamps Down on Internet as It Seeks to Stamp Out Covid Protests”, The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-clamps-down-on-internet-as-it-seeks-…
- 29Helen Davidson, “China announces lunar new year censorship crackdown to silence Covid ‘rumours’ “, The Guardian, January 19, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jan/19/china-announces-lunar-new…
- 30“Chinese city seeing half a million Covid cases a day – local health chief “, The Guardian, December 24, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/dec/24/chinese-city-seeing-half-…
- 31Alexander Boyd, “MINITRUE: FLOOD WEIBO COMMENTS ON XINJIANG PREFECTURE’S LOCKDOWN,” China Digital Times, September 9, 2022, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2022/09/minitrue-flood-weibo-comments-on-…
- 33Li Changshan, “For Mobile Users in China, One ‘Wrong’ Word Means Punishment,” Bitter Winter, October 6, 2020, https://bitterwinter.org/for-mobile-users-in-china-one-wrong-word-means….
- 34Manish Singh, “Douyin, TikTok app in China, hits 400 million daily active users,” Tech Crunch, January 7, 2020, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/06/douyin-tiktok-app-in-china-hits-400-m….
- 35David Paulk, “THREAD about how Douyin, the Chinese version of #TikTok, is banning livestreamers for speaking Cantonese instead of Mandarin,” Thread Reader, April 1, 2020, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1245299840944201729.html
- 36Rik Glauert, “EXCLUSIVE: China throws out court challenge against gay online content ban,” Gay Star News, October 26, 2018, https://www.gaystarnews.com/article/exclusive-china-throws-out-court-ch…
- 37Rik Glauert, “Court challenge of China’s LGBTI content ban loses appeal,” Gay Star News, April 15, 2019, https://www.gaystarnews.com/article/court-challenge-of-chinas-lgbti-con…
- 39Nathan Wei, “LGBTQ year in review: What happened in 2022,” The China Project, January 4, 2023, https://thechinaproject.com/2023/01/04/lgbtq-year-in-review-what-happen….
- 40Alexander Boyd, “WeChat Targets LGBTQ+ and Feminist Accounts In Mass Censorship Event,” August 30, 2023, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2023/08/wechat-targets-lgbtq-and-feminist….
- 43Liyan Qi, “Chinese Fans of Popular Movie ‘Return to Dust’ Wonder What Happened to It”, The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-fans-of-popular-movie-return-to-du…
- 44“Comparing the development of science and technology innovation between the United States and China is suspected of touching the red line, "the most profitable financial writer" Wu Xiaobo was silenced “ Radio Free Asia, June 13, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/meiti/gf-06132022084031.html
- 45“China censors searches for 'Hu Jintao,' the former president removed from congress”, Radio Free Asia, October 24, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/china-censorship-10242022135153…
- 46Alexander Boyd, “’Beijing Man’ is no Laughing Matter for Censors,” China Digital Times, November 3, 2022, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2022/11/beijing-man-is-no-laughing-matter….
- 47John Feng, “Why this Buick Ad has been censored in China,” Newsweek, September 22, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/general-motors-buick-gl8-century-advertisement…
- 48Freedom House, “China: Historic 20th Party Congress characterized by propaganda, censorship, intimidation”, Ifex, October 21, 2022, https://ifex.org/china-historic-20th-party-congress-characterized-by-pr…
- 49Yaqiu Wang, “Beijing Eats Bitter Fruits of its Own Propaganda,” Human Rights Watch, August 3, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/03/beijing-eats-bitter-fruit-its-own-p…
- 50Twitter, “@wafarris: Last night the Tencent-owned Sogou search engine began censoring…,” February 3, 2023, https://twitter.com/wafarris/status/1621711604953010176.
- 51Twitter, “@CWilson_FCDO: Today we tried to share on weibo 微博 the facts about the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong: enduring past 1997; legally binding….” July 1, 2022, https://twitter.com/CWilson_FCDO/status/1542817143443656705.
- 52Twitter, “@USAmbChina: PRC censored again our WeChat & Weibo posts on…” September 7, 2022, https://twitter.com/usambchina/status/1567379094991523844.
- 53Cissy Zhou, “China tells big tech companies not to offer ChatGPT services,” Nikkei Asia, February 22, 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/China-tech/China-tells-big-tech-compan…
- 54Shen Lu, “China’s AI Chatbots clam up when asked about Xi Jinping’s Leadership,” The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-chatbots-run-up-against-chinas-censor…
- 55Coco Feng, “Chinese tech firms take heed of country’s strict online moderation as they rush to bring their ChatGPT-like services to market,” SCMP, February 11, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3209795/chinese-tech-firms-tak….
- 56Jeffrey Knockel, Lotus Ruan, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, and Ron Deibert, “(Can’t) Picture This,” The Citizen Lab, August 14, 2018, https://citizenlab.ca/2018/08/cant-picture-this-an-analysis-of-image-fi…
- 57Shan Li, “Made-in-China Censorship for Sale,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/made-in-china-censorship-for-sale-11583448…; Vanessa Cai and Sylvie Zhuang, “Why Chinese entities are turning to People’s Daily censorship AI to avoid political mines,” South China Morning Post, July 17, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3227876/why-chinese-en…
|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 because the nation’s rule of law is weak and because of the number of actors and processes 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 directives cannot be challenged in the courts. Criticism of censorship is itself censored.2 There is 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 the 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 December 2022, the CAC introduced new rules that require technology companies to review all social media posts before they are published and filter out “illegal and harmful” information.4 In December 2022, the CAC updated the 2017 Regulations on the Administration of Internet Post Comment Services, clarifying the responsibilities of ISPs and other operators to filter out “harmful” content.5 Under CAC regulations which took effect in March 2022, platforms’ recommendation algorithms must 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.6
CAC regulations, released in draft form in April 2023 and as interim measures in July, require content generated by LLMs to embody “core socialist values” and avoid “information that is violent, obscene, or fake.” The rules designate generative AI providers as online information content producers, subjecting them to CAC censorship regulations.7 In January 2023, new rules targeting deepfake technology went into effect. Deepfake providers must explicitly label and make traceable any doctored content; must abide by local laws, including national security requirements; and maintain the “correct political direction and correct public opinion orientation.”8
In March 2021, the NRTA published draft amendments to the Radio and Television Law expanding its coverage to include online video broadcasters and platforms.9 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.”10
In June 2022, the NRTA and the Ministry of Culture jointly issued a new code of conduct for live streamers, podcasters, and other online content producers. The document banned any content that “weakens, distorts or denies the leadership of the CCP.”11 Previously, the NRTA released rules for the country’s massive live-streaming industry in November 2020, requiring that platforms notify authorities of celebrity and foreigner appearances ahead of time, and that they promote accounts that embody the “core socialist values.”12 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.”13
- 1Xueyang Xu, Z. Morely Mao, and J. Alex Halderman, “Internet Censorship in China: Where Does the Filtering Occur?,” Passive and Active Measurement, (2011): 133–142, https://web.eecs.umich.edu/~zmao/Papers/china-censorship-pam11.pdf
- 2Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Collective Expression,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 2, May 2013, 1–18, http://j.mp/2nxNUhk
- 3Drew Foerster, “China’s Legislature Gears Up to Pass a Sweepingly Vague Cybersecurity Law,” American Bar Association, May 2, 2016, http://www.americanbar.org/publications/blt/2016/05/02_foerster.html; China Law Translate, “Counter-Terrorism Law (2015),” China Law Translate, December 27, 2015, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/counter-terrorism-law-2015/
- 4“Provisions on the Administration of Internet Posting and Commenting Services”, November 16, 2022, http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-11/16/content_5727349.htm
- 5Phoebe Zhang, “China to step up internet censorship with stricter rules for social media and streaming sites, South China Morning Post, November 18, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3199997/china-step-int…
- 6Arendese Huld, “China’s Sweeping Recommendation Algorithm Regulations in Effect from March 1,” China Briefing, January 6, 2022, https://www.china-briefing.com/news/china-passes-sweeping-recommendatio….
- 7Jeremy Daum, “Overview of Draft Measures on Generative AI,” China Law Translate, April 14, 2023, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/overview-of-draft-measures-on-gene…; “Interim Measures for the Management of Generative Artificial Intelligence Services,” China Law Translate, July 10, 2023, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/generative-ai-interim/.
- 8Ben Jiang, “China’s internet censors target deepfake tech to curb online disinformation,” South China Morning Post, December 12, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3203000/chinas-internet-censor…
- 9Huaxia, “China’s broadcasting watchdog solicits public opinion for legislation,” Xinhua, March 17, 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2021-03/17/c_139817258.htm.
- 10National Radio and Television Administration, “中华人民共和国广播电视法 征求意见稿 [Radio and Television Law of the People’s Republic of China – Draft for comments],” March 16, 2021, http://www.nrta.gov.cn/module/download/downfile.jsp?spm=chekydwncf.0.0…中华人民共和国广播电视法(征求意见稿).pdf&filename=f2a2331b46d7441581fc09a74323cfd6.pdf.
- 11“Notice of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the State Administration of Radio and Television on Printing and Distributing the "Code of Conduct for Internet Hosts" June 22, 2022, http://www.nrta.gov.cn/art/2022/6/22/art_113_60757.html
- 12Tracy Qu, ”China bans over 30 live-streaming behaviours, demands qualifications to discuss law, finance, medicine,” South China Morning Post, June 23, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/tech/big-tech/article/3182767/china-bans-over-30-l…
- 13Shen Lu, ”New regulations target scandal-ridden Chinese celebs,” Protocol, October 11, 2021, https://www.protocol.com/bulletins/china-entertainment-regulations.
|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 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 a wide variety of services that include messaging, banking, ride-hailing, ordering food, and booking travel (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 relatives 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. Since the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a COVID-19 whistleblower, millions of people have left comments under his final Sina Weibo post. It has become known as China’s “wailing wall” and as a place to deliver messages critical of Beijing. Many users left comments commemorating Li on February 6, 2023, the third anniversary of his death.3
In Guangzhou, residents used vernacular Cantonese terms, instead of Mandarin, to express their frustrations with the government’s draconian COVID-19 policy.4 Similarly, ethnic Mongolians used Mongolian script to post criticism of the authorities online.5
- 1Viola Zhou, “Locked out of an online life,” Ink Stone, July 26, 2018, https://www.inkstonenews.com/tech/chinas-wechat-increasing-censorship-i…; Arjun Kharpal, “Everything you need to know about WeChat — China’s billion-user messaging app,” CNBC, February 3, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/04/what-is-wechat-china-biggest-messaging-…
- 2Alexandra Ma, “Relatives of China's oppressed Muslim minority are getting blocked online by their own family members, who are terrified to even tell them how bad their lives are,” Business Insiders, February 16, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/family-of-uighurs-in-china-say-are-bloc…
- 3“WAILING WALL SPECIAL EDITION: THE THIRD ANNIVERSARY OF WHISTLEBLOWER DR. LI WENLIANG’S DEATH,” China Digital Times, February 10, 2023, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2023/02/wailing-wall-special-edition-the-…
- 4Mary Hui, “China's internet censors have a blindspot: Cantonese,” QZ, September 5, 2022, https://qz.com/china-censors-stumped-by-cantonese-1849496778
- 5China Dissent Monitor, Issue 4, April-June 2023, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-08/CDM_4_Report_8_23….
|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
The Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem, implemented in March 2020,2 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.3 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 consolidated 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.4 Such commentators are known for reporting users who post offending statements, deliberately muddying the facts of particular incidents, and coordinating smear campaigns against government critics.5 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.6
A March 2022 report by German Marshall Fund showed that state media outlets promoted pro-Russia narratives on official social media accounts, including the false claim that the United States is funding biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.7 In December 2022, the Intercept reported that Chinese and Russian officials signed an agreement to collaborate on the dissemination of favorable narratives in July 2021.8
In December 2022, a leaked propaganda directive showed the government ordered state media to portray the abrupt end of the zero-COVID policy as a well-organized, scientifically backed decision.9 The decision followed unprecedented mass protests against the policy (see B8).
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 In August 2022, intelligence firm Mandiant uncovered 72 disinformation sites in 11 different languages run by a China-based company.12 The sites attacked critics of Beijing’s crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and promoted pro-CCP content.13 In August 2022, a wave of pro-CCP propaganda books promoting China’s claim over Taiwan were released on Amazon’s Kindle platform.14
In September 2022, Meta announced that it had taken down a China-linked network that disseminated disinformation about the November 2022 US election, the Czech Republic’s policy on China, and the Russian regime’s war against Ukraine for violating the platform’s policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior.15 In September 2022, an inauthentic campaign on Twitter targeted the NGO Safeguard Defenders, after it published a report on Chinese “overseas police stations.”16 An October 2022 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) showed that the government worked with international influencer-management agencies and popular YouTube influencers to spread pro-CCP propaganda on Uyghurs.17 A February 2023 ASPI report uncovered a Chinese government-linked social media campaign to spread disinformation about Australian politics.18 A February 2023 report by cybersecurity firm Graphika revealed the employment of AI-generated avatars in a disinformation campaign linked to China-based actors.19
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.20 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.21 Throughout 2022, nationalistic internet users attacked science blogs and feminist and LGBT+ accounts for their being “anti-China,” leading to those accounts and websites shutting down.22 A December 2022 Nikkei Asia article reported that nationalist users gained significant traction on Chinese social media in the past decade, amplified by official accounts and government censorship of more moderate content.23
- 1Sarah Cook, “China Media Bulletin: 2017 YEAR IN REVIEW (Issue No. 125),” Freedom House, January 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/china-media/china-media-bulletin-2017-year-in-…
- 2Bill Bostock , “China enacted a sweeping new law that bars people from posting negative content online, and it could be used to suppress coronavirus news,” Business Insider, March 2, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/china-internet-ban-criticism-could-supp…; CAC, “网络信息内容生态治理规定[Regulations on the ecological governance of network information content],” CAC, December 20, 2019, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2019-12/20/c_1578375159509309.htm
- 3Rebecca Davis, “China’s New Internet Censorship Rules Outline Direction For Content,” Variety, January 3, 2020, https://variety.com/2020/digital/news/china-censorship-law-bytedance-12…
- 4These propaganda workers are colloquially known as the 50 Cent Party due to the amount they are reportedly paid per post, though other reports have put the going rate as low as 10 cents, while some commentators may be salaried employees. See Perry Link, “Censoring the News Before It Happens,” New York Review (blog), New York Review of Books, July 10, 2013, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2013/07/10/censoring-news-before-happens-…; Rongbin Han, “Manufacturing Consent in Censored Cyberspace: State-Sponsored Online Commentators on Chinese Internet Forums” (paper for Annual Meeting of America Political Science Association, New Orleans, August 31–September 2, 2012), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2106461
- 5Murong Xuecun, “Beijing’s Rising Smear Power,” New York Times, September 21, 2014, http://nyti.ms/1OvsWuZ; 克里斯蒂安•谢泼德, “中国官媒Twitter账号被疑“僵尸粉”过多[Chinese official media Twitter account suspected of too many "zombie follower"],” FT中文网, November 23, 2015, http://m.ftchinese.com/story/001064972
- 6Jessica Batke & Mareike Ohlberg, “Message Control: How a New For-Profit Industry Helps China’s Leaders ‘Manage Public Opinion,’” China File, December 20, 2020, https://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/features/message-control-ch…
- 7Zack Cooper, Bret Schafer, and Etienne Soula, “China’s State Media and Government Officials Are Backing Russia on Ukraine”, GMF Alliance for Securing Democracy, March 13, 2022, https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/chinas-state-media-and-government-o…
- 8Mara Hvistendahl and Alexey Kovalev, “Hacked Russian files reveal propaganda agreement with China,” The Intercept, December 30, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/12/30/russia-china-news-media-agreement/
- 9“MINITRUE: GUIDELINES AND REQUIREMENTS FOR REPORTING ON PANDEMIC PREVENTION AND CONTROL MEASURES,” China Digital Times, December 29, 2022, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2022/12/minitrue-guidelines-and-requireme…
- 10Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard, “The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation,” Oxford Internet Institute, Computational Propaganda Research Project, September 4, 2019 https://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/93/2019/09/CyberT…
- 11Sarah Cook, “ Welcome to the New Era of Chinese Government Disinformation,” Diplomat, May 11, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/welcome-to-the-new-era-of-chinese-gover…; Bolsover, Gillian, and Philip Howard. “Chinese Computational Propaganda: Automation, Algorithms and the Manipulation of Information about Chinese Politics on Twitter and Weibo.” Information, Communication & Society, 2018, pp. 1–18., doi:10.1080/1369118x.2018.1476576.
- 12Ryan Serabian and Daniel Kapellmann Zafra, “Pro-PRC “HaiEnergy” Information Operations Campaign Leverages Infrastructure from Public Relations Firm to Disseminate Content on Inauthentic News Sites,” Mandiant, August 8, 2022, https://www.mandiant.com/resources/blog/pro-prc-information-operations-…
- 13Ryan Serabian and Daniel Kapellmann Zafra, “Pro-PRC “HaiEnergy” Information Operations Campaign Leverages Infrastructure from Public Relations Firm to Disseminate Content on Inauthentic News Sites,” Mandiant, August 8, 2022, https://www.mandiant.com/resources/blog/pro-prc-information-operations-…
- 14Mia Ping, “Wave of badly written Kindle titles on Pelosi, Taiwan hits Amazon's Kindle platform,” Radio Free Asia, August 13, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/taiwan-kindle-08122022142057.html
- 15Ben Nimmo, “Removing coordinated inauthentic behavior from China and Russia,” Meta, September 27, 2022, https://about.fb.com/news/2022/09/removing-coordinated-inauthentic-beha…
- 16https://twitter.com/SafeguardDefend/status/1571171240412315653 “Beijing’s global media influence 2022, Israel,” Freedom House, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/israel/beijings-global-media-influence…
- 17Fergus Ryan, Daria Impiombato, and His-Ting Pai, “Frontier influencers: the new face of China’s propaganda,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, October 20, 2022, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/frontier-influencers
- 18Henry Belot, “Social media campaign linked to Chinese government spreading disinformation about Australian politics, thinktank says ,” The Guardian, February 9, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/feb/09/social-media-cam…
- 19“Deepfake it till you make it: Pro-Chinese actors promote AI-generated video footage of fictitious people in online influence operation,” The Graphika Team, February 2023, https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/graphika-report-deepfake-it-…
- 20“Local Chinese Authorities Use Internet Slang ‘Ziganwu’ in Their Propaganda Recruitments,” Global Voices, June 15, 2015, https://globalvoices.org/2015/06/15/local-chinese-authorities-use-inter…
- 21Sandra Fu, “Central Committee of Communist Youth League Issues an Announcement,” China Digital Times, January 19, 2015, https://perma.cc/HM8P-PT9J; Xu Yangjingjing and Simon Denyer, “Wanted: Ten million Chinese students to “civilize” the Internet,” Washington Post, April 10, 2015, http://wapo.st/1NbD9tb
- 22Cindy Carter, ”Farewell letters: A tribute to the civil society groups, bloggers, and media outlets we lost in 2021,” China Digital Times, January 10, 2022, https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2022/01/farewell-letters-a-tribute-to-the….
- 23Kenji Asada, Aiko Munakata, Marrian Zhou, Cissy Zhou and Grace Li, “China’s online nationalist army: How social media users weaponized patriotism,” Nikkei Asia, December 29, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/static/vdata/infographics/china-social-media/
|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 internet-specific companies, including online news outlets, in China. While large companies have been able to absorb 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.
In November 2022, the CAC released an updated version of Regulations on Comments to Social Media Posts Services, requiring platforms to enforce real-name registration and roll out new content-moderation controls on comment threads (see C4).9
- 1Shan Li, “Tech Giant Tencent Caught in Chinese Regulatory Trap,” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/tencent-disappoints-on-earnings-as-its-gam…
- 2“国家网信办公布《互联网新闻信息服务管理规定》[National Network Office Announce "Regulations on the Administration of Internet News Information Services"],” Sina, May 4, 2017, http://finance.sina.com.cn/roll/2017-05-04/doc-ifyexxhw2298844.shtml; China Copyrights and Media, “Internet News Information Service Management Regulations”, May 2, 2017, https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/internet-news-i…
- 3“网信办颁新令 矛头指向谁[Internet Information Office issues a new order],” DW, May 2, 2017, http://www.dw.com/zh/%E7%BD%91%E4%BF%A1%E5%8A%9E%E9%A2%81%E6%96%B0%E4%B…; “Implementing Rules for the Management of Internet News Information Service,” trans. Rogier Creemers, China Copyright and Media, May 22, 2017, https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/implementing-ru…, noting: “Specifically, those applying for an Internet news information gathering and dissemination license shall be news work units (including work units share-controlled by news work units) or work units controlled by news and propaganda departments. News work units refers to newspaper or periodical publishers, radio stations, television stations, news agencies and news film studios established lawfully and with permission of relevant state departments. Share-controlled means a proportion of over 50% of the capital contribution value, or the proportion of stock held in the total value of corporate capital, or the total share value, or, where even though the proportion in capital contribution value or held stock is less than 50%, the capital contribution value or held stock is sufficient to engender major influence on corporate decision-making. News and propaganda departments include all levels’ propaganda departments, cybersecurity and informatization departments, radio and television departments, etc.”
- 4Hogan Lovells, “Are Foreigners Banned from Publishing on the Internet in China?,” May 2016, http://f.datasrvr.com/fr1/716/75489/Final_Publishing_on_Intranet.pdf
- 5Wen Yunchao, a blogger and activist in New York, says new rules for social media make it impossible for self-media to sustain themselves. “A few newspeople in China tried to use social media to report breaking news, but the CAC’s latest regulations constrain this possibility,” he told Freedom House. “That is to say, Chinese media professionals can’t earn enough from publishing on social media (like WeChat public accounts) to continue their work.” China Media Bulletin no. 125, https://freedomhouse.org/china-media/china-media-bulletin-2017-year-in-…. See also: “Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media,” PEN America, March 13, 2018, https://pen.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/PEN-America_Forbidden-Feeds-….
- 6Qin Chen, “China LGBT groups squeezed as China tightens rules on internet publishing,” inkstone, February 05, 2021, https://www.inkstonenews.com/society/china-lgbt-groups-squeezed-china-t….; Rebecca Davis, “China Imposes New Rules to Restrict Independent Online Content Creators,” Variety, February 23, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/digital/news/china-cac-self-media-new-regulati…
- 7Josh Horowitz and Brenda Goh, ”China updates official news sources list, excludes high-profile Caixin,” Reuters, October 20, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-updates-official-news-sources….
- 8“关于《市场准入负面清单（2021 年版）》有关情况的说明,” Ministry of Commerce, 2021, https://www.ndrc.gov.cn/yjzxDownload/sczrfmqd2021.pdf
- 9“Provisions on the Administration of Internet Posting and Commenting Services,“ November 16, 2022, http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-11/16/content_5727349.htm
|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 news sources has also empowered nationalist and conservative voices, which are 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 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 once tolerated, such as feminist group, have faced increasing scrutiny.4
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.5
Tens of millions of internet users bypass censorship with circumvention technology or creative workarounds. Although hundreds of VPN services are inaccessible,6 various options remain available.7 In late 2022, many Chinese internet users turned to VPNs to circumvent censorship in order to share and access information related to zero-COVID protests (see B8).8
Within the Great Firewall, netizens deploy 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.9 For the past several years, the word “Xinjiang” and the human rights abuses documented there had been taboo on the Chinese internet. Netizens thus used “XJ” and “new jiang” (“xin” means new in Chinese) to try to circumvent censorship.10 In a similar vein, “JC” was used to reference the police (“jin cha” means police), and “zf” for government (“zhengfu” means government).11 In July 2022, Sina Weibo announced new rules that sought to restrict the use of homonyms to “spread harmful information.”12
- 1Johanna M. Costigan and Xu Xin, “China’s Digital Cultural Revolution,” Diplomat, April 29, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/chinas-digital-cultural-revolution/
- 2Viola Zhou, “Mainland Chinese evade censors to support Hong Kong protests,” Inkstone, June 13, 2019, https://www.inkstonenews.com/politics/chinese-internet-users-evade-cens…
- 3A recent example of a crackdown would be the closure of Beijing’s Unirule Institute, which founded to promote economic liberalization and democracy. It was shut down after a quarter-century amid government pressure. Chun Han Wong, “China Finally Snuffs Out a Beacon of Liberal Thought and Democracy,” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-finally-snuffs-out-a-beacon-of-liber…
- 4See, e.g., William Yang, “China feminists face clampdown, closure of online accounts,” DW, April 21, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/china-feminism-free-speech/a-57277438.
- 5Darren Byler, “For China’s Muslim minority, the internet was a safe haven—until it wasn’t,” Fast Company, September 23, 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90405715/for-chinas-muslim-minority-the-int…; China File, “Islamophobia in China,” China File, May 14, 2019, http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/islamophobia-china; Frankie Huang, “China’s Most Popular App Is Full of Hate,” Foreign Policy, November 27, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/27/chinas-most-popular-app-is-full-of…
- 6Tim Bradshaw, “Apple drops hundreds of VPN apps at Beijing’s request,” Financial Times, November 21, 2017,https://www.ft.com/content/ad42e536-cf36-11e7-b781-794ce08b24dc.
- 7Hassan Maishera, “China’s Internet Censorship Effort Continues as Authorities Blacklist Hundreds of VPN Servers,” Blokt, May 6, 2019, https://blokt.com/news/chinas-internet-censorship-effort-continues-as-a…; “How does your VPN speed measure against other VPNs in China,” Circumvention Central, accessed October 12, 2020, https://cc.greatfire.org/en.
- 8Liza Lin, “China clamps down on internet as it seeks to stamp out Covid protests,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-clamps-down-on-internet-as-it-seeks-…
- 9Yuan Yang, “China’s ‘MeToo’ movement evades censors with #RiceBunny,” August 8, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/61903744-9540-11e8-b67b-b8205561c3fe.
- 10Yaqiu Wang, “People in China left wondering, ‘what happened in Xinjiang?” Human Rights Watch, March 25, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/25/people-china-left-wondering-what-ha….
- 11“Pho noodles and pandas: How China’s social media users created a new language to beat government censorship on COVID-19,” Amnesty International, March 6, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/03/china-social-media-langu….
- 12Tracy Qu, “Weibo vows to regulate homonyms, ‘misspelt’ words if they are used to evade China’s strict censorship,” July 14, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3185299/weibo-vows-regulate-ho….
|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. However, people mobilized unprecedented protests during the coverage period. Data collected for the China Dissent Monitor, which is operated by Freedom House, identified over 50 distinct instances of online mobilization during the coverage period, spanning issues like COVID-19 measures, land rights, and corruption.2
In November 2022, thousands of people across China held protests against Beijing’s zero-COVID policy and CCP rule more generally. The protest was spurred by a fire in Urumqi that killed 10 people that month, as an ongoing coronavirus-related lockdown persisted amid rising popular discontent over the zero-COVID policy. People took to social media platforms to mourn the victims and share information about protests. Censors responded by removing social media posts and accounts sharing news about the protests, and search functions on social media platforms made protest-related information hard to find (see B2).3 Chinese protesters also used circumvention tools to discuss the protests on global platforms like Facebook and Instagram.4 Authorities detained scores of protesters across the country (see C3). Online posts discussing their cases or calling for their release were censored. The CAC also ordered social media companies to hire more censors to scrub any references to VPNs.5
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.6 The civil code, released in June 2020, bans sexual harassment,7 a move seen as a response to numerous cases of professors harassing female students on college campuses.8
- 1王莛瑜, “中國立法嚴格管控 部落客噤聲接受再教育 [Chinese legislation strictly controls bloggers clamor for reeducation],” Storm Media, July 14, 2015, http://www.storm.mg/article/57176
- 2China Dissent Monitor, accessed September 19, 2023, https://chinadissent.net/.
- 3“China: Respect Right to Peaceful Protest” Human Rights Watch, November 28, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/11/28/china-respect-right-peaceful-protest
- 4Kian Vesteinsson and Angeli Datt, “Chinese Protesters and the Global Internet Need One Another,” The Diplomat, January 18, 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/01/chinese-protesters-and-the-global-inter….
- 5Liza Lin, “China Clamps Down on Internet as It Seeks to Stamp Out Covid Protests”, The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-clamps-down-on-internet-as-it-seeks-…
- 6Beh Lih Yi and Shanshan Chen, “After saying #MeToo, Chinese women fight censorship to push for change,” Thomson Reuters Foundation, August 9, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-rights-women/after-saying-meto…; James Griffths, “Women in China face unique #MeToo challenges, but see some progress,” CNN, July 27, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/07/27/asia/me-too-china-intl/index.html/
- 7Cao Yin, “Civil code defines, bans sexual harassment,” China Daily, June 1, 2020, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202006/01/WS5ed45843a310a8b241159c5e_6.h…
- 8Guo Rui, “Two years on, woman who set off #MeToo in China still looking for ‘breakthrough’,” South China Morning Post, December 28, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3043702/two-years-woma…
|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.
|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 face lengthy 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 the incitement of 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 A law in was introduced in June 2021 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, 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 can occur without court approval,12 and individuals can be detained without trial under poor conditions in drug rehabilitation centers.13 Chinese law also allows 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
- 1According to the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the top prosecutorial body, which provided a formal definition in 2013. The definition was given in a judicial interpretation entitled “Regarding the Interpretation of Various Laws Concerning the Handling of Cases of Using the Internet to Carry Out Defamation and Other Crimes.” Human Rights Watch, “China: Draconian Legal Interpretation Threatens Online Freedom,” September 13, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/13/china-draconian-legal-interpretatio…; Megha Rajagopalan and Adam Rose, “China Crackdown on Online Rumors Seen as Ploy to Nail Critics,” Reuters, September 18, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/net-us-china-internet/china-crackdown-o….
- 2Freedom House, “The Politburo's Predicament,” 2015, https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2015/politburos-predicam…
- 3“China: Draconian Legal Interpretation Threatens Online Freedom,” Human Rights Watch, September 13, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/13/china-draconian-legal-interpretatio…
- 4For example, Ilham Tohti was found guilty of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison in September 2014. He was known for his advocacy, both online and off, for China’s Uighur minority. See Edward Wong, “China Sentences Uighur Scholar to Life,” New York Times, September 23, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/world/asia/china-court-sentences-uig…; Andrew Jacobs, “Uighur Intellectual Who Won’t Back Down in China,” New York Times, August 20, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/21/world/asia/21china.html?module=inline
- 5“The Battle for China’s Spirit,” Freedom House, February 2017, page 115, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FH_ChinasSprit2016_FULL_FI….
- 6China Law Translate, “People’s Republic of China Criminal Law Amendment (9),” September 1, 2015, http://chinalawtranslate.com/%E4%B8%AD%E5%8D%8E%E4%BA%BA%E6%B0%91%E5%85…
- 7Xinhua, “刑法修正案下月起正式实施 微信、微博造谣最高获刑七年 [Criminal law amendments formally implemented next month, up to seven years in prison for rumormongering on Weibo and WeChat],” Xinhua, October 28, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/legal/2015-10/28/c_1116970714.htm
- 8National People's Congress, “中华人民共和国刑法修正案（十一）[Amendments to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China (11)],” people.cn, December 27, 2020, http://npc.people.com.cn/n1/2020/1227/c14576-31980014.html.
- 9Mimi Law, “China introduces new law to ban ‘slander’ of members of armed forces,” South China Morning Post, June 10, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3136826/china-introduc…
- 10China Law Translate, “Counter-Terrorism Law (2015),” China Law Translate, December 27, 2015, https://www.chinalawtranslate.com/en/counter-terrorism-law-2015/
- 11Shi Jiangtao, ”Chinese authorities say coronavirus control at heart of clampdown on 10 broad categories of crime,” South China Morning Post, February 12, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3050294/chinese-authori….
- 12Stanley Lubman, “Arrested, Detained: A Guide to Navigating China’s Police Powers,” Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2014, https://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/08/12/arrested-detained-a-guid…
- 13Economist, ”China’s strong-arm approach to drug addiction does not work,” Economist, March 21, 2020, https://www.economist.com/china/2019/03/21/chinas-strong-arm-approach-t…
- 14Benedict Rogers, ”China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ – a licence to disappear, hold and torture dissenters,” Hog Kong Free Press, February 4, 2018, https://hongkongfp.com/2018/02/04/chinas-residential-surveillance-desig…
- 15Per an amendment to the criminal procedure law enacted by the National People’s Congress in 2012, which took effect on January 1, 2013. Observers praised other aspects of the measure, including tentative steps toward increasing police accountability for surveillance. Committee to Protect Journalists, “China’s New Law Sanctions Covert Detentions,” March 14, 2012, http://cpj.org/x/49d9
|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 in recent 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
Zero-COVID protesters (see B8) were detained during the coverage period, including for their online activity. A Shanghai resident was detained in December 2022 after alleging on Twitter that police had tortured people arrested in the protests; the resident was reportedly released by January 2023. A Uyghur student residing in Henan Province who posted videos relating to the protests on WeChat was detained in December 2022, when she had returned to Xinjiang,2 and was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in March 2023.3 Authorities also continued to detain or prosecute people for their online speech related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2022, Xinjiang police detained four people for “spreading rumors” and “disrupting the order of anti-pandemic measures.”4 Data collected for the China Dissent Monitor, which is operated by Freedom House, identified over a dozen cases where online dissent resulted in detention or arrest during the coverage period (see B8).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 43 journalists were jailed in China as of December 2022, second only to Iran in the number of imprisoned journalists.6 In February 2023, Ruan Xiaohuan, who had anonymously operated the blog Program Think, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power.”7 In September 2021, Huang Xueqin, a prominent blogger and #MeToo activist, was detained by Guangzhou police on the same charge;8 she remained detained as of the end of the coverage period. In February 2023, advocates warned that Huang’s physical condition was deteriorating.9 In August 2022, 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.10
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 April 2023, a court in Shandong Province sentenced prominent human rights lawyer and blogger Xu Zhiyong to 14 years in prison for “subversion of state power.”11 In June 2023, a Shaanxi court sentenced human rights lawyer Chang Weiping to three and half years in prison under the same charge.12
In August 2022, the human rights website Weiquanwang reported that dissident writer Sun Daluo, formerly known as Sun Zhiming, had been tried in secret in December 2021 on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” but the details of the sentence remained unknown.13 In December 2022, human rights activist Ou Biaofeng received a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for writing articles for Hong Kong newspapers and for his social media activity.14 In December 2022, poet Wang Zang and his wife, Wang Liqin, received four-year and two-and-a-half-year prison sentences, respectively, in Sichuan. Wang Zang’s sentence was in relation to his public online comments and media interviews. Wang Liqin appeared to have been convicted for supporting Wang Zang.15
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.16 HRW reported in September 2022 that some 500,000 people have received formal prison sentences.17 Some were targeted for their online activities that included communication with relatives living abroad via WeChat.18 A police officer confirmed in June 2023 that a university student was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2017 after the student used a VPN and viewed “illegal information.”19
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 for “inciting separatism” in social media posts.20 In July 2022, authorities arrested a Tibetan man in Sichuan for creating an “unlawful” WeChat group to honor Tibetan religious leaders.21
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, a teacher in Lhasa was arrested for posts on WeChat and Sina Weibo documenting the harmful implementation of the city’s harsh COVID-19 lockdown.22 In March 2023, a Tibetan woman in the region was detained for sending photos to people outside of it.23
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.24 In June 2022, according to the Falun Gong information site Minghui, Falun Gong practitioner Guo Xiuhai was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for sharing a video about the religious practice on WeChat.25
Vague provisions barring online speech have been applied to people using generative AI tools. In May 2023, police in Gansu detained a man on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after he allegedly used ChatGPT to generate and post a series of false news reports about a train crash.26
- 1“China: Police ‘Big Data’ Systems Violate Privacy, Target Dissent,” Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/19/china-police-big-data-systems-viola…
- 2“China: Free All “Blank Paper” Protestors,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders, January 20, 2023, https://www.nchrd.org/2023/01/china-free-all-blank-paper-protestors/.
- 3Shohret Hoshur, “Uyghur college student receives 3-year sentence for ‘advocating extremism’,” July 11, 2023, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/kamile-wayit-07112023150041.html.
- 4“Xinjiang residents complain of hunger after 40-day COVID lockdown,” Al Jazeera, September 15, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/15/xinjiang-residents-complain-of…
- 5China Dissent Monitor, accessed September 19, 2023, https://chinadissent.net/.
- 6“Journalist imprisonments reach 30-year high,” CPJ, December 14, 2022, https://cpj.org/2022/12/journalist-imprisonments-reach-30-year-high/
- 7“长期挑战网络审查 “编程随想”博主被以煽颠罪判刑七年,” RFA, March 22, 2023, https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/renquanfazhi/gf-03222023031521….
- 8Frontline Defenders, ”Police seek prosecution of Huang Xueqin,” April 4, 2022, https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/china-human-rights-defenders….
- 9Helen Davidson, “Journalist held without trial in China said to need urgent medical attention,” The Guardian, February 16, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/16/journalist-held-without-t…
- 10“Chinese journalist Mao Huibin arrested after publishing articles about Tangshan assault,” Committee to Protect Journalists, August 15, 2022, https://cpj.org/2022/08/chinese-journalist-mao-huibin-arrested-after-pu….
- 13“The case and biography of political writer Sun Daluo (formerly known as Sun Zhiming) who was convicted and tortured for his speech,” Rights Protection Network, August 13, 2022, https://wqw2010.blogspot.com/2022/08/blog-post_30.html; “异议作家出版《习近平权术史》被刑拘遭折磨,” RFA, August 10, 2022, https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/Xinwen/10-08102022164720.html
- 14“Hunan Human Rights Defender Ou Biaofeng Sentenced to 3 Years and 6 Months in Prison for "Inciting Subversion of State Power,” Rights Protection Network, December 30, 2022, https://wqw2010.blogspot.com/2022/12/36.html
- 15“The first-instance verdict of famous poets Wang Zang and Wang Liqin sentenced to prison for 4 years and 2 years and 6 months respectively,” Rights Protection Network, December 11, 2022, https://wqw2010.blogspot.com/2022/12/426.html
- 16Adrian Zanz, “New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang,” The Jamestown Foundation, May 15, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/evidence-for-chinas-political-re-educatio…
- 17“China: Xinjiang Official Figures Reveal Higher Prisoner Count,” Human Rights Watch, September 14, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/09/14/china-xinjiang-official-figures-rev….
- 18“China has turned Xinjiang into a police state like no other,” Economist, May 31, 2018, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/05/31/china-has-turned-xinjiang…
- 19“Uyghur university student serving 13-year sentence for using VPN,” RFA, June 8, 2023, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/student-sentenced-0608202315480….
- 20“Tibetan intellectual and writer Sabuchey sentenced to four and a half years in prison,” THCRD, June 18, 2022, https://tchrd.org/tibetan-intellectual-and-writer-sabuchey-sentenced-to….
- 21“Tibetan arrested for not registering WeChat group,” Tibet Watch, July 27, 2022, https://www.tibetwatch.org/news/2022/7/27/nbsp-tibetan-arrested-for-not…
- 22“Tibetan arrested after making social media post about Lhasa Lockdown,” Tibet Watch, September 26, 2022, https://www.tibetwatch.org/news/2022/9/26/43koqvw0ri3huqa267phca5q953kdp.
- 23“China arrests Tibetan for cell-phone contact outside her occupied homeland”, Tibetan Review, March 7, 2023, https://www.tibetanreview.net/china-arrests-tibetan-for-cell-phone-cont…
- 24Sarah Cook, “The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping”, New York: Freedom House, 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/report/china-religious-freedom
- 25“Fujian Woman Sentenced to Nearly Four Years for Sharing Videos with Friends,” Minghui, June 18, 2022, https://en.minghui.org/html/articles/2022/6/18/201855.html
- 26Zhao Yuanyuan, “China makes first ChatGPT-related arrest for fake news,” The China Project, May 11, 2023, https://thechinaproject.com/2023/05/11/china-makes-first-chatgpt-relate…
|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 Sina 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 In December 2022, the CAC released new rules that require ISPs to discontinue service to anyone who had not authenticated their real identity.5
Authorities also enforce SIM card registration,6 and in December 2019 regulations took effect that require users to have their faces scanned when registering for mobile services.7 All online gamers are also required to register using their name and phone number,8 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.9 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.10
Authorities in some areas have instructed public Wi-Fi providers to comply with user registration requirements.11 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.12
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.13 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.14 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.15
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).16 In February 2023, only two days after it became available, Apple removed the new Damus app— a decentralized platform that allows users to create anonymous accounts and send encrypted messages—from its app store in China at the request of the CAC (see B2).17
- 1Catherine Shu, “China doubles down on real-name registration laws, forbidding anonymous online posts,” Tech Crunch, August 28, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/08/27/china-doubles-down-on-real-name-regis… Samm Sacks and Paul Triolo, “Shrinking Anonymity in Chinese Cyberspace,” Lawfare (blog), September 25, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/shrinking-anonymity-chinese-cyberspace
- 2Tim Stratford et al., “China Enacts New Data Privacy Legislation,” Covington & Burling LLP, January 11, 2013, https://www.cov.com/en/news-and-insights/insights/2013/01/china-enacts-…
- 3Tracy Qu, “China updates rules on real-name registration online in crackdown on schemes to revive banned user accounts,” South China Morning Post, October 27, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3153887/china-updates-rules-re….
- 4Jane Li, “China's internet platforms are revealing user IP locations,” Quartz, May 12, 2022, https://qz.com/2163704/chinas-internet-platforms-are-revealing-user-ip-…; Manya Koetse, “Uh Oh, IP: Chinese Social Media Platforms Now Display Users’ Geolocation,” What's on Weibo, April 30, 2022, https://www.whatsonweibo.com/uh-oh-ip-chinese-social-media-platforms-no…
- 5“Notice of the State Internet Information Office on Public Comments on the "Regulations on the Administration of Internet Posting and Commenting Services (Revised Draft for Soliciting Comments)", June 17, 2022, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2022-06/17/c_1657089000974111.htm “Provisions on the Administration of Internet Posting and Commenting Services,” November 16, 2022, http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2022-11/16/content_5727349.htm
- 6C. Custer, “China to start seriously enforcing real-name mobile registration, government claims,” Tech In Asia, May 31, 2016, https://www.techinasia.com/china-start-enforcing-realname-mobile-regist…
- 7BBC, “China due to introduce face scans for mobile users,” BBC, December 1, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-50587098
- 8Huo Jingnan, “China Introduces Restrictions On Video Games For Minors,” NPR, NOvember 6, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/11/06/776840260/china-introduces-restrictions-…
- 9Gao Feng, “中国网络文学作者受实名制规管 恐打击创作自由 [Authors of Chinese online literature will now be regulated by a real-name system, threatening to attack creative freedom],” Radio Free Asia, June 17, 2020, https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/meiti/gf2-06172020075842.html.
- 10Josh Ye, “China targets deepfakes in proposed regulation governing deep learning AI technologies,” South China Morning Post, January 29, 2022, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3165244/china-targets-deepfake….
- 11Radio Free Asia, “Chinese Police Order Businesses to Monitor Use of Public Wi-fi,” Radio Free Asia, April 6, 2017, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/monitor-04062017121748.html
- 12Bai Tiantian, “Xinjiang asks real-name registration for cellphones, PCs,” Global Times, January 29, 2015, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/904898.shtml
- 13Chris Buckley, “China Passes Antiterrorism Law That Critics Fear May Overreach,” The New York Times, December 28, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/28/world/asia/china-passes-antiterrorism…
- 14Adam Segal, “The Cyber Trade War,” Foreign Policy, October 25, 2014, https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/10/25/the-cyber-trade-war/.
- 15Yan Luo, Eric Carlson and Zhijing Yu, “China Enacts Encryption Law,” Inside Privacy, October 31, 2019, https://www.insideprivacy.com/data-security/china-enacts-encryption-law/.
- 16Jack Nicas, Raymond Zhong & Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Censorship, Surveillance and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China,” The New York Times, May 17, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/17/technology/apple-china-censorship-da….
- 17Coco Feng and Matt Haldane, “Apple’s removal of Damus social media platform from China App Store was ‘expected’ by developers amid Beijing’s strict censorship,” South China Morning Post, February 6, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3209265/apples-removal-damus-s…
|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.
According to a study by ChinaFile, one-third of Chinese counties purchased surveillance equipment— including facial recognition–enabled cameras, databases for storing citizen information and images, and Wi-Fi sniffers to monitor internet traffic—in 2019 alone. ChinaFile had examined over 76,000 local files published between 2004 and May 2020.1 Much of the equipment is connected to Project Sharp Eyes, which aims to cover all key public spaces in China by video surveillance. An October 2022 report by Kaspersky Labs uncovered spyware was bundled inside an inauthentic version of Tor advertised in China. Tor, a popular anonymizing browser, is blocked in China.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. A June 2022 New York Times investigation into bids for government surveillance contracts compiled by ChinaFile found that police 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.3 Following the late-2022 zero-COVID-related protests, authorities deployed China’s extensive surveillance system, including by using mobile phone data and surveillance cameras, to identify and then arrest protesters (see B8).4
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 used 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 Integrated Joint Operations Platform 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 mobile 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 2013.5
Surveillance technologies and policies deployed in one part of China are often later expanded to other parts of the country, with Xinjiang emerging as a particularly important testing ground.6 Chinese border police are reported to have installed surveillance apps on the phones of tourists traveling in Xinjiang, which grant authorities the ability to extract user data and identify politically and culturally sensitive material stored on targeted devices.7 In 2019, reports emerged that Chinese border officers were beginning to check the photographs, messages, and apps on the mobile phones of anyone arriving in China from Hong Kong for evidence of support for the prodemocracy protest movement in that city.8
Existing, albeit geographically disparate, data sets assembled through surveillance efforts could feed into “social credit” systems that create an assessment of individuals’ online activities and other personal data; a few municipalities have tested such systems,9 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 the scale and effectiveness of local pilot efforts.10 Nevertheless, an individual listed as problematic by municipal or provincial authorities under such systems could face restrictions on movement, education, and financial transactions.11
Overbroad surveillance and poor data security practices have facilitated the sale of people’s private information on the open market, as with the July 2022 Shanghai police database leaks (see C8). Chinese authorities were able to amass massively intrusive data during the COVID-19 pandemic through the mandatory tracking app Health Code and other applications (see C6).
- 1Jessica Batke and Mareike Ohlberg, “State of Surveillance,” ChinaFile, October 30, 2020, https://www.chinafile.com/state-surveillance-china.
- 2Alexander Martin, “Fake Tor browser in China contained hidden spyware: report,” The Record, October 4th, 2022, https://therecord.media/fake-tor-browser-in-china-contained-hidden-spyw…
- 3Isabelle Qian, Muyi Xiao, Paul Mozur and Alexander Cardia, “Four Takeaways From a Times Investigation Into China’s Expanding Surveillance State,” New York Times, June 21, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/21/world/asia/china-surveillance-invest….
- 4Rachel Liang and Brian Spegele, “China Covid Protesters Become Targets of Beijing’s Surveillance SState,” The Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-covid-protesters-become-targets-of-b…
- 5Human Rights Watch, “China: Big data program targets Xinjiang’s Muslims,” December 9, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/09/china-big-data-program-targets-xinj….
- 6Josh Chin and Clément Bürge, “Twelve Days in Xinjiang: How China’s Surveillance State Overwhelms Daily Life,” Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/twelve-days-in-xinjiang-how-chinas-surveil…
- 7Hilary Osborne and Sam Cutler, ”Chinese border guards put secret surveillance app on tourists' phones,” Guardian, July 2, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/02/chinese-border-guards-sur…
- 8Raymond Zhong, ”Going From Hong Kong to Mainland China? Your Phone Is Subject to Search,” New York Times, August 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/15/world/asia/hong-kong-protest-phone-c…
- 9Samuel Wade, “China’s social credit system: Black Mirror or red herring?,” China Digital Times, February 16, 2017, http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2017/02/qa-shazeda-ahmed-on-chinas-social-…
- 10Louise Matsakis, “How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong,” Wired, July 29, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/china-social-credit-score-system/; Bloomberg, ”China’s trial program to rate citizens on public behavior is a bureaucratic mess,” LA Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-china-big-brother-social-credit-…
- 11Dev Lewis, “All Carrots and No Sticks: A Case Study on Social Credit Scores in Xiamen and Fuzhou,” Digital Asia Hub, October 11, 2019, https://www.digitalasiahub.org/2019/10/11/all-carrots-and-no-sticks-a-c…
|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, which operates the widely used WeChat and QQ social 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 keywords and retaining the relevant conversations in order to train the platform’s censorship system.9 In October 2021, after a 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’ 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.13 In 2018, Apple’s iCloud began storing the data of its Chinese users in partnership with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a state-run company;14 a second data center was expected to open in Inner Mongolia.15 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.
In December 2022, the government ended the use of its travel tracing app;19 it is unknown what will happen to user data collected by the app. In March 2023, authorities in the city of Wuxi said they deleted one billion pieces of personal data collected since the start of the pandemic;20 the claim could not be independently verified.
The government also seeks to proactively counter efforts to evade surveillance. In March 2021, the CAC announced that it started talks with technology firms, 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.21
Several government efforts aim to regulate how Chinese tech companies collect, share, and store users’ data. The Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) went into effect in November 2021.22 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.23
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.24 Regulators subsequently alleged that over 100 apps—including those from Tencent and Baidu—violated the rules.25 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.26 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.27
In May 2020, the NPC 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 came amid growing public concern in China over data collection, hacking, and potential leaks by private companies.28
In September 2021, the Data Security Law29 took effect. The law imposes extensive data security obligations for businesses. The law regulates data processing and management activities within China, along with 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.30
In March 2023, the Chinese government announced a sweeping plan to restructure government agencies. A new national data bureau will be created for coordinating the sharing and development of data resources. The bureau will be overseen by the National Development and Reform Commission.31
- 1Samuel Wade, “China’s social credit system: Black Mirror or red herring?,” China Digital Times, February 16, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/2167240/chinese-police…
- 2Laney Zhang, “Global Legal Monitor,” Library of Congress, November 13, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/china-new-regulation-on-po…; 中共中央网络安全和信息化委员会办公室 (CAC), “具有舆论属性或社会动员能力的互联网信息服务安全评估规定[Regulation on Internet Information Service Security Assessment with Paradoxical Attributes or Social Mobilization Capabilities],” Navember 15, 2018, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2018-11/15/c_1123716072.htm
- 3Luo Jieqi, “Cleaning Up China’s Secret Police Sleuthing,” Caixin, January 24, 2013, https://www.caixinglobal.com/2013-01-24/cleaning-up-chinas-secret-polic…
- 4Per 2015 amendments. See Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, “Presidential order of the People’s Republic of China, No. 29” [中华人民共和国主席令], July 1, 2015,http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2015-07/01/content_2893902.htm.
- 5National People’s Congress, “中华人民共和国国家情报法[National Intelligence Law of the People's Republic of China"],” NPC, June 27, 2017, http://www.npc.gov.cn/zgrdw/npc/xinwen/2017-06/27/content_2024529.htm
- 6Economist, “China’s new cyber-security law is worryingly vague,” Economist, June 1, 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/business/21722873-its-rules-are-broad-am…
- 7He Huifeng and Nectar Gan, “All mainland app providers ordered to keep user logs for months to curb spread of ‘illegal information,’” SCMP, June 28, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1982756/all-ma…
- 8OpenNet Initiative, “China,” August 9, 2012, http://opennet.net/research/profiles/china-including-hong-kong
- 9Jeffrey Knockel, Christopher Parsons, Lotus Ruan, Ruohan Xiong, Jedidiah Crandall, and Ron Deibert, “How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus,” The Citizen, May 7, 2020, https://citizenlab.ca/2020/05/we-chat-they-watch/
- 10Shen Lu, ”WeChat promises to stop accessing users’ photo albums amid public outcry,” Protocol, October 15, 2021, https://www.protocol.com/china/china-apps-surveillance-wechat.
- 11Open Technology Fund, “Studying ‘Study the Great Nation,’” Open Technology Fund, October 12, 2019, https://www.opentech.fund/news/studying-study-the-great-nation/
- 12Jim Salter, ”Security audit raises severe warnings on Chinese smartphone models,” ars Technica, September 22, 2021, https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2021/09/security-audit-r….
- 13Jack Wagner, “China’s Cybersecurity Law: What You Need to Know,” The Diplomat, June 1, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/06/chinas-cybersecurity-law-what-you-need-…
- 14Paul Mozur, Daisuke Wakabayashi and Nick Wingfield, “Apple Opening Data Center in China to Comply With Cybersecurity Law,” New York Times, July 12m 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/business/apple-china-data-center-cyb…; Shannon Liao, “Apple officially moves its Chinese iCloud operations and encryption keys to China,” The Verge, February 28, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/28/17055088/apple-chinese-icloud-accoun…
- 15Reuters, “Apple to build a second data center in China: Xinhua,” Feburary 6, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-datacenter/apple-to-build-a-se….
- 16Norton Rose Fulbright, “Contact tracing apps in China,” Norton Rose Fulbright, May 11, 2020, https://www.nortonrosefulbright.com/-/media/files/nrf/nrfweb/contact-tr…
- 17Paul Mozur, Raymond Zhong and Aaron Krolik, ”In Coronavirus Fight, China Gives Citizens a Color Code, With Red Flags,” New York Times, August 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/business/china-coronavirus-surveilla…
- 18Engen Tham, “China bank protest stopped by health codes turning red, depositors say,” Reuters, June 16, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-bank-protest-stopped-by-healt….
- 19“China scraps tracking app as it relaxes strict 'zero-Covid' rules,” NBC News, December 12, 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-scraps-travel-tracking-app-rel…
- 20Victor Gan, “Chinese city claims to have destroyed 1 billion pieces of personal data collected for Covid control,” CNN, March 3, 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/03/03/china/china-wuxi-covid-personal-data….
- 21Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, “国家互联网信息办公室、公安部加强对语音社交软件和涉深度伪造技术的 [The State Internet Information Office and the Ministry of Public Security have strengthened their investigations on voice software and in-depth counterfeiting technologies],” March 18, 2021, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2021-03/18/c_1617648089558637.htm; Qiao Long, Chingman, and Gigi Lee, “China clamps down on software used to disguise voiceprints,” Radio Free Asia, March 18, 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/software-03182021114431.html.
- 22Rogier Creemers, Mingli Shi, Lauren Dudley, and Graham Webster, “China’s Draft ‘Personal Information Protection Law’ (Full Translation),” New America, October 21, 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/cybersecurity-initiative/digichina/blog/chin….; Arjun Kharpal, “China passes major data protection law as regulatory scrutiny on tech sector intensifies,” CNBC, August 20, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/20/china-passes-key-data-protection-law-as….
- 23Arjun Kharpal, ”China passes major data protection law as regulatory scrutiny on tech sector intensifies,” CNBC, August 20, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/20/china-passes-key-data-protection-law-as….
- 24Dentons, “China finally Defines the Necessity Scope of Personal Information Collected by APPs,” March 26, 2021, https://www.dentons.com/en/insights/articles/2021/march/26/china-finall….
- 25Eileen Yu, “China calls out 33 apps for collecting more user data than deemed necessary,” ZDNet, May 1, 2021, https://www.zdnet.com/article/china-calls-out-33-apps-for-collecting-mo…
- 26Manish Singh and Rita Liao, “Did app pulled from app stores n China after suspension order,” TechCrunch, July 4, 2021, https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/04/didi-app-pulled-from-app-stores-after…
- 27Josh Ye and Coco Feng, ”China internet crackdown: Beijing orders app stores to remove Douban and 105 other apps,” South China Morning Post, December 9, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/tech/policy/article/3159091/china-internet-crackdo….
- 28Changhao Wei, “2020 NPC Session: A Guide to China’s Civil Code,” NPC Observer, updated July 5, 2020, https://npcobserver.com/2020/05/21/2020-npc-session-a-guide-to-chinas-c…; Huizhong Wu, “In land of big data, China sets individual privacy rights,” Reuters, May 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament-lawmaking-privacy/i….
- 29Colin Zick, “China Adopts New Data Security Law,” JD Supra, August 4, 2021, https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/china-adopts-new-data-security-law-77…
- 30Colin Zick, “China Adopts New Data Security Law,” JD Supra, August 4, 2021, https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/china-adopts-new-data-security-law-77…
- 31Laurie Chen, “Factbox: What is China’s new government restructuring plan?”, Reuters, march 8, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/what-is-chinas-new-government-restr…
|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 especially severe 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 For example, Wang Liqin, the wife of the imprisoned poet Wang Zang, said she and their children were under around-the-clock surveillance by agents; that surveillance intensified when she posted about it on social media.5
In May and June 2023, ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, police restricted the movement and communications of families of Tiananmen victims and activists. Hunan authorities detained activist Chen Siming after he refused to delete his Twitter post commemorating the events at Tiananmen Square.6 In September 2023, after the coverage period, Chen disclosed that he had fled to Taiwan in July and said he would seek asylum in the United States or Canada.7
Journalists sometimes experienced physical violence for their work. In May 2023, a reporter with the online outlet Jimu News was beaten by police in Bijie while reporting on the flood-related deaths in the area.8
A June 2022 ASPI report documented the harassment targeted at female researchers, journalists, and activists of Asian descent across all major social media platforms, including women living in China. The tactics include surveillance, intimidation, and disinformation campaigns.9
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.10 Those detained or imprisoned typically suffer harsh conditions and often torture,11 resulting in long-term health problems and sometimes death.
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.12
- 1“Defending Human Rights in the Era of Dystopia: The Situation of Defenders in China (2019),” Chinese Human Rights Defenders, February 12, 2020, https://www.nchrd.org/2020/02/defending-human-rights-in-the-era-of-dyst…; “Tiger Chairs and Cell Bosses: Political Torture of Criminal Suspects in China,” Human Rights Watch, May 13, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/05/13/tiger-chairs-and-cell-bosses/poli….
- 2China Blog Staff, “'Sorry, no comment - we might get invited to tea,'” China Blog, BBC, December 9, 2013, http://bbc.in/1LKxQ0k
- 3”Chinese Police Target Activists Who Supported Hong Kong Protests,” Radio Free Asia, June 1, 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/target-06012020144022.html.
- 4Kris Cheng, “Liu Xia, widow of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, ‘forced to travel’ ahead of China’s key Congress meeting, says NGO,” Hong Kong Free Press, October 16, 2017, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2017/10/16/liu-xia-widow-nobel-laureate-liu-…
- 5Gu Ting, “Wife, children of jailed dissident poet under close surveillance during congress,” Radio Free Asia, march 6, 2023, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/dissident-poet-family-0306202312…
- 7“Chinese dissident who held Tiananmen Square vigils flees to Taiwan,” The Guardian, September 22, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/22/chinese-dissident-tiananm…
- 8Lix Xin, “Chinese Journalist Beaten While Investigating Teachers’ Deaths, 3 Police Detained,” Sixth Tone, May 31, 2023, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1013014.
- 9“Smart Asian women are the new targets of CCP global online repression,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 3, 2022, https://www.aspi.org.au/news/smart-asian-women-are-new-targets-ccp-glob…
- 10Isobel Cockerell, “Inside China's Massive Surveillance Operation,” Weird, May 9, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/inside-chinas-massive-surveillance-operatio…
- 11Willem Marx and Olivia Sumrie, “Uighurs accuse China of mass detention, torture in landmark complaint,” NBS NEws, September 9, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/uighurs-accuse-china-mass-detention-…
- 12Human Rights Watch, “’Prosecute Them with Awesome Power’, China’s Crackdown on Tengdro Monastery and Restrictions on Communications in Tibet,” July 6, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/07/06/prosecute-them-awesome-power/chin….
|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 is a significant origin point of global cyberattacks,1 though those with commercial targets have declined or become harder to trace.2 Attacks known to have originated in China can rarely be linked directly to the state, and much of the activity appears decentralized and uncoordinated. However, many attacks employ sophisticated technology, and experts believe that Chinese military and intelligence agencies either sponsor or condone technical attacks on political targets both within and outside China.
In December 2022, the Canadian branch of Amnesty International said it had been targeted by cyberattack believed to be sponsored by the Chinese government. The attackers reportedly attempted to gain information on the organization’s work on China.3
Mass surveillance also leaves people’s personal information vulnerable to breaches. In July 2022, hackers claimed to have accessed a Shanghai police database that contained records associated with one billion Chinese citizens. The database reportedly contained information including names, addresses, national ID numbers, and criminal records.4
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. A November 2022 report by the cloud security firm Lookout revealed that a malware campaign linked to the Chinese government targeted Uyghurs inside and outside of China. Malware disguised as fully functional Android apps was designed to track people who use VPNs or share religious content.5
- 1Akamai, “State of the internet/security Q4 2017 report,” https://www.akamai.com/us/en/multimedia/documents/state-of-the-internet…
- 2Mara Hvistendahl, “The Decline in Chinese Cyberattacks: The Story Behind the Numbers,” MIT Technology Review, October 25, 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602705/the-decline-in-chinese-cybera…
- 3“Amnesty International Canada target of sophisticated cyber-attack linked to China,” Amnesty International, December 5, 2022, https://amnesty.ca/news/news-releases/cyber-breach-statement/
- 4Yiwen Lu, “Hackers claim they breached data on 1 billion Chinese citizens,” Washington Post, July 6, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/07/06/china-hack-police/.
- 5“Spyware targets Uyghurs by ‘masquerading’ as Android apps – report,” The Guardian, November 10, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/nov/10/spyware-targeting-ugyhurs…
See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.See More
Global Freedom Score9 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score9 100 not free
Freedom in the World StatusNot Free