China Media Bulletin: 2017 YEAR IN REVIEW (Issue No. 125)
In this Issue: Analysis of leaked censorship directives, key 2017 journalism and internet trends, big stories that slipped through censors, and Hong Kong digital media making an impact
A Shrinking Apple
Exile cartoonist Rebel Pepper created this image of President Xi Jinping in July, when news emerged that the U.S.-based technology giant Apple—under pressure from Chinese authorities—had removed dozens of virtual private network (VPN) applications from its app store in China, further limiting users’ ability to access an uncensored internet. It also partnered with a state-owned Chinese company to store iCloud data in China, and chief executive Tim Cook spoke about sharing China’s vision of internet “openness” at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen. Credit: Radio Free Asia.
- Analysis: The News Beijing Didn’t Want You to Read in 2017
- In the News:
- Cybersecurity law, internet regulations take effect
- State propaganda turns to news apps, decline of investigative journalism continues
- Top stories that escaped China’s censors in 2017
- Hong Kong: New digital outlets partly offset growing Chinese influence and pressure on dissent
- Beyond China: Beijing steps up global censorship drive as democratic states weigh responses
- Featured Prisoner: 2017 recap
- What to Watch For in 2018
- Take Action
ANALYSIS: The News Beijing Didn’t Want Reported in 2017
Leaked censorship directives hint at the regime’s priorities, but tighter controls have made them harder to obtain.
On an almost daily basis in China, the ruling Communist Party and state agencies issue detailed instructions to news outlets, websites, and social media administrators on whether and how to cover breaking news stories and manage related commentary. Although technically secret, hundreds of these directives have been leaked over several years by anonymous whistle-blowers in the media and elsewhere, offering observers unique insight into the party’s information-control operations.
It is therefore worrying that the leaks are becoming less common even as the authorities’ censorship ambitions continue to grow.
Drawing on an archive compiled by the nonprofit California-based website China Digital Times (CDT), Freedom House has analyzed over 500 directives in the past four years. The vast majority of them call for “negative” actions, such as deleting an article, not sending reporters to cover an event, or closing a website’s comment sections. But some mandate “affirmative” actions to promote the party line, particularly republishing copy from official news sources.
Freedom House’s analysis of the directives from 2017 reveals five notable trends:
1. Sharp decline in number of leaked directives: In 2013–14, at the start of President Xi Jinping’s tenure, a total of 341 directives were leaked over two years. The figure shrank to 81 in 2015 and 95 in 2016. And in 2017, only 43 directives were leaked. According to CDT founder Xiao Qiang, the drop probably does not reflect a reduction in the number of directives being issued by relevant authorities. Instead, several sources have indicated that sharing them has become “far more dangerous than before.”
Relevant factors behind the increased risk to whistle-blowers—and their new tendency to refrain from citing the official agency that issued an instruction—include tighter newsroom controls on media workers, reduced anonymity in online communications, and punishments of journalists and bloggers believed to have shared confidential information with foreign audiences.
2. Shifting priority topics for leakers, party officials: With many fewer directives available, it is more difficult to draw conclusions from the frequency with which a given news topic appears in the documents. On the one hand, commonly targeted categories of emerging news could correspond to authorities’ greatest fears. On the other hand, as CDT’s Samuel Wade notes in a recent post, the leaked directives may simply reflect the whistle-blowers’ own judgment as to which items were interesting or important enough to risk leaking.
For example, the category that appeared by far the most often in 2017 was health and safety: A total of 15 directives restricted coverage and online discussion of topics including environmental pollution, natural disasters, child abuse, an HIV scandal, and allegedly shoddy high-speed rail construction. Whistle-blowers’ priorities may have also played a role in the frequent appearance of leaked directives in the category of media and censorship, as those working in the news industry would naturally be concerned about this topic. A total of six directives either restricted reporting on the censorship system itself or sought to protect official media initiatives—like the state broadcaster’s annual Spring Festival Gala or the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen—from criticism.
The other two most common categories in the 2017 sample—official wrongdoing and foreign affairs—are more likely to reflect party leaders’ priorities. Six directives restricted coverage of official wrongdoing, including two incidents in which government workers opened fire on others and reports of the abduction from Hong Kong of a billionaire financier with close ties to the ruling elite. Five directives restricted coverage related to foreign affairs, including China’s relations with North Korea, the Philippines, and the United States. In an unusual occurrence, several directives specifically sought to control coverage of U.S. president Donald Trump, with one stating that “unauthorized criticism of Trump’s words or actions is not allowed.”
Three other directives targeted reporting on the reputation of the party or individual officials, including coverage of the 19th Party Congress in October. The small figure represented a drop from 2016, when this was the most common topic in the sample of leaked directives. Also in contrast to 2016, no directives contained orders meant to protect Xi Jinping’s reputation specifically, but this could reflect leakers’ awareness of the heightened sensitivity surrounding his persona.
The remaining directives dealt with topics like sports (a new category that did not appear in past years), civil society, social unrest, Taiwan, and the economy. Only one directive focused on the economy; in 2015, when China’s stock market suffered a major reversal, this was the second most commonly targeted category.
3. Increased focus on mobile apps: The 2017 directives illustrate censors’ efforts to expand their instructions beyond traditional media, websites, and news portals to reach mobile-based news applications and related dissemination methods.
More directives specifically name mobile apps than in previous years, and several cite “self-media”—a term for public accounts on social media—as entities expected to implement the relevant instructions. Some also explicitly direct administrators not to issue “push notifications,” or news alerts sent to mobile phone users, for the relevant story. The terms “self-media” and “push notification” had not appeared in leaked directives in previous years.
This new focus is an adaptation to the growing popularity of mobile applications as a source of news, particularly for many young Chinese. It also reflects the censorship apparatus’s efforts to implement standing orders from Xi Jinping to ensure that the party’s controls reach all forms of media.
4. Emphasis on downplaying hot stories: As an alternative to outright deletion of content, a particularly common tactic—evident in nearly one-third of the directives analyzed—was to instruct editors, web portals, and other content administrators to downplay stories that might otherwise garner significant public attention, or whose popularity may have already exceeded party leaders’ tolerance levels. The methods included generic “don’t hype” orders, bans on special features, and highly specific instructions on the placement of stories.
One leaked directive from January 2017 regarding coverage of the U.S. presidential inauguration ordered that “mobile clients strictly prohibit display on front screens.” Others from the fall address abuse at a daycare center in Shanghai and require that related news “must be moved after websites’ third page” and “taken off front pages.” Compared with other censorship methods, like the deletion of individual users’ social media posts, this kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation is highly effective at killing a story, but also less obvious and less likely to generate resentment.
5. Restricting use of content from state-backed outlets: One of the most surprising trends evident from the 2017 sample is the extent to which the Chinese authorities are nervous even about the circulation of content from official news sources or other publications with close state support. In one stark example, an April 2017 directive regarding self-exiled billionaire and government critic Guo Wengui instructed websites not to forward news on the topic, “including domestic official media reports.” In addition, at least five directives ordered the deletion of stories or content initially reported by The Paper, a state-funded Shanghai-based digital news outlet that was created as part of an official push to win readers from more autonomous commercial media. Such instructions reflect the fact that even media with close official ties have difficulty navigating censors’ ever-shifting redlines.
Given the official investment in time, attention, and resources that these directives represent, it is worth asking how effective they are.
Their implementation is often visible in coverage changes and available research on social media censorship. For example, 2017 data from Weiboscope, a Hong Kong University project that maps censorship on the social media platform Sina Weibo, shows spikes in deletions and flagged keywords correlating to particular censorship orders, including those regarding the medical parole and subsequent death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in July, the Party Congress in October, and public outcries over a daycare scandal and mass evictions of internal migrants in Beijing in November.
Yet the content of the directives points to the challenges the party faces in suppressing news stories that are of particular public interest. The directive banning information sharing related to Guo Wengui notes with subtle exasperation that it is the third order on the same topic, indicating that some contingent of recipients were lax in implementing censorship on one of the hottest stories of the year. Similarly, the need in November to issue a second directive barring coverage of the daycare abuse scandal that erupted in September signifies that the story had not been entirely quashed.
The fact that dozens of directives continue to be leaked each year—particularly on news related to public health and safety—also demonstrates that some people within the system remain exceedingly uncomfortable with the party’s censorship efforts, and are willing to take great risks to expose them.
Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin, and author of the Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping. Alexander Lin provided research assistance. This article was also published on January 27, 2018 by the Diplomat.
Cybersecurity law, internet regulations take effect
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) busily clarified and implemented internet restrictions during 2017 as the Cybersecurity Law and a number of other regulations came into effect. Indeed, a review of the agency’s website shows that over the past two years it published 340 announcements related to online regulation (164 in 2016 and 176 in 2017), an average of nearly one every two days.
Both domestic and international companies have been affected by the increasingly restrictive regulatory environment. In August, the CAC wielded the Cybersecurity Law against Chinese internet giants Baidu, Tencent, and Sina, investigating them for hosting information that allegedly harmed “national security, public safety, and social order.” Among foreign companies, Apple stood out for its proactive compliance with the new rules. The regulations also strengthened censorship and surveillance of individual users, for example by requiring them to police each other.
Among the plethora of new rules in 2017, the following are some of the most meaningful:
- ‘Managing’ online news: The CAC gave online information sources less than one month to comply with the Internet News Information Service Management Regulations, announced May 2 and effective June 1. All purveyors of information, from news portals to “self-media,” must now obtain a license and meet strict editorial conditions or risk large fines and possible criminal investigation. Online news outlets are forbidden from accepting foreign funding and must have government backing and accreditation for journalistic activity. The regulations remold online media in the image of state media while shifting responsibility for news management from the State Council Information Office to the CAC.
- Building the ‘Great Hive’: Two regulations on user behavior went into effect in October, putting in place real-name registration and forum management rules. As of October 1, users must register with their real names in order to comment on social media or BBS (bulletin board system) forums; and from October 8, service providers, group managers, and individual users must regulate content on social media platforms and report any party in violation of the regulations. David Bandurski of the China Media Project referred to these new rules as creating a “Great Hive” that cordons users off from each other and promotes conformity of discourse.
- Taking down VPNs: The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology kicked off 2017 with a “clean-up campaign” against virtual private networks (VPNs) that was set to run through February 2018. A number of VPNs were removed from online stores in July and August. Apple removed 674 apps from its Chinese app store last year, including numerous VPNs and the RSS app Inoreader. The campaign shuttered many start-ups and significantly hampered Chinese netizens’ ability to access content hosted outside the so-called Great Firewall, including for professional purposes. In the last months of the year, the clampdown appeared to be entering a new phase as foreign firms, which have long been able to use their own custom-built VPNs, reported disruptions and pressure by regulators to shift to state-approved alternatives.
- Storing user data: The Cybersecurity Law stipulates that foreign companies must store Chinese users’ cloud data on servers located in China. To meet this requirement, Apple announced on January 10 that iCloud data will be transferred to servers run by Guizhou on the Cloud Big Data (GCBD), which is owned by the provincial government. Apple and GCBD will both have access to iCloud data, including photos and other content, “according to the application of the law.” The only other option Chinese iCloud users have is to delete their accounts before February 28.
State propaganda turns to news apps, decline of investigative journalism continues
Since the Southern Weekly protests of 2013 failed to curb censorship of that paper, the party-state has put increasing pressure journalists and commercial news outlets to self-censor and propagandize. Sleek state-subsidized media outlets like The Paper have been encroaching on more independent-minded publications, while internet regulations are squeezing online media companies and blogging reporters alike. The following are three key trends related to Chinese journalism that emerged in 2017:
- Investigative journalism continues decline: There were only 175 investigative journalists in China as of 2017, a 58 percent decrease from 2011, according to a report coauthored by Professor Zhang Zhi’an and PhD candidate Cao Yanhui of Sun Yat-sen University. Some of the news industry’s leading lights left their positions during the year, including Beijing News publisher Dai Zigeng and editor in chief Wang Yuechun. For a time in the last decade, journalists often skirted censorship at their formal news outlets by sharing information on personal social media accounts. After a crackdown on celebrity Weibo commentators (“big Vs”) in 2013 and the rise of the semiprivate messaging app WeChat, large numbers of professionals and citizen journalists created “self-media” (zimeiti)—dedicated social media accounts that disseminate news to subscribers and sometimes raise money through advertising. Now that avenue is narrowing, too. Wen 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.”
- Censorship and finances challenge reach of public interest stories: The popular business publication Caixin recovered from a two-month ban on websites republishing its content that was imposed in October 2016, but a paywall it raised in November 2017 underscored its financial difficulties. “Like other traditional media, Caixin has been struggling to find a sustainable business model,” says Fang Kecheng, a former journalist at Southern Weekly and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. He understands the logic behind the paywall, particularly since Caixin focuses on business reporting, but warns that it cuts the public off from political reporting. “As far as I know, public affairs journalists at Caixin are very concerned about the paywall,” Fang noted. Commercial media known for more aggressive and investigative reporting in China are losing profitability due to censorship and the fact that news portals and other aggregators are obliged to favor state media.
- Smartphone news apps rise in popularity, party-state seeks influence: While news content producers struggle, the news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao has enjoyed explosive growth. The app added 40 million users in 2017, bringing its total to 120 million. Parent company Beijing ByteDance is currently valued at $20 billion. Jinri Toutiao is not a journalistic enterprise: Run by well-remunerated engineers, it reposts content from other media outlets and provides a platform for bloggers to share and monetize their posts, using algorithms to tailor users’ feeds to their interests and often placing a slice of state-sanctioned news at the top of a large helping of fluff. But with success comes trouble. The company faces lawsuits from several online outlets and provincial newspapers, which claim that Jinri Toutiao has no right to share their content for free. Moreover, the government has chastised ByteDance on several occasions for sharing illegal content. Jinri Toutiao and similar apps are required to use a “super algorithm” to put stories about President Xi Jinping at the top of everyone’s feed and include “New Era”—Xi’s latest propaganda theme—as a news section, says Fang Kecheng.
Top stories that escaped China’s censors in 2017
Heavy censorship of some of the biggest news stories in China in 2017 limited the public’s ability to access information about events like the death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo or allegations against the ruling elite by self-exiled billionaire Guo Wengui, as noted in the feature article of this issue and evidenced by Sina Weibo deletions monitored by Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope project. In other cases, censorship served to limit discussion or expression of critical views about topics that were covered extensively in state media, such as the 19th Party Congress in October.
Despite the heavy censorship and challenges facing muckraking reporters in China, intrepid journalists continue to try to hold powerful companies and officials accountable for their actions. Some stories on social issues broke through the barriers and triggered national conversations. Among the top 10 “society news stories” listed by the Baidu search engine in an annual report (translated by SupChina), five were the result of investigative reporting that was also recognized as some of the year’s best by the international nonprofit Global Investigative Journalist Network:
- Murder of debt collector: A young man in Shandong was sentenced to five years in prison for the murder of a debt collector who was harassing and intimidating his mother. The son was first given life imprisonment, but his sentence was commuted after journalists reported on the case and detailed the abusive practices of debt-collection rackets in the region, stirring a public outcry.
- Nanny arson: A nanny in Hangzhou set fire to her client’s apartment, killing the mother and her three children. Further reporting exposed major weaknesses in enforcement of regulations on fire safety and domestic employment.
- Shanghai daycare abuse: Video leaked of daycare workers at the travel agency Ctrip shoving a young girl to the ground and forcing a little boy to eat wasabi, among other cruel acts. Journalists examining the company’s background uncovered its efforts to evade daycare licensing rules.
- Beijing kindergarten: Parents alleged that their children had been molested and force-fed medicine at a kindergarten operated by publicly traded RYB Education. News organizations investigated the firm’s owners and past abuse allegations until the authorities suppressed the story.
- Death of Li Wenxing: The university graduate was found dead in Tianjin after falling victim to a job-seeking pyramid scheme via the app Boss Zhipin. The body of a young man caught in a similar trap was found on the same day. Several news outlets reported on the region’s pyramid-scheme gangs, and police later made dozens of arrests.
The remaining eight stories highlighted by GIJN covered cases of abuse and neglect of vulnerable individuals, pension fraud and unscrupulous business schemes, and the health effects of unsafe mining operations. Some of the stories led authorities to investigate and punish abusive institutions. For example, a daycare center outside of Shenzhen was shut down after the Beijing News reported on the death of an autistic teen under its watch, the China Securities Regulatory Commission filed charges against a pharmaceutical company that put filler in its drugs, and a gaming addiction center where children were physically abused was suspended and placed under investigation.
HONG KONG: New digital outlets partly offset growing Chinese influence and pressure on dissent
The past year in Hong Kong was marked by increased pressure on a wide range of dissent, and by growing influence from mainland China over certain media outlets. But the rise of several English- and Chinese-language nonprofit digital news outlets served to diversify available coverage and indirectly challenge mainstream media to avoid overt self-censorship.
- Increased pressure on dissent, especially localist movement: Civil society and political activists faced new setbacks even before pro-Beijing candidate Carrie Lam took office as Hong Kong’s chief executive on July 1. The coalition Civil Human Rights Front faced obstacles in hosting its annual demonstration in Victoria Park. Detentions and bans on protest signs preceded Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the city, which also began on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. In August, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow received prison sentences ranging from six to eight months for their role in leading the 2014 prodemocracy Umbrella Movement, though they appealed and have been in and out of jail since their convictions. (Wong was last jailed on January 17, 2018, but he was released on bail on the 23rd.) University campuses turned into ideological battlegrounds during the academic year as mainland and Hong Kong students vied to dominate political discourse on so-called democracy walls and in other public spaces. Still, there were some bright spots: Lam Wing-kee, one of five booksellers abducted by Chinese authorities in 2014, plans to restart his publishing house in Taiwan; and a museum dedicated to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, forced to close in 2016, reopened in a new location.
- Growing mainland investment and content in traditional media: The purchase of the South China Morning Post by mainland e-commerce giant Alibaba in early 2016 seems to have started a trend amid continued concerns that the paper’s editorial independence has dwindled. In 2017, Apple Daily sold its tabloid Next Magazine to a private investor, leading to speculation that its freewheeling coverage of politics may suffer. On September 4, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) ended its 24-hour broadcasts of the BBC World Service, replacing it with state-run China National Radio’s Hong Kong edition. Despite controversy surrounding Chinese media mogul Li Ruigang’s investment in Television Broadcast Limited (TVB), the courts allowed Li to increase his stake, and he became a nonexecutive director of the company and vice chairman of the board on October 17. Nine out of 26 mainstream outlets were under mainland control or influence by the end of 2017, according to the annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).
- Digital media increase influence, gain accreditation: Digital media start-ups have apparently given hope to the beleaguered news industry as well as news consumers. In its annual Press Freedom Index, the HKJA found that both journalists’ and the public’s perceptions of press freedom improved for the first time in two years. Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) cofounder and editor in chief Tom Grundy told the International Press Institute that the emergence of new outlets online is “one of the under-reported, more positive things to come out of the umbrella movement protests.” HKFP and the news agency FactWire were founded in 2015, and the website Citizen News launched in 2017. Many digital outlets are nonprofit, eliminating concern that buyouts will curtail editorial independence. On September 19, the government announced that journalists with online outlets will be allowed to attend official press conferences, changing a long-standing policy after a sustained advocacy campaign. According to Grundy, HKFP reporters have indeed been able to attend government events and ask questions of officials since November, although the relevant legal ordinance has yet to be updated. His and other new digital outlets face financial challenges, however. Many are surviving on crowdfunding, the sustainability of which is still uncertain. Award-winning for-profit outlet The Initium laid off 70 of its 90 staff reporters in April and switched to a paywall after it failed to secure adequate investment.
BEYOND CHINA: Beijing steps up global censorship drive as democratic states weigh responses
- Increased pressure to concede to academic censorship: The Chinese Communist Party is experienced in using various methods to coerce foreign companies and institutions into self-censorship, but its efforts were more overt and aggressive in 2017, particularly in the academic sphere. On August 18, Cambridge University Press (CUP) removed 315 articles from the journal China Quarterly from its China website without notifying the editorial staff. Its ham-fisted censorship was based on politically sensitive keywords, filtering out some fairly innocuous content while letting other truly sensitive material slip through. CUP reversed course just three days later following an international outcry, but in November, academic publisher Springer Nature shrugged off a Financial Times report on its decision to take down 1,000 articles for users in China, saying that “only one percent” of its content had been rendered inaccessible. U.S.-based Sage Publications revealed on November 21 that the Chinese government may force the company out of China entirely if it refuses to censor, which so far it has not done. Beijing attempted to suppress speech beyond the digital realm as well. After the University of California, San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to speak at a commencement, Chinese diplomats urged the school to rescind the offer, while some outspoken Chinese students and the Chinese Students and Scholars Association warned that the Tibetan spiritual leader “will ruin our joy.” The university did not budge.
- Global impact: Every region of the world felt the impact of the Chinese government’s censorship efforts in the past year. In North America, Chinese-language media outlets in particular fell under Beijing’s influence as Chinese officials cultivated partnerships and state-run outlets served as stakeholders in their businesses. One Chinese-Canadian journalist was fired from his paper after he tried to publish an obituary for Liu Xiaobo. A report released by the National Endowment for Democracy in December argues that both China and Russia are deploying “sharp power” instruments of manipulation and distraction in vulnerable democracies. The China Daily supplement China Watch has made its way into several Argentinian newspapers (it has long been tucked into the Washington Post as well), while Latin American journalists are taken on China junkets in a bid to encourage favorable reporting. In Poland, The Governance of China has been available at the Warsaw airport ever since its author, President Xi Jinping, visited the country in 2016. The Chinese television distribution company StarTimes Group has gained 10 million subscribers in 30 African countries. Aside from China’s direct efforts to influence and cooperate with foreign media, it also serves as a model for authoritarian governments looking to suppress free speech. “Vietnam is replicating the tactics used by China,” says Freedom House’s Madeline Earp, “and this sets a troubling tone for the region.” In Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte and his government seem to have copied from China’s playbook. On January 15, the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission revoked the license of Rappler, claiming that the news site violated restrictions on foreign media ownership by accepting donations from the U.S.-based Omidyar Network. And Australian publisher Allen & Unwin delayed the publication of Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State, inadvertently underscoring the urgency of Hamilton’s message.
- Policy pushback: The past year proved to be a watershed for concern about the national security implications of China’s growing influence. While some observers have expressed fears that a sweeping response could trigger anti-Chinese xenophobia, many of the policies proposed have been calibrated to address harmful activities by Beijing and close existing loopholes while also protecting the rights of local Chinese residents and visiting students. The government of Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull drafted foreign interference laws modeled on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Australian think tank China Matters urged major universities to work together to help Chinese students integrate with the community while supporting freedom of expression on campus. Political scientist Anne-Marie Brady has sounded the alarm about the “magic weapon” represented by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which oversees efforts to co-opt and influence foreign governments and societies. She warned that her native New Zealand is a testing ground for tactics that the Chinese party-state plans to use globally, and called for other countries to take “the legislative and administrative steps” necessary for preserving democracy and freedom. Brady published a report on her findings just after revelations that New Zealand lawmaker Yang Jian had been trained at China’s “spy schools” and taught at its military academy. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based National Association of Scholars made its position clear on a network of Chinese-sponsored language and culture centers within American higher education after a thorough investigation: “We recommend that all universities close their Confucius Institutes.”
FEATURED PRISONER: 2017 recap
Throughout the year, China’s government continued to arrest and imprison Chinese citizens—and some foreigners—for peacefully expressing views or sharing information that was deemed undesirable and politically sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party. As of mid-December, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted 41 reporters, bloggers, and online activists in detention in China, the second-largest total in the world.
But even that number does not capture the full range of individuals in custody for exercising their right to free expression or access to information, as many have been jailed for less formal activities like printing leaflets, writing songs, downloading content from blocked websites, or sharing VPN technology, especially members of persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. Moreover, as 2017 wrapped up, news emerged of several new sentences imposed on activists.
The cases not covered by CPJ’s list include:
- Wu Gan, a blogger sentenced to eight years in prison in Tianjin on the day after Christmas, after being held in detention for two years. Wu was convicted for “subverting state power” after he “used information networks” to criticize China’s political system and advocate for human rights.
- Wu Xiangyang, a technologist from Guangxi Province who was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for selling VPN services used to reach blocked websites without holding a government license
- Gedun Dragpa and Lobsang Sherab, two Tibetan monks from Sogtsang Monastery in Sichuan Province who were sentenced in June to four and five years in prison, respectively, for passing information to contacts outside Tibet
- Jamyang Lodroe, a Tibetan monk from Sichuan Province who was sentenced in July to three years in prison, apparently for a politically sensitive article that he wrote and shared on WeChat
- Yang Rong, a woman from Shaanxi Province who was sentenced in March to one and a half years in prison because she had reportedly shared a picture related to the banned Falun Gong spiritual practice on social media and often distributed information about the group and its persecution
- Hebibulla Tohti, a Uighur Muslim scholar sentenced to 10 years in prison in Xinjiang in May on unspecified charges of “illegal religious activity.” International observers believe his jailing was in retaliation for the “nonviolent exercise of academic freedom,” including his authorship of a dissertation that highlighted Uighur culture.
The year was also notable for the mistreatment that free expression activists faced in custody, sometimes with fatal consequences. Numerous lawyers who were detained for reasons includingsharing of information about their cases online or with foreign media reported being subjected to extensive torture, with some suffering mental breakdowns as a result. In other cases, detainees were denied proper medical treatment. In addition to the belated medical parole and subsequent death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, writer Yang Tongyan—who was serving a 12-year sentence for “subversion” related to his writings—passed away in November from brain cancer, only months after being released on medical parole.
As the year 2018 opened, the Chinese authorities continued their efforts to silence would-be dissidents. On January 19, lawyer Yu Wensheng was taken into custody within 48 hours of publishing an open letter online that urged constitutional reform. Days later, in a particularly brazen move, 10 plainclothes police abducted formerly detained Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai as two Swedish diplomats escorted him to a medical examination at their embassy in Beijing, prompting an international outcry.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN 2018
Cybersecurity Law enforcement: Watch for more regulations on implementation of the Cybersecurity Law that came into effect in June 2017, more foreign companies following Apple’s lead in storing user data inside China, and new prosecutions for actions that previously would not have been punished.
Expanding surveillance state: Watch for new advancements in surveillance technology (particularly the use of facial and voice recognition and artificial intelligence), steps toward a comprehensive social credit system, and the spread of monitoring methods already rolled out in Xinjiang to other parts of China.
Promoting the ‘China model’ amid pushback against ‘sharp power’: Following Xi Jinping’s remarks at the 19th Party Congress, watch for more aggressive promotion of China’s model of governance—including its information control apparatus—to developing countries and potential adoption of certain tactics by other regimes. Also watch for new policy initiatives from democratic countries to increase accountability and transparency surrounding CCP activities within their own borders, including those related to propaganda and censorship.
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