The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” although authorities generally limited and did not respect these rights, especially when they conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued tight control of print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. The government, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or in remarks to media, or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures.
In January the government abruptly shut down the website and social media accounts of the Beijing-based think tank Unirule. Its members, a group of prominent economics experts known for outspoken views on government economic policy, responded with a letter protesting the “obvious aim of silencing Unirule totally” and calling for greater government tolerance of NGOs. Government censors promptly removed the letter from the internet.
On March 31, Foshan Intermediate Court sentenced Su Changlan for subversion of state power for using the internet and social media to post online messages in support of Hong Kong’s 2014 prodemocracy Occupy Central Movement. The court found her guilty of incitement to subvert state power and sentenced her to three years’ imprisonment. Su had campaigned for the land rights of local farming communities. As Su’s sentence included time served, she was released in October (see section 1.c.).
On May 26, He Weifang, a law professor at the elite Peking University and the lawyer for Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, announced that government pressure compelled him to close his Weibo microblog and his accounts on the private messaging system “Weixin” (aka WeChat). Over the past decade, he had developed an online following of millions and was known for criticizing the country’s lack of freedom of speech and judicial independence.
In September, Guangzhou authorities detained Peng Heping because he helped publish a poetry anthology in honor of the late political prisoner and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. Peng was charged with “illegal business activity.”
In a sign of the level of sensitivity around public discourse, censors blocked several versions of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users (“netizens”) used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. The government similarly blocked the use of a popular but offensive nickname for North Korean President Kim Jong Un. Internet searches for this name returned the message, “according to the relevant laws, regulations, and policies, the search results have not been displayed.” Authorities arrested and tried a man in Jilin for “incitement to subvert state power” for posting selfies to his social media accounts wearing a T-shirt referring to President Xi as “Xitler.” In a similar case Guangdong authorities arrested a man for reposting a negative comment about Xi Jinping on the messaging app WhatsApp.
The legislature passed a law in November criminalizing disrespect for the national anthem in public, punishable by up to three years in prison and loss of political rights. The new law mirrors existing laws that punish public desecration of the flag with imprisonment.
Press and Media Freedom: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order that they not be reported at all. In a widely reported 2016 visit to the country’s main media outlets, President Xi told reporters that they were the “publicity front” of the government and the Party and that they must “promote the Party’s will” and “protect the Party’s authority.”
The government continued to strictly monitor the press and media, including film and television, via its broadcast and press regulatory body, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) also closely regulated online news media. All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the Communist Party does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 2016 on the nation’s news media, there were 232,925 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,158 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as xinhuanet.com and Chinadaily.com. This did not mean that online outlets did not report on important issues--many used creative means to share content--but they limited their tactics and topics since they were acting outside official approval.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. In particular, academics--a traditional source of information--were increasingly unwilling to meet with journalists.
Uighur webmaster Nijat Azat continued to serve a sentence for “endangering state security.” Fellow Uighur webmaster Dilshat Perhat was scheduled to be released, but there was no information on his case at year’s end. During the year additional journalists working in traditional and new media were also imprisoned.
In June police in Sichuan Province arrested and charged citizen journalist Yang Xiuqiong with “illegally providing state secrets overseas” for her work on the banned citizen rights website 64 Tianwang. Other site contributors, including its founder, Huang Qi, were arrested in 2016 and remained in jail. On July 4, a court in Mianyang, Sichuan, rejected 64 Tianwang contributor Wang Shurong’s appeal of a six-year sentence for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Lian Huanli, also a volunteer for the website, had been missing since May, according to media reports.
On August 3, a court in Dali, Yunnan, sentenced citizen journalist Lu Yuyu to four years’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Authorities arrested Lu and his partner, Li Tingyu, in June 2016 after they spent several years compiling daily lists of “mass incidents”--the official term for protests, demonstrations, and riots--and disseminated their findings via social media. Public security officials reportedly beat Lu, who later went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment and lack of access to his attorney. The government tried Li in a secret trial, then released her in April without announcing a formal verdict.
A pair of Voice of America (VOA) reporters were assaulted and detained for four hours under false pretenses while trying to cover the trial of jailed dissident blogger Wu Gan in Tianjin on August 14. As they approached the courthouse, they were accosted by 10 plainclothes individuals, physically detained and had their laptops and cameras confiscated. The police took them to jail and accused them of beating one of the persons who had detained them. They were released with their personal effects four hours later--after their photographs were deleted.
Foreign journalists based in the country continued to face a challenging environment for reporting. According to information collected in December by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), the vast majority of respondents did not believe reporting conditions in the country met international standards. More than one-third of journalists believed that conditions had deteriorated compared with the previous year, an acceleration since 2016, when 25 percent of journalists believed conditions had deteriorated year over year. Similarly, the percentage of journalists reporting government officials had subjected them to interference, harassment, or violence while reporting increased from 57 percent to approximately two-thirds.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. Foreign press outlets reported that local employees of foreign news agencies were also subjected to official harassment and intimidation and that this remained a major concern for foreign outlets. Almost one-third of FCCC members who responded to FCCC inquiries reported authorities subjected their Chinese colleagues to pressure or violence. In addition FCCC members reported physical and electronic surveillance of their staff and premises.
While traveling in Hunan Province in April to report on a story of a petitioner who was attempting to travel to Beijing to lodge a protest, BBC correspondent John Sudworth and his team were physically assaulted by a group of men who refused to identify themselves; the journalists’ camera equipment was also broken. Later, in the presence of uniformed police officers and government officials, the same men forced the BBC team to sign a written confession and apology, under threat of further violence.
On August 23, plainclothes officers detained Nathan VanderKlippe, a Globe and Mail reporter, while he reported in Xinjiang and held him for several hours. The police temporarily seized his computer and examined the photographs on his camera’s memory card. After releasing him, they then followed him 120 miles to his hotel.
In November authorities in Xinjiang detained and interrogated two foreign journalists, holding them overnight and demanding the journalists turn over pictures and documents. They finally released the journalists in the morning and then followed them on the train to their next destination, where the local police and foreign affairs office again harassed them and blocked them from all hotels. Authorities spent the night keeping them awake in the lobby of a hotel, as they were “not allowed to sleep here.”
On December 14, security guards in Beijing beat two South Korean journalists attempting to cover the visit of South Korean president Moon Jae-in; one of the journalists was hospitalized.
Foreign Ministry officials once again subjected a majority of journalists to special interviews as part of their annual visa renewal process. During these interviews the officials pressured journalists to report less on human rights issues, referencing reporting “red lines” that journalists should not cross, and in some cases threatened them with nonrenewal of visas. Many foreign media organizations continued to have trouble expanding or even maintaining their operations in the country due to the difficulty of receiving visas. Western media companies were increasingly unwilling to publicize such issues due to fear of stirring up further backlash by the government.
On October 25, authorities blocked journalists from the New York Times, the Economist, the BBC, and the Guardian from entering a press event where the Communist Party revealed its new Politburo members. Authorities allowed other foreign journalists to attend but excluded these journalists, ostensibly because of past reporting.
Authorities continued to enforce tight restrictions on citizens employed by foreign news organizations. The code of conduct for citizen employees of foreign media organizations threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers information that projects “a good image of the country.” Several FCCC members reported that security officials summoned local assistants for meetings that the assistants found extremely intimidating.
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of postpublication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Chinese-language media outlets outside the country reported intimidation and financial threats from the government. For example, the owner of the Vision China Times in Australia said that Chinese officials repeatedly threatened Chinese companies that advertised in his newspaper. In one case Ministry of State Security officials stopped by the company every day for two weeks. Other Chinese-language outlets signed deals with the Chinese News Service, which is the second-largest state-owned news agency in China.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministry of Defense continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online news media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.
The CCP Central Propaganda Department ordered media outlets to adhere strictly to the information provided by authoritative official departments when reporting on officials suspected of involvement in graft or bribery. Throughout the year the Central Propaganda Department issued similar instructions regarding various prominent events. Directives often warned against reporting on issues related to party and official reputation, health and safety, and foreign affairs. For example, after a North Korean nuclear test, the Propaganda Department directed media companies to disable the comments function on all social media platforms, ordered media outlets to downplay the news, and decreed they follow Xinhua’s lead in reporting. The orders included instructions for media outlets not to investigate or report on their own. The CAC and SAPPRFT strengthened regulations over the content that online publications are allowed to distribute, reiterating long-standing rules that only state-licensed news media may conduct original reporting.
In the first half of the year, provincial authorities inspected Hunan TV, one of the country’s most watched channels, and warned the network it focused too much on entertainment and failed to comply with the CPC’s requirement that media outlets bear the flag of the Communist Party.
In September the SAPPRFT issued more than a dozen new guidelines on television content. The general thrust of these guidelines was to prohibit negative reporting about government policies or officials. Additionally, the SAPPRFT planned to ramp up production of “a large number of television dramas that sing the praises of the party, the motherland, the people, as well as its heroes.”
The FCCC reported it was still largely impossible for foreign journalists to report from the TAR, other Tibetan areas, or Xinjiang without experiencing serious interference. Those who took part in government-sponsored trips to the TAR and other Tibetan areas expressed dissatisfaction with the access provided. Of those who tried to report from the Tibetan area, more than 75 percent reported problems in both Tibet, which is officially restricted, and Xinjiang, which ostensibly does not have the same restrictions on reporting. Foreign reporters also experienced restricted access and interference when trying to report in other sensitive areas, including the North Korean border, at places of historical significance to the founding of the Communist party, sites of recent natural disasters, and areas--including in Beijing--experiencing social unrest.
Authorities continued to block electronic distribution of the VOA and Radio Free Asia. Despite attempts to block access, the VOA and Radio Free Asia had significant audiences, including human rights advocates, ordinary citizens, English language teachers and students, and government officials.
Overseas television newscasts, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines occasionally were banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with the total number of films not to exceed 38.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. The SAPPRFT controlled all licenses to publish. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications could not be printed or distributed without the approval of the SAPPRFT and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
In March the government issued a ban on the sale of foreign publications without an import permit. The new rules affect the popular online shopping platform Taobao, which is banned from offering “overseas publications,” including books, movies, and games, that do not already have government approval. The ban also applies to services related to publications. According to a statement on the company’s website, “Taobao has embargoed sales of foreign publications.”
A Zhejiang court in February convicted a pair of booksellers for selling banned books. Dai Xuelin, a Beijing-based social media editor at the Guangxi Normal University Press, and his business partner Zhang Xiaoxiong were sentenced to five years and three and one-half years, respectively, in prison for running an “illegal business operation” because they resold books published in Hong Kong that were not authorized for sale in the mainland.
Following the death in July of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, the government censored a broad array of related words and images across public media and on social media platforms. Besides his name and image, phrases such as “rest in peace,” “grey,” quotes from his writings, images of candles, and even candle emojis were blocked online and from private messages sent on social media. Attempts to access censored search results resulted in a message saying the result could not be displayed “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies.”
The government tightly controlled and highly censored domestic internet usage. According to an official report released in July by the China Internet Network Information Center, the country had 751 million internet users, accounting for 54.3 percent of its total population. The report noted 19.92 million new internet users in the first half of the year, with approximately 201 million going online from rural areas. Major media companies estimated that 625 million persons, mainly urban residents, obtained their news from social and online media sources.
Although the internet was widely available, it was heavily censored. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government also reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat those who posted alternative views. Internet companies also employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship.
During the year the government issued a number of new regulations to tighten its control over online speech and content. The regulations increased government oversight over internet livestreaming, bulletin board services, instant messaging applications, group chats, and other online services. The government also finalized draft regulations that strengthened government control over internet news information services; it had not yet finalized draft regulations issued for public comment during 2016 that would further strengthen government oversight over online publishing.
The Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in June, allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources.” Article 12 of the law criminalizes using the internet to “creat[e] or disseminat[e] false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although they had previously exercised this authority prior to the law’s passage.
The CAC finalized regulations on Internet News Information Services that require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure that news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extended longstanding traditional media controls to new media--including online and social media--to ensure these sources also adhere to the Communist Party directive.
In June the Beijing Cyberspace Administration forced companies to close celebrity gossip social media accounts, citing new rules designed to create an “uplifting mainstream media environment.” Included in the closing was “China’s Number One Paparazzi” Zhou Wei, who had more than seven million followers on his Weibo microblog account. References to homosexuality and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia were also banned. Writers who cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex; gender; and youth health issues expressed concern over how to proceed without being shut down.
New CAC regulations on livestreaming came into effect on July 15. All live-streaming platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps were required to register with CAC. Licensed central media and affiliations are not required to register. Throughout the year the government published details of its crackdown on live-streaming content, detailing its efforts to shut down dozens of offending live-streaming accounts.
The SAPPRFT set out further limits in September on posting audio and visual material to social media. The new rules require a special permit for transmission of audiovisual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued two directives during the year restricting the use of unauthorized virtual private network (VPN) services as part of the government’s longstanding crackdown on online speech and content. The ministry’s move was targeted at individual rather than enterprise VPN users. Ministry officials acknowledged during a July 25 press conference the need for major corporations and other users to retain access to authorized VPN services. Nonetheless, many smaller businesses, academics, and others expressed concern over the integrity of communications transmitted using authorized VPN services. The directive reflected a more aggressive stance towards unauthorized VPN use.
The new rules and regulations issued during the year--combined with the massive online presence of citizens who must live under these restrictions--severely restricted internet freedom. The regulatory tightening imposed by security services and propaganda officials resulted in an internet management model that permits some internet traffic for commercial gain while severely curtailing political opinion.
GreatFire.org, a website run by activists tracking online censorship in the country, reported that thousands of domains, web links, social media searches, and internet protocol addresses that it monitored in the country remained blocked. In addition to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the government continued to block almost all access to Google websites, including its email service, photograph program, map service, calendar application, and YouTube. Other blocked websites included Pinterest, SnapChat, Picasa, Wordpress, and Periscope, among many others. While countless news and social media sites remained blocked, a large percentage of censored websites were gambling or pornographic websites.
Government censors continued to block websites or online content related to topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and all content related to the Panama Papers. Many other websites for international media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, remained perennially blocked, in addition to human rights websites, such as those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In addition, in July the last two major Chinese-language news websites originating outside the country were blocked--Financial Times Chinese and Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao. With their departure, all Chinese-language newspaper websites available on the mainland fell under the control of the Communist Party.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. In August blogger and activist Wu Gan, known by his pen name “Super Vulgar Butcher,” was tried in a Tianjin court for “subversion of state power.” Wu spent two years in pretrial detention without access to the lawyers his family hired, and there was evidence he was tortured during that incarceration. His father was also detained for part of that time but later released without charge. Prior to his trial, Wu released a video statement denying any wrongdoing and calling his trial a “farce.” His trial was held in secret, and afterward the court released a statement stating that Wu “recognized that his behavior violated criminal law.” On December 26, the court sentenced Wu to eight years in prison followed by five years’ deprivation of political rights. Following the verdict, Wu released a statement restating he was tortured and identifying the perpetrators of this mistreatment. Family and friends believed his long detention and his lengthy sentence were due to his refusal to confess to any crimes and retract his accusations of torture.
In addition there continued to be reports of cyberattacks against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign governments, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available. In July, Apple Inc. removed VPN services from its app store in the country. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year, such as during the period prior to the 19th Party Congress.
Government officials were increasingly willing to prosecute individuals for using VPN software. In Guangzhou a Dongguan court sentenced a local citizen to nine months’ imprisonment and fined him 5,000 yuan ($758) as punishment for selling VPN software.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This is defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
Following President Xi’s calls for establishing an alternative form of global internet governance at CAC’s December 2015 World Internet Conference, the government continued its international diplomatic efforts towards the establishment of a new, government-led multilateral system to replace the existing multistakeholder system that currently includes a variety of international stakeholders, including representatives from business and civil society. The CAC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs both released major cyberpolicy strategies during the year that called for adoption of the multilateral approach, and the government encouraged members of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to support its internet governance agenda during summit events that it hosted. The government’s 2017 World Internet Conference, held December 3-5, again included calls for countries to adopt an “internet sovereignty” model that would increase government censorship power.
The government continued to introduce new measures implementing a “Social Credit System,” which is intended to collect vast amounts of data to create credit scores for individuals and companies in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce public corruption. Unlike Western financial credit-rating systems, the government’s Social Credit System is designed also to collect information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, quality of friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics. This system is also intended to result in increased self-censorship, as netizens would be liable for their statements, relationships, and even for information others shared on social media groups. Netizens’ credit scores decline when they express impermissible ideas, spread banned content, or associate with anyone who does so, and a decline in score means a loss of access to information-sharing applications and websites. An individual’s “social credit score,” among other things, quantifies a person’s loyalty to the government by monitoring citizens’ online activity and relationships. Points are awarded and deducted based on the “loyalty” of sites visited, as well as the “loyalty” of other netizens a person interacts with.
In September the government announced new regulations that place responsibility on the organizers of chat groups on messaging apps for ensuring that impermissible content is not shared on the group chat. Under these new rules, the creator of a WeChat group, for example, could be held liable for failing to report impermissible content shared by anyone in the chat group. According to an announcement by the CAC, the companies that provide chat platforms are responsible for tracking and assigning “social credit ratings.” Users with low social credit scores lose the privilege of creating groups, and even the ability to use the platforms, a significant loss now that a majority of young persons use messaging platforms for not only social but also many economic interactions.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive SAPPRFT and Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
The CCP requires undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, to complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought. The government declared 2017 to be the “Year of Education Quality on University Ideological and Political Lessons,” and 29 prominent universities were inspected to assess their promotion of Marxist theory and socialist core values. State media reported the government dispatched more than 200 “experts” to at least 2,500 college and university classes nationwide to inspect and attend ideological and political classes. A Financial Times report in June suggested these inspections focused on universities with Western ties.
The government also placed new regulations on private K-12 schools. A Wall Street Journal article stated such changes were motivated by the central government’s desire to have more influence in education by requiring a CCP presence in these schools. As of July international students were also required to take political theory classes.
In June, Education Minister Chen Baosheng stressed that higher education institutions needed to better promote Marxist theory and “socialist core values.” Two Chinese professors were fired for criticizing Mao Zedong in online posts in January and June.
In December 2016 Xi Jinping chaired the National Ideology and Political Work Conference for Higher Education and called for turning the academy into a “stronghold that adheres to party leadership.” Xi stressed that “China’s colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning under the Party’s leadership; they are colleges and universities with Chinese socialist characteristics.” Xi further asserted that strengthening the role of Marxism in the curriculum was needed to “guide the teachers and students to become staunch believers in the socialist value system.” Xi specifically called on professors to become “staunch supporters of the Party’s rule.”
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority nationality areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
Academic censorship was on the rise during the year, and the CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. In a case that made international headlines, in August the Cambridge University Press excluded 300 articles and book reviews from the online version of its prestigious China Quarterly periodical available in the country. It was responding to a demand by the General Administration of Press and Publication, which threatened to shut down the website if the articles were not removed. The articles touched on a broad set of themes, including Taiwan relations, the Cultural Revolution, the crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, and government policies towards ethnic minorities. After widespread criticism, Cambridge University Press reversed its decision and reposted the articles. According to the Financial Times, this case led academics to fear that universities would be forced to make concessions or lose access to the country’s lucrative market.
In September a foreign researcher announced that government authorities were systematically erasing historical records as part of their process of digitization. While working through the digitization of historical documents, they deleted Chinese journal articles from the 1950s that contradict explanations of party history promoted by President Xi. These databases are a primary source for academic research by domestic and foreign academics.
The CCP actively promotes censorship of Chinese students outside the country. A New York Times opinion article asserted that Chinese students on Australian campuses tended to self-censor and monitor each other, threatening free and open debate on campus. A Chinese commencement speaker at the University of Maryland who criticized China and Chinese authorities was excoriated in Chinese social media, and the student later apologized for her comments. The New York Times stated that the 150 chapters of the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations “…have worked in tandem with Beijing to promote a pro-Chinese agenda and tamp down anti-Chinese speech on Western campuses.” A Time article reported Taiwan universities signed agreements with mainland Chinese counterparts promising to avoid teaching sensitive content to secure lucrative fee-paying students from China. The government stated it would no longer fund scholars going to the University of California San Diego after a commencement speech there by the Dalai Lama.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts in China. In July the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture prohibited Justin Bieber from performing in order to “maintain order in the Chinese market and purify the Chinese performance environment.” The government continued to forbid public performances of Handel’s Messiah, according to an August report by the Economist. Authorities also scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.