a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, 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 remarks to media or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures. In addition, an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities.
In August the Unirule Institute of Economics, a prominent economic think tank, closed its doors after years of increasing government pressure. Founded in 1993 to promote market reforms, a decade ago Unirule was a well-respected institution in the country with the space to disseminate ideas and facilitate dialogue with government leaders. The last few years have seen the shutdown of its website and public office, and as of August the organization was in liquidation.
On April 19, Zi Su was sentenced by a Chengdu court to four years’ imprisonment on charges of subversion. Zi, a retired professor from the Yunnan Communist Party School, was detained in 2017 after releasing an open letter questioning Xi Jinping’s suitability to continue as the CCP’s leader. Prior to his trial in December 2018, the government offered to shorten his sentence if he fired his lawyer and accepted a court-appointed attorney. Zi accepted, reducing his sentence from 10 to four years.
In September a Sichuan court convicted Chengdu-based activist Huang Xiaomin to 30 months’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Huang had called for direct elections to select party leaders. He was detained for several months before being allowed to hire a lawyer. He was then told to fire his lawyer and accept a court-appointed lawyer in exchange for a more lenient sentence, which he did.
On September 19, local police from Gucheng Township, Chengdu, detained Chen Yunfei for publishing comments in support of Hong Kong’s antiextradition bill movement. Chen had shown public support for the antiextradition protests in Hong Kong and called for a dialogue between Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and protesters to try to reach a resolution.
Countless citizens were arrested and detained for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on sensitive issues. For example, in Nan Le, Henan, a netizen was arrested for spreading “fake news” about a chemical factory explosion on WeChat. In Lianyungang police arrested 22 persons for “internet rumors,” and in Huzhou a netizen was arrested for “spreading rumors,” while he claimed he was only sharing political views.
This trend was particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government had developed a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP implemented a system to limit in-person speech and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped persons of certain ethnicities and faith and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate. During the year the government significantly extended the automation of this system, using phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang built a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
The government also sought to limit criticism of their Xinjiang policies even outside the country, disrupting academic discussions and intimidating human rights advocates across the world. Government officials in Xinjiang detained the relatives of several overseas activists. Chinese embassy officials in Belgium asked a Belgian university to remove information critical of the PRC’s Xinjiang policies from their website, and in February the Belgian author of that critique reported that Chinese government officials disrupted a Xinjiang-focused academic conference in Strasbourg, France. Numerous ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who still lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online, the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. During the year there was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included such criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
In October PRC authorities publicly condemned a tweet by the professional basketball team Houston Rockets’ general manager that expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, and the state-run CCTV cancelled broadcasts of games involving U.S. professional basketball teams visiting China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official from its consulate general in Houston to personally denounce the statement to the Houston Rockets. Similarly, in December Chinese state television cancelled the broadcast of an English Premier League soccer game after one of its players, Mesut Ozil, posted messages on Twitter and Instagram–both of which were blocked in China–denouncing the government’s policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang.
In July Dalian police detained a man only identified as “Lu” for distributing online cartoons that featured pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese contents. The CCP-controlled Global Times accused Lu of being “spiritually Japanese” by advocating for Japanese right-wing politics and militarism. In March 2018 Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly criticized such pro-Japanese cartoonists as “scum among Chinese people.”
In May Anhui police arrested cartoonist Zhang Dongning on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for creating comic books that depicted the Chinese people as pigs. The drawings “distorted historical facts, trampled national dignity, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” according to a police statement. Zhang remained in custody at year’s end.
The government used economic leverage on the mainland to suppress freedom of expression in Hong Kong. In reaction to protests in Hong Kong in August, the mainland government told Hong Kong-based Cathay Airlines that any of its employees who had engaged in “illegal demonstrations, protests, and violent attacks, as well as those who have radical behaviors” were forbidden from working on flights that entered Chinese airspace.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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 they not be reported at all.
During the year state media reported senior authorities issued internal CCP rules detailing punishments for those who failed to hew to ideological regulations, ordering a further crackdown on illegal internet accounts and platforms, and instructing media to further promote the interests of the government.
The government continued its tight ideological control over media and public discourse following the restructuring of its regulatory system in 2018. The CCP propaganda department has the ultimate say in regulating and directing media practices and policies in the country. The reorganization created three independent administrative entities controlled by the CCP propaganda department: the National Radio and Television Administration (NART), the General Administration of Press and Publications, and the National Film Bureau. While NART is still ostensibly under the State Council, its party chief was also a deputy minister within the CCP’s propaganda department.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda. The CAC served as the representative office to a recently formed CCP committee on cyberspace, which is nominally chaired by President Xi Jinping. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
The internet “clean up” CAC announced in November 2018 continued into 2019. As part of CAC’s 2018 requirements, internet platforms had to submit reports on their activities if their platforms could be used to “socially mobilize” or could lead to “major changes in public opinion.” On January 23, the CAC issued a statement confirming another step in its crackdown on internet content. On April 6, the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications announced an eight-month crackdown on “vulgar content” online. According to the announcement, the National Office tasked local authorities to conduct inspections of online platforms, including social media, livestreaming, videos, and online games. In July the CAC ordered 26 podcast and music applications to terminate, suspend services, or have “talks” with regulators. According to a CAC notice, these applications were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism.”
In 2018 the government directed consolidation of China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China,” which “strengthened the party’s concentrated development and management of important public opinion positions.”
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 the 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.
Several popular domestic soap operas from 2018 were taken off the air after state-owned newspaper the Beijing Daily called the dramas “incompatible with core socialist values.” One such popular show featured Emperor Qianlong and concubines. While episodes from 2018 remained available online, many television stations had canceled similar period dramas in their 2019 programming plans. The National Radio and Television Administration followed up with a temporary ban of historical dramas in late March. The CCP also policed cartological political correctness to ensure that cartoons and documentaries supported the CCP. In one example the domestic television drama Go Go Squid was investigated after displaying a map that did not show Taiwan and Hainan Island as part of China.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP, and they faced increasingly serious penalties for crossing those lines, which could be opaque. 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 CCP 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 2017 on the nation’s news media, there were 231,564 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,406 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as XinhuaNet.com and ChinaDaily.com. Other online outlets also reported on important issues but limited their tactics and topics, since they were acting without official approval.
In January government officials detained Yang Zhengjun, the editor in chief of an online labor rights news outlet, iLabour, which reported on harmful working conditions for Chinese laborers. According to RFA, on March 20, police detained Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, at his Guangzhou home. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer for 19 days, during which police interrogated Wei five times at the Shenzhen No. 2 Detention Center. Voice of America reported that authorities forbade Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan, from speaking to foreign media about her husband’s detention. Police also detained Wei’s colleague Ke Chengbing in Guangzhou on March 20, but there was no information regarding his status as of year’s end. Authorities formally arrested and charged Yang, Wei, and Ke in August on charges of “picking quarrels.”
In June authorities in Chongqing announced they had convicted Liu Pengfei on unknown charges and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment. Liu was detained in 2017 while running a WeChat group that reposted foreign press articles in Chinese. Until his conviction was announced, Liu’s condition and location were unknown.
On August 1, Chongqing police arrested former journalist Zhang Jialong. No charges were formally announced, although police reportedly arrested him for social media posts he made in 2017 and earlier. Zhang, a well-known journalist and anticensorship activist, had stopped posting publicly in 2014 after being fired from Tencent, where he worked as an editor, for meeting with then secretary of state John Kerry. His location was unknown at year’s end.
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. As of year’s end, dozens of Uighur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for RFA’s Uighur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
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. During the year the scope of censorship grew to the point that, according to several journalists, “almost all topics are considered sensitive.” For example, whereas in past years business news reporting had been relatively free of control, many journalists’ contacts were hesitant to express themselves openly even on this topic. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
On June 10, the discipline inspection commission of the CCP’s Beijing branch accused Dai Zigeng, former publisher and cofounder of popular daily newspaper the Beijing News, of “serious violations of discipline and law.”
Prominent Chinese journalist Huang Xueqin, known for her publications about the #MeToo movement in China, was arrested in Guangzhou in October after she wrote about antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. Officials charged her with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” At year’s end she remained in detention.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published a report in January detailing conditions for foreign journalists in the country. More than half (55 percent) of journalists who responded to the FCCC’s survey said reporting conditions had further deteriorated over the prior 12 months. They reported the government regularly surveilled foreign journalists, both in person and, increasingly, via electronic means. Of respondents, 91 percent expressed concern about the security of their telephones, and 66 percent worried about surveillance inside their homes and offices. Half of the journalists said this surveillance diminished their ability to report in the country.
In August a Canadian journalist working for a foreign outlet was detained while reporting in Guangdong. Local police detained the journalist and a PRC news assistant in a rural area, then drove them to a police station in a larger town, held them for seven hours, confiscated their electronic devices, copied all the data on their cell phones, and tried to compel the PRC colleague to sign a confession before putting them on a train out of town. The officials followed them onto the train, separated the two, and continued to intimidate them.
During the Hong Kong protests, mainland government authorities escalated their harassment of foreign journalists, stopping numerous journalists at border crossings near Hong Kong and at airports in Beijing and elsewhere, threatening them with visa obstacles, and making copies of their electronic devices. Journalists said this impeded their ability to gather and disseminate reports about the protests.
Foreign press outlets reported local employees of foreign news agencies were subjected to official harassment and intimidation. A citizen who was assisting a foreign journalist on a reporting trip was detained by local police, then chained to a chair for a full day before being released. Government officials contacted and harassed many Chinese citizen employees’ family members in an attempt to pressure them away from their reporting work. Both the local citizens and their foreign employers lacked recourse in these cases and were generally hesitant to address grievances with authorities due to fear of experiencing even greater repression.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the January FCCC report, 26 of 28 foreign journalists who traveled to Xinjiang in 2018 reported that government officials told them reporting was restricted or prohibited. This continued throughout the year, as numerous foreign journalists reported being followed constantly while in Xinjiang, with government agents stepping in to block access to some areas, intimidating local inhabitants so they would not talk to the journalists, and stopping the journalists–sometimes many times per day–to seize their cameras and force them to erase pictures. Foreign journalists also had trouble securing hotel rooms, since authorities directed hotels to prohibit the journalists’ stays.
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of post-publication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Government officials also sought to suppress journalism outside their borders. While in past years these efforts largely focused on Chinese-language media, during the year additional reports emerged of attempts to suppress media critical of China regardless of language or location. In March government officials warned a Swedish media outlet to cease its “serious political provocations,” for publishing a Swedish-language editorial that supported a position that Chinese officials opposed. Another government official threatened to blacklist a Russian journalist if the journalist did not retract an article in a Russian newspaper detailing negative Chinese economic statistics.
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 Ministries of Defense and Commerce 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 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.
Journalist arrests and dismissals for reporting on sensitive issues continued. One of the country’s few prominent investigative reporters, Liu Wanyong, announced he was leaving the profession, blaming the shrinking space for investigating and publishing accurate news. The Weibo accounts of several bloggers, including Wang Zhian, a former state broadcast commentator who wrote about social issues, were blocked.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films continued to be subject to government censorship. In July the head of the government’s film regulatory body, the National Film Bureau, gave a speech to government officials and film industry representatives exhorting them to use films to promote Chinese political values. Throughout the year the government forbade the release of a number of new movies–including several films with prominent directors and large budgets–because they ran afoul of government censors. Shortly before its July 5 release date, the historical war drama The Eight Hundred was removed from distribution despite numerous theatrical trailers and an $80 million budget. Similarly, in February the film One Second by world-famous director Zhang Yimou was pulled from the Berlin Film Festival only days before its debut for “technical difficulties,” a common euphemism for censorship in China. Another film, Better Days, was pulled from the same festival after the movie failed to receive the necessary permissions from Chinese authorities. The head of the National Film Bureau explicitly encouraged domestic filmmakers to find more “valuable and heavy” topics and materials in the country’s “excellent traditional culture,” “revolution culture,” and “advanced culture of socialism.”
In October, when the U.S. comedy show South Park ran an episode depicting the PRC’s censorship practices, authorities banned the episode and other South Park content from local television and internet.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally 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, including Bohemian Rhapsody and Top Gun: Maverick. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with a restriction on the total number that keeps annual distribution below 50 films.
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. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities 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 May media reported that three government officials in Chongqing and Yunnan were disciplined for “secretly purchasing, reading, and keeping overseas books and publications with serious political problems.”
In the fall the Ministry of Education directed all school libraries to review their holdings and dispose of books that “damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” Officials at a state-run library in Zhenyuan, Gansu, responded by burning a pile of “illegal books, religious publications, and especially books and articles with biases,” according to a notice and photograph on the library’s website, which circulated widely online.
New cases of extraterritorial book censorship occurred: government censors required that books printed domestically conform to government propaganda guidelines, even if those books were written by a foreign author for a foreign audience. In February an Australian bookseller reported that PRC officials forbade a Chinese company from publishing a book that included political content they found objectionable, even though the books would have been shipped out of China as soon as they were printed.
On the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, the government made an array of efforts to block all public mention of that historical event, not just in China but even in other countries. Within the country the government preemptively targeted potential critics, including elderly parents of the massacre victims, jailing them or temporarily removing them from major cities. Online censorship increased, with government censors aggressively blocking even indirect references and images from all online platforms, including, for example, an image of books lined up facing a cigarette packet in a pattern invoking the famous video of a man facing down tanks on a Beijing street. The CNN website, normally accessible in the country, was blocked on June 4, and officials broke up a live CNN newscast in Beijing on June 4 by rushing between a news reporter and cameraman as they were broadcasting, demanding CNN staff stop reporting. Other international media outlets faced increased monitoring and detentions for reporting focused on the anniversary, including one reporter who was detained for six hours. Censors at domestic internet companies said tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning as well as voice and image recognition.
The new Heroes and Martyrs Law makes it illegal to insult or defame prominent communists. Citing this law, the CAC ordered major domestic news app Bytedance to rectify information “slandering” Fang Zhimin, a prominent communist historical figure, and to punish the individuals responsible for publishing the defamatory information. Sichuan police arrested a prominent female blogger for violating the Heroes and Martyrs Law because in one of her videos she paired a red scarf, “which symbolized the revolutionary tradition,” with an “inappropriately short” skirt. On March 28, the court sentenced the blogger, identified in court documents only by her last name “Tang,” to 12 days’ incarceration, a fine, and removal of her videos.
Authorities often justified restrictions on expressions on national security protection grounds. In particular, government leaders generally cited the threat of terrorism in justifying restricting freedom of expressions by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.