a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution states that citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” although authorities generally did not respect these rights, especially when they conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued tight control of print, broadcast, and electronic 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 Speech and 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 the media remained subject to punitive measures.
In late February prominent real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang criticized President Xi’s call for media outlets to display absolute loyalty to the CCP. In two social media posts, Ren urged the CCP not to waste taxpayer money and opined, “Since when did the people’s government become the party’s government?” The government consequently stripped Ren Zhiqiang of his social media accounts, which had an estimated 37 million followers. The New York Times reported on March 11 that Xinhua News Agency employee Zhou Gang issued an online letter accusing government censors of silencing critics, apparently in response to the Ren case.
Two weeks after President Xi’s visit to state media, anonymous authors posted a letter online calling for him to resign “for the future of the country and the people.” The authors claimed to be “loyal Communist Party members.” Authorities promptly shut down Wujie News, the news website that carried the letter, and detained journalists, such as Jia Jia, whom security agents apprehended at the Beijing airport en route to Hong Kong. According to contacts and news reports, all Wujie News staff were later released.
In April online commentator Tian Li (also known as Chen Qitang) was tried for “inciting subversion of state power.” His verdict was suspended for a third time, with no announcement made before the end of the year. The charges stemmed from six political commentaries Chen had posted, three of which he had personally written. The prosecution said the articles represented a “harsh attack” on the CCP.
In November, Liu Feiyue, the founder of the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website, was detained on charges of “inciting state subversion” in Hubei Province. He had been detained and released earlier in the year when he tried to cover the CCP Central Committee’s sixth plenary session in Beijing.
Huang Qi, founder of the Tianwang Human Rights Center, was detained on November 28 and formally charged with “illegally providing state secrets abroad” on December 16. Authorities had long taken action against Huang for his efforts to document human rights abuses in the country on his 64Tianwang.com website. Previously convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally possessing state secrets” in 2003 and 2008, he served five and three years in prison, respectively.
Press and Media Freedoms: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, or 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.
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) regulates 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. There were growing numbers of privately owned online media. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval. The SAPPRFT announced that satellite television channels may broadcast no more than two imported television programs each year during prime-time hours and that imported programs must receive the approval of local regulators at least two months in advance.
In a well-publicized February 19 visit to the three main state and CCP news organizations–the Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, and the People’s Daily–President Xi said, “Party and state-run media are the propaganda battlefield of the party and the government, [and] must bear the surname of the party. All of the party’s news and public opinion work must embody the party’s will, reflect the party’s ideas, defend the authority of the Party Central Committee, [and] defend the unity of the party.”
In March the prominent Chinese financial magazine Caixin defied the government by highlighting censorship of its online content. On March 5, Caixin published an article pointing out how the CAC had deleted an interview with Jiang Hong, a delegate to the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, because it touched on the issue of free speech. The CAC told Caixin editors the interview contained “illegal content” and “violated laws and regulations.”
Both the SAPPRFT and CAC continued efforts to reassert control over the country’s growing world of new media. In December the SAPPRFT announced that commercial social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo are not allowed to disseminate user-generated audio or video programs about current events and are only supposed to distribute content from those that hold state-issued audiovisual online transmission licenses.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, 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. A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. In March authorities detained the siblings of the Germany-based writer Zhang Ping after he wrote an article criticizing the government for its role in the disappearance of journalist Jia Jia. The family members, detained in Xichong County, Sichuan Province, were released several days later, and Zhang later publicly said he had “cut off ties” in order to protect them.
Uighur webmasters Dilshat Perhat and Nijat Azat continued to serve sentences for “endangering state security.” During the year additional journalists working in traditional and new media were also imprisoned.
Liu Yuxia, front-page editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily, once considered a bastion for relatively independent views, was dismissed in March after the headline of one of the newspaper’s front-page stories about the burial of a prominent reformer was seen as a veiled criticism of President Xi’s admonition that the media “bear the surname of the party.” If the Chinese characters of the headline about the sea burial were read vertically in conjunction with the headline about President Xi’s call for loyalty by the media, as both headlines appeared in proximity on the same page, the combined headline could be interpreted as “the souls of Chinese media have died because they bear the party’s name.”
Li Xin, another former editor for the Southern Metropolis Daily’s website, disappeared in Thailand and reappeared in China under detention after reportedly seeking political asylum in Thailand. Yu Shaolei, who edited the newspaper’s cultural section, also resigned in late March. Yu reportedly posted a photograph of his resignation form on Weibo, citing his “inability to bear your surname.” One Southern Metropolis Daily journalist was quoted as stating, “We think it won’t get any worse and then it does. We are being strangled.”
Four of the five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared between October and December 2015 were released but remained under surveillance (see section 1.b.). In June, Zhu Tiezhi, the deputy editor in chief of Qiushi, the CCP’s foremost theoretical journal, reportedly hanged himself in the garage of the building where the journal was housed. Media outlets reported that Zhu had been depressed by ideological infighting within the CCP and was linked to Ling Jihua, one of former president Hu Jintao’s closest aides, who became a prime target in President Xi’s anticorruption campaign.
In December security officials in Gannan County, Heilongjiang Province, detained and beat journalists Liu Bozhi and Liu Dun from China Educational News after they investigated reports of financial irregularities in public school cafeterias.
In July the state-controlled Chinese Academy of National Arts announced on its website that it had removed the existing management of the monthly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, including its 93-year-old publisher and cofounder Du Daozheng. The magazine was known as an “intellectual oasis” in which topics like democracy and other “sensitive” issues could be discussed, and it had a reputation for publishing views on politics and history that challenged CCP orthodoxy. Observers saw the removal of Du along with several other senior staff including Hu Dehua, the son of late reformist CCP leader Hu Yaobang, as a threat to one of the country’s last strongholds of liberal thought. The magazine’s chief editor Yang Jisheng quit in 2015 in protest of increasing censorship. Following the forced reshuffle, Du suspended the publication on July 19, and it had not resumed operations by year’s end.
In September journalists were attacked, detained, and expelled from Wukan, a fishing village in Guangdong Province, as they tried to conduct interviews following protests over alleged land seizures and the detention of the elected village chief. Wukan was the site of protests in 2011 over land seizures and corruption, to which the provincial government responded by allowing villagers to elect their local leader.
Foreign journalists based in the country continued to face a challenging environment for reporting. According to the annual Reporting Conditions survey of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) conducted during the year, 98 percent of respondents did not believe reporting conditions in the country met international standards. In addition, 48 percent of respondents believed working conditions had stayed the same since the previous year, while 29 percent believed conditions had deteriorated. Fifty-seven percent said they had been subjected to some form of interference, harassment, or violence while attempting to report from the country.
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. The FCCC’s survey reported that 26 percent of respondents described interference or obstruction by police or “unidentified individuals” while reporting. Eight percent of respondents reported being subjected to “manhandling or physical violence,” a 3 percent increase from 2015. In addition, FCCC members reported physical and electronic surveillance of their staff and premises.
Although authorities continued to use the registration and renewal of residency visas and foreign ministry press cards to pressure and punish journalists whose reporting perturbed authorities, wait times were reportedly shorter for many applicants than in previous years. Many foreign media organizations continued to have trouble expanding their operations in the country due to the difficulty of receiving visas for new positions. Government officials continued to require regular meetings with journalists at the time of their renewals or after seeing reports they deemed “sensitive,” at which officials commonly made clear to reporters they were under scrutiny for their reporting. Security personnel often visited reporters unannounced and questioned them about their reporting activities.
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 local assistants had been summoned for meetings with security officials that the assistants found extremely intimidating. One foreign correspondent said security officials had called her local assistant a “traitor” and asked her why she was willing to help the foreign press with its “anti-China bias.”
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.
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 monthly 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 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. The orders included instructions for media outlets not to investigate or report on their own. The CAC and SAPPRFT strengthened regulations over the content online publications are allowed to distribute, reiterating long-standing rules that only state-licensed news media may conduct original reporting.
The FCCC reported that 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 Tibetan areas, 60 percent reported problems, while 44 percent had trouble in Xinjiang. Foreign reporters also experienced restricted access and interference when trying to report in other sensitive areas, including the North Korean border, coal mining sites where protests had taken place, and other sites of social unrest, such as Wukan village in Guangdong Province.
Authorities continued to jam, with varying degrees of success, Chinese-, Uighur-, and Tibetan-language broadcasts of the Voice of America (VOA), the BBC, and Radio Free Asia. English-language VOA broadcasts generally were not jammed. Internet distribution of streaming radio news and podcasts from these sources was often blocked. Despite the jamming of overseas broadcasts, the VOA, the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France International had large audiences, including human rights advocates, ordinary citizens, and government officials.
Overseas television newscasts, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were occasionally subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines occasionally were banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive.
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.
In November the NPC Standing Committee passed a Cybersecurity Law containing a provision that appeared to be aimed at deterring economists and journalists from publishing analysis that deviated from official views on the economy. Article 12 of the law criminalizes using the internet to “fabricate or spread false information to disturb economic order.” In January authorities blocked Reuters’ social media account on the Chinese platform Sina Weibo following a report that the country’s securities regulator Xiao Gang had offered to resign. The government stated that the Reuters report was not accurate, but a month later state media announced Xiao had been forced out.
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 SAPPRFT approval and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other sanctions. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published.
Actions to Expand Press Freedom: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs began implementing a new system for journalist visa renewals and press card issuance. There were few complaints, but there was insufficient evidence to comment on the situation at the year’s end. Delays persisted in the approval process to expand foreign bureaus as well as visa applications for short-term reporting tours.
The internet continued to be widely available and used. According to an official report released in August by the China Internet Network Information Center, the country had 710 million internet users, accounting for 51.7 percent of its total population. The report noted 21.3 million new internet users in the first half of the year, with approximately 191 million going online from rural areas. Major media companies estimated that more than 500 million persons, mainly urban residents, obtained their news from social and online media sources. According to the 2016 Chinese Media Blue Book, online media organizations accounted for 47 percent of the country’s entire media industry.
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 injunctions.
During the year there was a steady stream of new regulatory efforts to tighten government control of the online media space that had grown rapidly in the last four years, including draft regulations on strengthening government control of internet news services and online publishing.
The government’s updated definition of “internet news information” includes all matters pertaining to politics, economics, defense, diplomacy and “other social public issues and reports and comments of breaking social events.” Draft regulations require that all news reports conform to official views, establish a “dishonesty blacklist” system, and expand criminal penalties for violators.
In June the State Internet Information Office published a Circular on Further Strengthening the Management and Control of False News, which prohibits online platforms from publishing unverified content as news reports and strengthens regulation on the editing and distribution of news on online platforms, including microblogs and WeChat. The circular prohibits websites from publishing “hearsay and rumors to fabricate news or distort facts based on speculation.”
During the year the State Internet Information Office reportedly strengthened efforts to “punish and correct” false online news, reprimanding numerous popular portals, such as Sina, iFeng, and Caijing, and calling on the public to help monitor and report on “illegal and harmful information” found online.
On June 25, the CAC released New Regulations on Internet Searches that took effect August 1. The regulations specifically ban search engines from showing “subversive” content and obscene information, longstanding prohibitions for local website operators.
On June 28, the CAC released new Regulations on the Administration of Mobile Internet App Services that also took effect on August 1. The new rules expand the application of some requirements to app stores, such as Apple’s iTunes App Store, and developers and require mobile app providers to verify users’ identities with real-name registration, improve censorship, and punish users who spread “illicit information” on their platforms. The rules prescribe broad and vaguely worded prohibitions on content that “endangers national security,” “damages the honor or interests of the state,” “propagates cults or superstition,” or “harms social ethics or any fine national culture or traditions.” At year’s end authorities required Apple to remove the New York Times English- and Chinese-language news apps from its iTunes App Store in the country. At least three apps were known to have been blocked since April.
In August the CAC called for an “editor in chief” system, ensuring that senior staff are responsible for online editorial decisions contrary to the government’s wishes or censorship guidelines. In September media outlets also reported the CAC had launched a campaign to clean up the comments sections on websites, which a CAC official described as an effort to make it easier for individuals to report illegal or harmful content.
In April, GreatFire.org, a website run by activists tracking online censorship in the country, reported that 21 percent of more than 40,000 domains, web links, social media searches, and internet protocol addresses that it monitors in the country were blocked. In addition to social media websites such as Facebook, the government continued to block almost all access to Google websites, including its e-mail service, photograph program, map service, calendar application, and YouTube.
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. The Economist, for example, was blocked in April after it printed an article critical of President Xi’s consolidation of power. 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.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. In June authorities in Yunnan Province detained citizen journalists Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” as a result of their reporting. Li and Lu compiled and catalogued daily lists of “mass incidents”–the official term for protests, demonstrations, and riots–and disseminated their findings to the public via social media platforms, such as Weibo. Public security officials reportedly beat Lu, choked him, and twisted his arms until he was badly bruised. Reporters without Borders stated that Lu and Li were among 80 detained citizen journalists and bloggers.
In addition, there continued to be reports of cyberattacks against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign governments, including instances involving the website or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, and social networking sites as well as search engines.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, some users circumvented online censorship through the use of various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available inside the country, but the government increasingly blocked access to the websites and proxy servers of commercial, academic, and other virtual private network providers.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. 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.
At the World Internet Conference in China in November, Ren Xianling, the vice minister for the CAC, called on participants to embrace state control of the internet and likened such controls to “installing brakes on a car before driving on the road.” Xi Jinping opened the conference with a videotaped address in which he reasserted earlier claims that the government exercised absolute control over the internet in the country through “cyber sovereignty.”
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. In 2013 the South China Morning Post reported that the CCP issued secret instructions to university faculty identifying seven “off-limits” subjects, including universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civil rights, an independent judiciary, elite cronyism, and the historical errors of the CCP. 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.
In 2015 then minister of education Yuan Guiren restricted the use of foreign textbooks in classrooms. Domestically produced textbooks remained under the editorial control of the CCP. In January, Reuters reported that the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had set up a team at the Ministry of Education that was “increasing supervision and inspection of political discipline” with the stated purpose, among other things, of preventing CCP members on university campuses from making “irresponsible remarks about major policies.” In addition, schools at all levels were required to merge “patriotic education” into their curriculum and extracurricular activities. The government and the CCP Organization Department controlled 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.
In July, Chen Baosheng became minister of education, and one of his first acts was to establish a Commission on University Political Education to strengthen ideological discipline within the higher education system. At a press conference in March, Yuan highlighted the centrality of political indoctrination in the education system, declaring “the goal and orientation of running schools is to make our students become people qualified to inherit and build up socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The CCP continued to require undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, to complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought.
In December, 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 frequently 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.
Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was common, particularly those artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. In addition, authorities scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions. In March a cafe was effectively prevented from a holding an event discussing online censorship in the country after security agents threatened one of the visiting Chinese participants.