China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. The law excludes evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. There were credible reports that authorities routinely ignored prohibitions against torture, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
In December 2019 human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for participating in a meeting in Xiamen, Fujian Province, to organize civil society activities and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Ding’s wife posted on Twitter that Ding was tortured in a detention center in Beijing, including being subjected to sleep deprivation tactics such as shining a spotlight on him 24 hours per day. As of December 2020, Ding remained in pretrial detention at Linshu Detention Center in Shandong Province.
Following her June 6 arrest, Zhang Wuzhou was tortured in the Qingxin District Detention Center in Qingyuan (Guangdong Province), according to her lawyer’s July 22 account reported by Radio Free Asia. Zhang said that detention center authorities handcuffed her, made her wear heavy foot shackles, and placed her in a cell where other inmates beat her. The Qingyuan Public Security Bureau detained Zhang on charges of “provoking quarrels and stirring up troubles” two days after she held banners at Guangzhou Baiyun Mountains to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
In August an attorney for detained human rights activist and lawyer Yu Wensheng reported that Yu had been held incommunicado for 18 months before and after his conviction in June of “inciting subversion of state power” for which he received a four-year sentence. Yu reported he was repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray and was forced to sit in a metal chair for an extended period of time.
On October 22, human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, known for his successful representation of HIV/AIDS discrimination cases, was put into “residential surveillance in a designated location” in Baoji City, Shanxi Province, after posting a video to YouTube detailing torture he suffered during a January detention. As of December, Chang was still under these restrictions and denied access to his family and lawyer.
Members of the minority Uyghur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated that authorities subjected individuals in custody to electric shock, waterboarding, beatings, rape, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, stress positions, forced administration of unknown medication, and cold cells (see section 6, Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
There was no direct evidence of an involuntary or prisoner-based organ transplant system; however, activists and some organizations continued to accuse the government of forcibly harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, including religious and spiritual adherents such as Falun Gong practitioners and Muslim detainees in Xinjiang. An NGO research report noted that public security and other authorities in Xinjiang have collected biometric data–including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types–of all Xinjiang residents between 12 and 65 years of age, which the report said could indicate evidence of illicit organ trafficking. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported that they were subjected to coerced comprehensive health screenings including blood and DNA testing upon entering the internment camps. There were also reports from former detainees that authorities forced Uyghur detainees to undergo medical examinations of thoracic and abdominal organs. The government continues to claim that it had ended the long-standing practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for use in transplants in 2015.
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system as a legal tool for the government and CCP to investigate corruption, featured custodial treatment such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports (see section 4).
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice, which manages the prison system.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions, since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives in an attempt to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In July the United Kingdom broadcasting regulator found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. China Global Television Network faced potential statutory sanctions in the United Kingdom. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
“Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review; remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court require trials to be open to the public, with the exception of cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or on the application of a party to the proceedings, commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations state foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, with the exception of those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of some lawyers who took on sensitive cases, such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In August the Hunan provincial justice department revoked the license for human rights lawyer Xie Yang for his 2017 conviction for “inciting subversion of state power.” Xie said the revocation did not follow proper administrative processes and the complaint against was without proper merits. Xie was a “709” detainee and restarted his law practice soon after his release from prison in 2017.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment and physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also state detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients and limited time to review evidence, and defendants and lawyers were not allowed to communicate with one another during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
In May labor activists Wu Guijun, Zhang Zhiru, He Yuancheng, Jian Hui, and Song Jiahui were released after being sentenced to suspended jail terms of two to four years in a closed-door trial. They were detained in January 2019 on the charge of “disrupting social order;” according to media Zhang and Wu were prevented from hiring lawyers.
In September, three public interest lawyers–Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three”–were tried without notice to family or their lawyers on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The lawyers worked for Changsha Funeng, an organization that litigated cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws. The details of the trial and its outcome remained unknown as year’s end.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. On May 28, the government passed a new civil code scheduled to enter into force on January 1, 2021, that introduces articles on the right to privacy and personal information protection. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, and other digital communications intended to remain private. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents in the country.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a website focusing on human rights in China, Lin Xiaohua began appealing the case for the bribery conviction of his older brother Lin Xiaonan, the former mayor of Fu’an City, Fujian Province. In June, Xiaohua tried to send petition letters and case files to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the National Commission of Supervision-CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission, but the post office opened all the letters then refused to deliver them. In July the Xiamen Culture and Tourism Administration confiscated the letters and files, stating they were “illegal publications.”
According to Freedom House, rapid advances in surveillance technology–including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps–coupled with growing police access to user data helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. A Carnegie Endowment report in 2019 noted the country was a major worldwide supplier of artificial-intelligence surveillance technology, such as facial recognition systems, smart city/safe city platforms, and smart policing technology.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. December media reports said Chinese technology companies developed artificial intelligence, surveillance, and other technological capabilities to help police identify ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs. The media sources cited public-facing websites, company documents, and programming language from firms such as Huawei, Megvii, and Hikvision related to their development of a “Uyghur alarm” that could alert police automatically. Huawei denied its products were designed to identify ethnic groups. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to create a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui, to help with solving criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system was programmed to understand Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uyghurs applying for passports.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, combined with a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, as well as a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
Government authorities also could interfere in families’ living arrangements when a family member was involved in perceived sensitive political activities. In August, Lu Lina, wife of dissident and rights activist Liu Sifang, used Liu’s Twitter account to document how her landlord in Chancheng District, Foshan city, Guangdong Province, under an order from local police, asked her to move out of the apartment. Approximately 10 days prior, her child had been expelled from school. Liu Sifang joined the “Xiamen meeting” at the end of 2019 with other citizen activists and organizers. In January police arrested many of the individuals who attended that meeting. Liu was abroad at year’s end.
The government at various levels and jurisdictions continued to implement two distinct types of social credit systems. The first, the corporate social credit system, is intended to track and prevent corporate malfeasance. The second, the personal social credit system, is implemented differently depending on geographic location. Although often generically referred to as the country’s “social credit system,” these two systems collect vast amounts of data from companies and individuals in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce corruption. As such, the social credit system often collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics.
Although the government’s goal is to create a unified government social credit system, there continued to be dozens of disparate social credit systems, operated distinctly at the local, provincial, and the national government levels, as well as separate “private” social credit systems operated by several technology companies. For example, there were reports in which individuals were not allowed to ride public transportation for periods of time because they allegedly had not paid for train tickets.
Industry and business experts commented that in its present state, the social credit system was not used to target companies or individuals for their political or religious beliefs, noting the country already possessed other tools outside of the social credit system to target companies and individuals. The collection of vast amounts of personal data combined with the prospect of a future universal and unified social credit system, however, could allow authorities to control further the population’s behaviors.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them about their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including on WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government continued to use the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also continued to require Uyghur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uyghurs’ homes and monitored families’ observance of religion for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in “re-education camps.”
The government restricted the right to have children (see section 6, Women).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 to impose 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 such as public health.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens could discuss some 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 or criticized President Xi’s leadership. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Many others confirmed authorities regularly warned them against meeting with foreign reporters or diplomats, and to avoid participating in diplomatic receptions or public programs organized by foreign entities.
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, as did members of their family. 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. An increasing threat of peer-to-peer observation and possible referral to authorities further eroded freedom of speech.
In January the China Independent Film Festival, established in Nanjing in 2003, abruptly suspended operations, citing challenges to its editorial independence. Over its history the festival shared documentaries that addressed topics the authorities considered politically sensitive, including the forced relocation of local communities for largescale development projects.
In April authorities sentenced Chen Jieren, an anticorruption blogger, to 15 years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” extortion, blackmail, and bribery. Chen, a former state media journalist, was detained in 2018 after he accused several Hunan party officials of corruption in his personal blog.
On September 22, a Beijing court sentenced outspoken CCP critic Ren Zhiqiang to 18 years’ imprisonment and a fine of more than four million renminbi ($600,000) for his convictions on multiple charges including corruption, bribery, embezzlement of funds, and abuse of power by a state-owned enterprise official. In February, Ren published an essay online criticizing the CCP’s COVID-19 response. While not mentioning President Xi by name, Ren wrote that he saw “a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being called emperor.” Ren was detained in March. His case was largely viewed not as a corruption case, but as a crackdown for his critical public comments against Xi.
Authorities arrested or detained countless citizens 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 public health concerns, including COVID-19. From January 1 to March 26 alone, NGO China Human Rights Defenders documented 897 cases of Chinese internet users targeted by police for their information sharing or online comments related to COVID-19. Based on research conducted by China Digital Times, during the same period authorities charged 484 persons with criminal acts for making public comments about the COVID-19 crisis.
This trend remained particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government imposed 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 and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped Muslims and members of non-Han ethnic minorities 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.
Numerous ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who 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 criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
The government sought to limit freedom of speech in online gaming platforms. The popular Chinese-made online game Genshin Impact censored the words “Taiwan” and “Hong Kong” among others in its in-game chat program. Users noted the program’s censorship covered all users, regardless of the country of citizenship or where the game was being played.
Freedom of 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. The government’s propaganda department issued daily guidance on what topics should be promoted in all media outlets and how those topics should be covered. Chinese reporters working for private media companies confirmed increased pressure to conform to government requirements on story selection and content.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) directly manages internet content, including online news media, and promotes CCP propaganda. 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 CCP continued to monitor and control the use of non-Mandarin languages in all media within the country. In April live streamers working in the southern part of the country accused Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, of suspending users who spoke Cantonese on its livestreaming platform. One user who regularly used Cantonese in his livestream programs said he had received three short suspensions for “using language that cannot be recognized.” He noted the app included automatic guidelines prompting users to speak Mandarin “as much as possible.”
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.
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 technologies such as livestreaming and continued to pressure on 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.
Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, and his colleague Ke Chengbing remained in detention on charges of “picking quarrels.” Detained in March 2019, as of March 19, Wei had not been allowed to meet with his lawyer. An NGO reported that authorities installed surveillance cameras at the home of Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan.
In June after two years in custody, Chongqing entrepreneur Li Huaiqing went on trial for “inciting subversion of state power;” a verdict had not been announced by 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. Dozens of Uyghur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
Restrictions on domestic and foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments increased significantly.
Journalists faced the threat of demotion or dismissal 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 expanded significantly with several Chinese journalists noting “an atmosphere of debilitating paranoia.” For example, long-standing journalist contacts declined off-the-record conversations, even about nonsensitive topics. In one case, a reporter noted a fear of talking to foreign journalists and said that journalists and editors were even frightened to talk to one another. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media. The government also silenced numerous independent journalists by quarantining them under the guise of pandemic response.
In December, Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan was arrested at her apartment complex on suspicion of “endangering national security.” Details surrounding the reasons for her arrest were unclear at year’s end.
In June, Lu Yuyu, founder of the blog Not News, was released from prison after four years following a 2017 conviction for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an ill-defined offense regularly used to target journalists. According to testimony he provided the Committee to Protect Journalists, Lu was seriously beaten twice while incarcerated. Lu said that while in the Dali City detention center he was regularly taken to a special interrogation room, tied to a tiger chair to immobilize his arms and legs, and then shown videos of other persons’ confessions. On one occasion he said he was placed in shackles and handcuffs and then beaten in his cell by at least two guards.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s annual report on media freedoms found 82 percent of surveyed correspondents said they experienced interference, harassment, or violence while reporting; 70 percent reported the cancellation or withdrawal of interviews, which they knew or believed to be due to actions taken by the authorities; 25 percent were aware of sources being harassed, detained, called in for questioning, or otherwise suffering negative consequences for interacting with a foreign journalist; and 51 percent said they were obstructed at least once by police or other officials.
In February authorities expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters. In March the government designated the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Voice of America as foreign missions, forcing all three to report details to the government about their staffing, finances, and operations within the country. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club described the use of press accreditation as the most brazen attempt in the post-Mao era to influence foreign news organizations and to punish those whose work the government deems unacceptable.
Authorities used the visa renewal process to challenge journalists and force additional foreign reporters out of the country. In May officials refused to renew a work permit for a New York Times correspondent, who was then forced to leave the country. In September a Washington Post correspondent departed voluntarily, but authorities declined to issue a new work permit for her successor, leaving the Post without a single reporter in the country.
In late August, Chinese authorities stopped renewing press credentials for journalists regardless of nationality working at U.S. news organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead issued letters in lieu of press cards that it warned could be revoked at any time.
Local employees working for foreign press outlets reported increased harassment and intimidation, in addition to authorities’ continued tight enforcement of restrictions on these employees. Foreign news bureaus are prohibited by law from directly hiring Chinese citizens as employees and must rely on personnel hired by the Personnel Service Corporation, affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The code of conduct 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.” Previously, media outlets reported they were able to hire local staff but had to clear them with government officials. More recently, they said, all hiring must be preapproved and new staff were wary of taking on responsibilities that might be considered politically sensitive, limiting their portfolios and contributions.
In March the Beijing Personnel Service Corporation for Diplomatic Missions ordered the dismissal of at least seven Chinese nationals who worked at U.S. news organizations in Beijing.
According to a foreign reporter, one of his drivers was briefly separated from his car and authorities planted a listening device in his clothing and ordered him to monitor the reporter’s conversations during a trip to Inner Mongolia. On a reporting trip to Inner Mongolia, a different foreign reporter was detained for more than four hours. During the reporter’s detention, one officer grabbed her by the throat with both hands and pushed her into a cell even after she identified herself as an accredited journalist.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the 2019 Foreign Correspondents’ Club report, 94 percent of reporters who traveled to Xinjiang were prevented from accessing locations. Reporters documented cases of staged traffic accidents, road blockages, hotel closures, and cyberattacks. Nearly all foreign journalists reported constant surveillance while they worked 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. Reporters noted local contacts warned them any resident seen talking to foreigners would almost certainly be detained, interrogated, or sent to a “re-education camp.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Regulations 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.
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.
The government sought to exercise complete control over public and private commentary regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, undermining local and international efforts to report on the virus’s spread. COVID-19 information on Chinese social media was closely guarded from the outbreak’s earliest manifestation. Beginning on December 31, 2019, and continuing into 2020, the popular livestreaming and messaging platforms WeChat and YY imposed new censorship protocols, including on words related to the virus causing COVID-19, SARS, and potential disease vectors. On January 2, PRC state media aggressively highlighted the detention of eight doctors in Wuhan who warned about new virus reports via social media in late December, including Dr. Li Wenliang. Li, who later died from the virus, was condemned for “making false statements” on the Internet and was forced to write a self-criticism saying his warnings “had a negative impact.” Top national television news program Xinwen Lianbo reported the detentions while Xinhua published a call from Wuhan police for “all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors.” On January 14, plainclothes police detained journalists trying to report from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital and forced them to delete their television footage and hand in phones and cameras for inspection.
On February 2, government authorities told media outlets not to publish negative coronavirus-related articles. On February 6, the government tightened controls on social media platforms following a Xi Jinping directive to strengthen online media control to maintain social stability. On the same day, citizen journalist and former rights lawyer Chen Qiushi disappeared in Wuhan after posting mobile-phone videos of packed hospitals and distraught families. On February 9, citizen journalist and local businessman Fang Bin disappeared after posting videos from Wuhan that circulated widely on Chinese social media. On February 15, activist Xu Zhiyong was arrested after publishing a February 4 essay calling on Xi Jinping to step down for suppressing information about the virus. On February 16, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun was placed under house arrest, barred from social media, and cut off from the Internet after publishing an essay declaring, “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” On February 26, citizen journalist Li Zehua, who quit his job at state broadcaster CCTV to report independently from Wuhan, was detained. With security officers at his door, Li recorded a video testament to free speech, truth, and the memory of the Tiananmen movement.
In March, Renwu magazine published an interview with a frontline doctor that included allegations the outbreak started in December but that officials warned doctors not to share information about the virus. The story was deleted several hours after it went online.
In April authorities charged three persons with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for their volunteer work with the “Terminus 2049” project, which republishes social media and news reports likely to be censored by the government, including coronavirus outbreak pieces.
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 character on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent Xi. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films were subject to government censorship. The CCP issued a series of internal notices calling for films to highlight Chinese culture and values and promote the country’s successful growth. The popular World War Two historical drama The Eight Hundred, released in August, was originally scheduled for release in July 2019 but was abruptly pulled from distribution after censors noted the movie’s heroes rallied around the historically accurate Republic of China flag, which is still in use as the flag of Taiwan. The film was re-edited (and the flag altered) before the August release.
Foreign movies shown in the country were also subject to censorship. In December authorities ordered theaters to stop showing the fantasy action movie Monster Hunter after one day because of a short scene where soldiers made a joke involving the English-language words “knees” and “Chinese.” The movie remained banned even after the German producers apologized and deleted the scene. In September before its release in the country, domestic media outlets were ordered not to cover the new movie Mulan.
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, including for example portions of the U.S. vice-presidential debate when China was a topic of discussion.
Government regulations restrict and limit public access to foreign television shows, which are banned during primetime, and local streamers had to limit the foreign portion of their program libraries to less than 30 percent.
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.
Media reported in May that Chongqing announced a reward of up to 600,000 renminbi ($90,000) for reporting cases concerning imported illegal overseas publications.
Media reported in June that authorities in many rural counties, such as Libo County in Guizhou Province, were cracking down on “politically harmful publications.”
After schools reopened following the COVID-19 outbreak, school libraries in at least 30 provinces and municipalities expunged many titles from their libraries. Government officials ordered school officials to remove books according to a 2019 directive that sought to eliminate any books in school libraries that challenged 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.”
Authorities often justified restrictions on expression on national security protection grounds. In particular government leaders cited the threat of terrorism to justify restricting freedom of expression 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.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.