The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” although authorities limited and did not respect these rights, especially when they conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued tight 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 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 in remarks to media, or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures.
In July, in the midst of a national outcry over faulty children’s vaccines, police visited the homes of concerned parents to attempt to stop their online discussion of the issue. Some parents were shown a document that said police intended to charge parents who attended a planned media session with “colluding with foreign media.” The parents subsequently cancelled the press conference.
In April Cui Haoxin, a Muslim poet, was detained in a Xinjiang internment camp for one week, which he attributed to the political views he expressed in his poetry and other writings. On August 16, police in Xinjiang threatened Cui in an attempt to stop him from posting information on Twitter about these camps.
Press and Media Freedom: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order 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 the media to engage in “journalism based on Marxism.” The rules also planned for greater political and ideological indoctrination efforts targeting at university students.
The government tightened ideological control over media and public discourse by restructuring its regulatory system. The CCP’s propaganda department has direct control of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). Authorities also restructured SAPPRFT in March, relocating some of its responsibilities and renaming it the State Administration for Radio and Television Agency (SARFT). The new structure greatly expands CCP control of film, news media, newspapers, books, and magazines. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda.
On November 14, the CAC issued a statement saying more than 9,800 internet accounts had been “cleaned up” as part of an ongoing campaign. On November 15, the CAC issued a notice that further restricted what opinions could be posted online and said the CAC would start to require detailed logs on users from internet and media firms as part of its new policy targeting dissenting opinion and social movements online. As of November 30, the CAC said it would require internet platforms that could be used to “socially mobilize” or that could lead to “major changes in public opinion” to submit reports on their activities.
The government took further action to build its propaganda tools. In March it consolidated China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China.” State media explained the restructuring was meant to “strengthen 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.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the Communist Party does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 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. This did not mean online outlets did not report on important issues. Instead, many used creative means to share content, but limited their tactics and topics since they were acting outside official approval.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. In 2017 authorities detained dozens of relatives of at least six reporters for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur Service. The reporters, members of the country’s Uighur minority group, were reporting on the Xinjiang internment camps (see section 1).
A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. In particular academics–a traditional source of information–were increasingly unwilling to meet with journalists.
During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
On June 26, a Sichuan province court sentenced political cartoonist Jiang Yefei to six years and six months in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally crossing the border.” Jiang fled to Thailand in 2008 after his cartoons criticizing the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes and lampooning Chinese government officials attracted government attention. In 2015 he was forcibly returned to China and then held incommunicado until his June 2018 trial, which was held in secret.
On August 1, authorities entered the house of retired professor Sun Wenguang in Jinan, Shandong, during an on-air telephone interview with Voice of America (VOA). Listeners heard the police stop the interview as the professor protested their incursion. The government held Sun for approximately two weeks and then released him under “strict supervision.” A pair of VOA journalists, Yibing Feng and Allen Ai, went to Sun’s home after his release on August 13, at which point the police detained them for six hours, destroyed their cell phones, and scanned their equipment.
Authorities in Xinjiang arrested four employees of state-sanctioned Xinjiang newspapers in September and accused them of publishing inappropriate content in the Uighur-language versions of their papers. A representative for the Xinjiang Daily group confirmed the arrests and said the four were accused of being “two-faced,” a euphemism for individuals who outwardly support CCP rule while secretly disagreeing with restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. Foreign press outlets reported local employees of foreign news agencies were also subjected to official harassment and intimidation and this remained a major concern for foreign outlets.
Journalists who traveled to Xinjiang reported very high levels of surveillance, monitoring, harassment, and interference in their work.
Foreign ministry officials again subjected a majority of journalists to special interviews as part of their annual visa renewal process. During these interviews the officials pressured journalists to report less on human rights issues, referencing reporting “red lines” journalists should not cross, and in some cases threatened them with nonrenewal of visas. Many foreign media organizations continued to have trouble expanding or maintaining their operations in the country due to the difficulty of receiving visas. Some foreign media companies were increasingly unwilling to publicize such issues due to fear of provoking further backlash by the government.
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.”
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of postpublication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Chinese-language media outlets outside the country reported intimidation and financial threats from the government. For example, the manager of Australia’s largest independent Chinese-language newspaper, Vision China Times, spoke at a conference in February about the pressure Chinese officials put on the newspaper’s advertising clients in an attempt to silence the media outlet’s views. Some clients were “grilled” by Chinese consulate officials in Australia, while others were visited during trips to China and pressured to stop doing business with Vision China Times.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministry of Defense continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online 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.
On February 8, the Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Department revoked the position and official title of Duan Gongwei, chief editor of the Southern Weekly, who oversaw two investigative financial reports about Hainan Airlines Group. The reports showed how the airline, which was reportedly linked to senior Chinese leaders, went on “acquisition sprees” despite operating with large debts.
The CCP Central Propaganda Department ordered media outlets to adhere strictly to the information provided by authoritative official departments, especially with respect to sensitive or prominent situations. Directives often warned against reporting on issues related to party and official reputation, health and safety, and foreign affairs.
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. A June segment of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight program on HBO criticizing Xi Jinping resulted in authorities temporarily blocking access to HBO’s online content.
It was extremely difficult for foreign journalists to report from the TAR, other Tibetan areas, or Xinjiang without experiencing serious interference. Foreign reporters also experienced restricted access and interference when trying to report in other sensitive areas, including the North Korean border, at places of historical significance to the founding of the Communist party, sites of recent natural disasters, and areas–including in Beijing–experiencing social unrest.
Overseas television newscasts, 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. 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.
Government rules ban the sale of foreign publications without an import permit. This includes sales on online shopping platforms, which are banned from offering “overseas publications,” including books, movies, and games, that do not already have government approval. The ban also applies to services related to publications.
One year after the death in July of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, the government continued to censor a broad array of related words and images across public media and on social media platforms. Besides his name and image, phrases such as “rest in peace,” “grey,” quotes from his writings, images of candles, and even candle emojis were blocked online and from private messages sent on social media. Attempts to access censored search results resulted in a message saying the result could not be displayed “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies.” Government censors also blocked online access to news regarding Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia.
The government tightly controlled and highly censored domestic internet usage. According to an official report released in August by the China Internet Network Information Center, the country had more than 802 million internet users, accounting for 57.7 percent of its total population. According to International Telecommunication Union data, 54 percent of the population used the internet in 2017. Major media companies estimated more than 625 million persons obtained their news from social and online media sources.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. 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 reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
In April censors temporarily shut down prominent news app Toutiao. It reopened after its owner apologized for failing to promote “core socialist values” through the app and promised to hire 4,000 new in-house censors, bringing the total number to 10,000. Authorities permanently shuttered the company’s other app, Neihan Duanzi, which was used by its 200 million users to share jokes and memes.
On March 19, Guangdong province authorities released environmental activist Lei Ping after the government-linked China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation submitted a letter to Xinyi police, who had detained Lei after she posted online an investigative report uncovering illegal quarry operations and their effects on local water resources.
The government continued to issue an array of regulations implementing the Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017. The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources.” Article 12 of the law criminalizes using the internet to “creat[e] or disseminat[e] false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” For example, Guangzhou anesthesiologist Tan Qindong spent three months in jail for “damaging a company’s reputation” after his criticism of a traditional Chinese medicinal tonic began circulating widely on WeChat. Chinese news reports speculated the arrest most likely occurred at the behest of the tonic manufacturer. Authorities released Tan after he wrote an apology admitting he had “not thought clearly.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
CAC regulations on Internet News Information Services require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extend longstanding traditional media controls to new media–including online and social media–to ensure these sources also adhere to the Communist Party directive.
According to January state media reports, authorities closed 128,000 websites in 2017. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which includes politically sensitive materials, as well as pornography and gambling. The pace continued during the year, with the CAC reporting it shuttered 3,673 websites and 1.2 million social media accounts in just the second and third quarters of the year. In July the CAC reported receiving 6.72 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information in that month alone.
The CAC also required all live-streaming platforms, video platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps to register with the CAC. Online content platforms by licensed central media and their affiliates were not required to register. In April state media announced content on short video sites that violated core socialist values would be removed, and the CAC announced it had “talked” to several short video sites. Shortly thereafter, the live streaming and comment section of a prominent platform, Douyin, ceased to function. Various other platforms faced shutdowns for “illicit” or “illegal” content over the last year.
Regulators required a special permit for transmission of audio and visual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming or “sensitive” topics.
The changes in cybersecurity law put in place by the CAC in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, with Baidu and Sina Weibo announcing accounts without real name registration would have restricted access to certain website functions (e.g., commenting on posts). Cybercafes in Xingtai and Shanghai also began using facial recognition to match users with their photographs printed on national identification documents.
The government continued efforts to limit virtual private network (VPN) service use. A new ban on “unauthorized” VPNs went into effect on March 31. While some users, including international companies, were permitted to use VPNs, smaller businesses, academics, and citizens did not have access to authorized VPNs. However, news reports indicated authorities were not strictly enforcing the ban. Authorities stepped up efforts to block VPN service providers ahead of major events such as November trade and internet shows. A software engineer in Shanghai was sentenced to three years in prison after providing illegal VPNs to hundreds of customers since 2016, reported the government-owned newspaper People’s Court Daily. The man, surnamed Dai, was also ordered to serve three years of probation and fined 10,000 yuan ($1,400).
Many other websites for international media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, in addition to those of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, remained perennially blocked. In August censors blocked the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s (ABC) website and phone app. ABC launched a Chinese-language site in 2017, and in 2018 ABC’s stories about Chinese influence in Australia drew strong criticism from official Chinese media.
Government censors continued to block websites or online content related to topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube. While countless news and social media sites remained blocked, a large percentage of censored websites were gambling or pornographic websites.
Early in the year, the government warned airlines not to list Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau as separate countries on their websites, and it published a list of offending airlines. Officials obligated Marriott hotels to shut down its website for a week and publicly apologize for listing Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate countries. Mercedes Benz was similarly forced to apologize to the government after a posting on its official Instagram account included this quotation, “‘Look at the situations from all angles, and you will become more open.’ — Dalai Lama.” Officials’ response to the posting included the state-run People’s Daily calling Mercedes Benz an “enemy of the people.”
References to same-sex acts/same sex-relations and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following SAPPRFT’s 2017 pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. In January domestic media reported a Beijing court agreed to hear a gay-rights activist’s lawsuit challenging SAPPRFT regarding homosexuality, although by December no ruling had been announced. Meanwhile, in May a nationally popular Hunan-based television broadcaster blacked out parts of Eurovision, a European music performance, that depicted gay relationships and pixelated an image of the gay-pride flag.
Censors shut down a prominent feminist Weibo account on International Women’s Day, March 8. With 180,000 followers, the account was one of the country’s most prominent online feminist advocacy platforms. Officials had similarly shut down the account in 2017 on International Women’s Day, then allowed it to reopen, but this time they shuttered the account permanently.
During the year authorities began manipulating the content of individual Twitter accounts. There were reports of authorities forcing individuals to give them access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their tweets. In October tens of thousands of postings from human rights advocate Wu Gan were deleted.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On June 27, authorities subjected dissident author Peng Peiyu to a two-week detention. Peng’s critical writing included an essay entitled “On Xi: A Call to Arms,” which he posted online shortly before his arrest. According to his attorney, Peng had been detained “many times before.”
In addition there continued to be reports of cyber operations against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign governments, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
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 Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts, scrutinized the content of cultural events, and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought. In July the Ministry of Education announced its intention to strengthen party leadership at all levels of private education, including K-12.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with party thought. In August an economics professor at Guizhou University was expelled from his university after posting online an article critical of the party. In September Xiamen University dismissed an assistant history professor for comments online that the university said “harmed the image of the party and the country.” Similar controls were applied to students. For example, a program in Chongqing required high school students to pass a review of their political ideology in order to take the national university entrance examination.
In June both foreign and domestic media reported a growing incidence of university professors being suspended or fired after their students reported them for comments deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate. In some cases the university assigned the students to act as informants.
In November media outlets reported crackdowns against student labor activists on Peking University and Renmin University campuses. Students and several recent graduates were detained and held incommunicado, one of whom was kidnapped from Peking University’s campus. Students on the scene were beaten, forced to the ground, and prevented from taking photographs or speaking by security forces. Renmin University officials allegedly harassed, threatened, employed surveillance against, and hindered the free movement of student activists (see section 7.a.).
In August the Financial Times reported foreign universities establishing joint venture universities in the country must establish internal CCP committees, granting greater decision-making power to CCP officials and reversing an earlier promise to guarantee academic freedom. In July the Financial Times reported a foreign academic was removed from the management board of the first joint venture university in the country for being critical of CCP-backed initiatives.
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority 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.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. A survey of more than 500 China scholars outside the PRC found 9 percent of scholars reported having been “taken for tea” by Chinese government authorities in the past 10 years to be interviewed or warned about their research; 26 percent of scholars who conducted archival research reported being denied access; and 5 percent reported difficulties obtaining a visa. According to the survey, 68 percent of foreign scholars said self-censorship was a problem in the field of China studies.
The CCP actively promoted censorship of Chinese students outside the country, with media reporting examples of self-censorship and the use of financial incentives to tamp down anti-Chinese speech on foreign campuses.
Academics and intellectuals in Xinjiang, along with the hundreds of thousands of other Xinjiang residents, disappeared or died, most likely in internment camps. Some officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed to be held in the camps included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; and Yalqun Rozi, writer. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all were disappeared at year’s end. Courts delivered suspended death sentences for “separatism” to Halmurat Ghopur, former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital, and Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University. Religious scholars Muhammad Salih Hajim and Abdulnehed Mehsum died in the camps, according to reports from international organizations during the year.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions, many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
On March 20-30, more than one thousand residents from Longyan’s Changting County in Fujian province protested outside the local government office against the government’s plan to construct a garbage incinerator one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the town’s residential areas. On March 30, local authorities called in riot police to restore order. Later that day government officials announced they were canceling the planned incinerator project.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, or other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Large numbers of public gatherings in Beijing and elsewhere were canceled at the last minute or denied government permits, ostensibly to ensure public safety.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by the Charity Law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding. Domestic NGOs continued to adjust to this new regulatory framework.
In 2016 the CCP Central Committee issued a directive mandating the establishment of CCP cells within all domestic NGOs by 2020. According to authorities, these CCP organizations operating inside domestic NGOs would “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” The directive also mandates authorities conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
In January 2017 the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China (Foreign NGO Management Law) came into effect. The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Finding an official sponsor was difficult for most foreign NGOs, as sponsors could be held responsible for the NGOs’ conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. After the Ministry of Public Security published a list of sponsors, NGOs reported most government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional Supervisory Units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of December 31, approximately 439 of the officially estimated 7,000 previously operational foreign NGOs had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with most focusing on trade and commerce activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2017, there were more than 800,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported foreign funding continued to drop, as many domestic NGOs sought to avoid such funding due to fear of being labeled as “subversive” in the face of growing restrictions imposed by new laws. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, the Foreign NGO Management Law requires foreign NGOs to maintain a representative office in the country to send funds or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict and evict local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times did not respect these rights.
While seriously restricting its scope of operations, the government occasionally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
In some instances the government pressured other countries to return asylum seekers or UNHCR-recognized refugees forcibly. On July 13, Radio Free Asia reported a Chongqing court had secretly sentenced human rights activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping in July 2017 for “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally crossing a national border.” Jiang and Dong had fled to Thailand with their families and received refugee status from UNHCR, but Thailand then forcibly returned them from Bangkok in 2015. During their televised “confessions,” Jiang and Dong appeared to have sustained torture while in detention. The families received no notification from authorities concerning the trial. According to contacts, authorities denied Dong’s former lawyer permission to meet with his client when he visited the Chongqing Number 2 Detention Center in July 2017.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to repatriate North Korean citizens against their will. In addition, North Koreans detained by government authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release. North Korean refugees were either detained in holding facilities or placed under house arrest at undisclosed locations. Family members wanting to prevent forced returns of their North Korean relatives were required to pay fees to Chinese authorities purportedly to cover expenses incurred while in detention. While detained North Koreans were occasionally released, they were rarely given the necessary permissions for safe passage to a third country.
In-country Movement: Authorities continued to maintain tight restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Freedom of movement for Tibetans continued to be very limited in the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Tibet Addendum). Uighurs faced new restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region, as well. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, identification checks remained in place when entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang security officials set up checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uighurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put any baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas. On September 26, the Urumqi Evening News announced Xinjiang railway administrative departments would stop selling tickets on all passenger services leaving Xinjiang starting on October 22. This occurred around the time reports surfaced about authorities criminally sentencing Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims en masse of groups of 200-500 persons from the internment camps to prisons in other parts of the country, such as Heilongjiang Province.
Although the government maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, the national household registration system (hukou) continued to change, and the ability of most citizens to move within the country to work and live continued to expand. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where the per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, they often could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits they could issue, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in more economically developed urban areas.
The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2017 National Economic and Social Development published in February by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 291 million persons lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents.
From April to June, non-Beijing residents could apply for a Beijing hukou under the special municipality’s new points-based system. Under the new policy, nonnatives of the city under the legal retirement age who have held a Beijing temporary residence permit with the city’s social insurance records for seven consecutive years and were without a criminal record were eligible to accumulate points for the hukou. Those with “good employment, stable homes in Beijing, strong educational background, and achievements in innovation and establishing start-ups in Beijing” were reportedly likely to obtain high scores in the point-based competition. The city was to announce the new hukou winners in the fourth quarter of the year.
Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.
Foreign Travel: The government permitted legal emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, continued to face foreign travel restrictions. The government expanded the use of exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of rights activists and of suspected corrupt officials and businesspersons, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise prevented from traveling overseas.
Uighurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved at the local level. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. The passport recall, however, was not limited to Uighur areas. Foreign national family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country. During the year the government continued its concerted efforts to compel Uighurs studying abroad to return to China, often pressuring relatives in Xinjiang to ask their overseas relatives to return. Authorities also refused to renew passports for Uighurs living abroad, leading them to either go home or pursue ways to maintain legal status in those countries. Upon return, many of these Uighurs, or persons connected with the Xinjiang residents, were detained or disappeared.
Tibetans faced significant hurdles in acquiring passports, and for Buddhist monks and nuns, it was virtually impossible. Authorities’ unwillingness to issue or even renew old passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.
The government continued to try to prevent many Tibetans and Uighurs from leaving the country and detained many while they attempted to leave (see Tibet Annex). Some family members of rights activists who tried to emigrate were unable to do so.
Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government forcibly returned vulnerable asylum seekers, especially North Korean asylum seekers. The government continued to consider North Koreans as “illegal economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and forcibly returned many of them to North Korea.
Human rights groups reported a relatively large number of North Korean asylum seekers being held in detention in Liaoning Province and Jilin Province who were in danger of imminent refoulement.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylee status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but generally recognized UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers. The government did not officially recognize these individuals as refugees; they remained in the country as illegal immigrants unable to work, with no access to education, and subject to deportation at any time.
North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, particularly young women living on the margins of Chinese society, were vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriages as a result of their unrecognized status. Authorities continued to repatriate North Korean refugees and asylum seekers forcibly, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported them to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation.
Numerous NGOs reported the government continued to deny UNHCR access to North Korean refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
Access to Basic Services: North Korean asylum seekers in the country seeking economic opportunities generally did not have access to health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the local settlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China.
Stateless Persons: International media reported as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were married to Chinese spouses, had not been registered because their North Korean parent was undocumented, leaving the children de facto stateless. These children were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent.