The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” although authorities generally limited and did not respect these rights, especially when they conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued tight control of print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. The government, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or in remarks to media, or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures.
In January the government abruptly shut down the website and social media accounts of the Beijing-based think tank Unirule. Its members, a group of prominent economics experts known for outspoken views on government economic policy, responded with a letter protesting the “obvious aim of silencing Unirule totally” and calling for greater government tolerance of NGOs. Government censors promptly removed the letter from the internet.
On March 31, Foshan Intermediate Court sentenced Su Changlan for subversion of state power for using the internet and social media to post online messages in support of Hong Kong’s 2014 prodemocracy Occupy Central Movement. The court found her guilty of incitement to subvert state power and sentenced her to three years’ imprisonment. Su had campaigned for the land rights of local farming communities. As Su’s sentence included time served, she was released in October (see section 1.c.).
On May 26, He Weifang, a law professor at the elite Peking University and the lawyer for Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, announced that government pressure compelled him to close his Weibo microblog and his accounts on the private messaging system “Weixin” (aka WeChat). Over the past decade, he had developed an online following of millions and was known for criticizing the country’s lack of freedom of speech and judicial independence.
In September, Guangzhou authorities detained Peng Heping because he helped publish a poetry anthology in honor of the late political prisoner and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. Peng was charged with “illegal business activity.”
In a sign of the level of sensitivity around public discourse, censors blocked several versions of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users (“netizens”) used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. The government similarly blocked the use of a popular but offensive nickname for North Korean President Kim Jong Un. Internet searches for this name returned the message, “according to the relevant laws, regulations, and policies, the search results have not been displayed.” Authorities arrested and tried a man in Jilin for “incitement to subvert state power” for posting selfies to his social media accounts wearing a T-shirt referring to President Xi as “Xitler.” In a similar case Guangdong authorities arrested a man for reposting a negative comment about Xi Jinping on the messaging app WhatsApp.
The legislature passed a law in November criminalizing disrespect for the national anthem in public, punishable by up to three years in prison and loss of political rights. The new law mirrors existing laws that punish public desecration of the flag with imprisonment.
Press and Media Freedom: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order that they not be reported at all. In a widely reported 2016 visit to the country’s main media outlets, President Xi told reporters that they were the “publicity front” of the government and the Party and that they must “promote the Party’s will” and “protect the Party’s authority.”
The government continued to strictly monitor the press and media, including film and television, via its broadcast and press regulatory body, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) also closely regulated online news media. All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the Communist Party does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 2016 on the nation’s news media, there were 232,925 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,158 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as xinhuanet.com and Chinadaily.com. This did not mean that online outlets did not report on important issues–many used creative means to share content–but they limited their tactics and topics since they were acting outside official approval.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. In particular, academics–a traditional source of information–were increasingly unwilling to meet with journalists.
Uighur webmaster Nijat Azat continued to serve a sentence for “endangering state security.” Fellow Uighur webmaster Dilshat Perhat was scheduled to be released, but there was no information on his case at year’s end. During the year additional journalists working in traditional and new media were also imprisoned.
In June police in Sichuan Province arrested and charged citizen journalist Yang Xiuqiong with “illegally providing state secrets overseas” for her work on the banned citizen rights website 64 Tianwang. Other site contributors, including its founder, Huang Qi, were arrested in 2016 and remained in jail. On July 4, a court in Mianyang, Sichuan, rejected 64 Tianwang contributor Wang Shurong’s appeal of a six-year sentence for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Lian Huanli, also a volunteer for the website, had been missing since May, according to media reports.
On August 3, a court in Dali, Yunnan, sentenced citizen journalist Lu Yuyu to four years’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Authorities arrested Lu and his partner, Li Tingyu, in June 2016 after they spent several years compiling daily lists of “mass incidents”–the official term for protests, demonstrations, and riots–and disseminated their findings via social media. Public security officials reportedly beat Lu, who later went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment and lack of access to his attorney. The government tried Li in a secret trial, then released her in April without announcing a formal verdict.
A pair of Voice of America (VOA) reporters were assaulted and detained for four hours under false pretenses while trying to cover the trial of jailed dissident blogger Wu Gan in Tianjin on August 14. As they approached the courthouse, they were accosted by 10 plainclothes individuals, physically detained and had their laptops and cameras confiscated. The police took them to jail and accused them of beating one of the persons who had detained them. They were released with their personal effects four hours later–after their photographs were deleted.
Foreign journalists based in the country continued to face a challenging environment for reporting. According to information collected in December by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC), the vast majority of respondents did not believe reporting conditions in the country met international standards. More than one-third of journalists believed that conditions had deteriorated compared with the previous year, an acceleration since 2016, when 25 percent of journalists believed conditions had deteriorated year over year. Similarly, the percentage of journalists reporting government officials had subjected them to interference, harassment, or violence while reporting increased from 57 percent to approximately two-thirds.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. Foreign press outlets reported that local employees of foreign news agencies were also subjected to official harassment and intimidation and that this remained a major concern for foreign outlets. Almost one-third of FCCC members who responded to FCCC inquiries reported authorities subjected their Chinese colleagues to pressure or violence. In addition FCCC members reported physical and electronic surveillance of their staff and premises.
While traveling in Hunan Province in April to report on a story of a petitioner who was attempting to travel to Beijing to lodge a protest, BBC correspondent John Sudworth and his team were physically assaulted by a group of men who refused to identify themselves; the journalists’ camera equipment was also broken. Later, in the presence of uniformed police officers and government officials, the same men forced the BBC team to sign a written confession and apology, under threat of further violence.
On August 23, plainclothes officers detained Nathan VanderKlippe, a Globe and Mail reporter, while he reported in Xinjiang and held him for several hours. The police temporarily seized his computer and examined the photographs on his camera’s memory card. After releasing him, they then followed him 120 miles to his hotel.
In November authorities in Xinjiang detained and interrogated two foreign journalists, holding them overnight and demanding the journalists turn over pictures and documents. They finally released the journalists in the morning and then followed them on the train to their next destination, where the local police and foreign affairs office again harassed them and blocked them from all hotels. Authorities spent the night keeping them awake in the lobby of a hotel, as they were “not allowed to sleep here.”
On December 14, security guards in Beijing beat two South Korean journalists attempting to cover the visit of South Korean president Moon Jae-in; one of the journalists was hospitalized.
Foreign Ministry officials once again subjected a majority of journalists to special interviews as part of their annual visa renewal process. During these interviews the officials pressured journalists to report less on human rights issues, referencing reporting “red lines” that journalists should not cross, and in some cases threatened them with nonrenewal of visas. Many foreign media organizations continued to have trouble expanding or even maintaining their operations in the country due to the difficulty of receiving visas. Western media companies were increasingly unwilling to publicize such issues due to fear of stirring up further backlash by the government.
On October 25, authorities blocked journalists from the New York Times, the Economist, the BBC, and the Guardian from entering a press event where the Communist Party revealed its new Politburo members. Authorities allowed other foreign journalists to attend but excluded these journalists, ostensibly because of past reporting.
Authorities continued to enforce tight restrictions on citizens employed by foreign news organizations. The code of conduct for citizen employees of foreign media organizations threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers information that projects “a good image of the country.” Several FCCC members reported that security officials summoned local assistants for meetings that the assistants found extremely intimidating.
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of postpublication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Chinese-language media outlets outside the country reported intimidation and financial threats from the government. For example, the owner of the Vision China Times in Australia said that Chinese officials repeatedly threatened Chinese companies that advertised in his newspaper. In one case Ministry of State Security officials stopped by the company every day for two weeks. Other Chinese-language outlets signed deals with the Chinese News Service, which is the second-largest state-owned news agency in China.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministry of Defense continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online news media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.
The CCP Central Propaganda Department ordered media outlets to adhere strictly to the information provided by authoritative official departments when reporting on officials suspected of involvement in graft or bribery. Throughout the year the Central Propaganda Department issued similar instructions regarding various prominent events. Directives often warned against reporting on issues related to party and official reputation, health and safety, and foreign affairs. For example, after a North Korean nuclear test, the Propaganda Department directed media companies to disable the comments function on all social media platforms, ordered media outlets to downplay the news, and decreed they follow Xinhua’s lead in reporting. The orders included instructions for media outlets not to investigate or report on their own. The CAC and SAPPRFT strengthened regulations over the content that online publications are allowed to distribute, reiterating long-standing rules that only state-licensed news media may conduct original reporting.
In the first half of the year, provincial authorities inspected Hunan TV, one of the country’s most watched channels, and warned the network it focused too much on entertainment and failed to comply with the CPC’s requirement that media outlets bear the flag of the Communist Party.
In September the SAPPRFT issued more than a dozen new guidelines on television content. The general thrust of these guidelines was to prohibit negative reporting about government policies or officials. Additionally, the SAPPRFT planned to ramp up production of “a large number of television dramas that sing the praises of the party, the motherland, the people, as well as its heroes.”
The FCCC reported it was still largely impossible for foreign journalists to report from the TAR, other Tibetan areas, or Xinjiang without experiencing serious interference. Those who took part in government-sponsored trips to the TAR and other Tibetan areas expressed dissatisfaction with the access provided. Of those who tried to report from the Tibetan area, more than 75 percent reported problems in both Tibet, which is officially restricted, and Xinjiang, which ostensibly does not have the same restrictions on reporting. Foreign reporters also experienced restricted access and interference when trying to report in other sensitive areas, including the North Korean border, at places of historical significance to the founding of the Communist party, sites of recent natural disasters, and areas–including in Beijing–experiencing social unrest.
Authorities continued to block electronic distribution of the VOA and Radio Free Asia. Despite attempts to block access, the VOA and Radio Free Asia had significant audiences, including human rights advocates, ordinary citizens, English language teachers and students, and government officials.
Overseas television newscasts, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines occasionally were banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with the total number of films not to exceed 38.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. The SAPPRFT controlled all licenses to publish. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications could not be printed or distributed without the approval of the SAPPRFT and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
In March the government issued a ban on the sale of foreign publications without an import permit. The new rules affect the popular online shopping platform Taobao, which is banned from offering “overseas publications,” including books, movies, and games, that do not already have government approval. The ban also applies to services related to publications. According to a statement on the company’s website, “Taobao has embargoed sales of foreign publications.”
A Zhejiang court in February convicted a pair of booksellers for selling banned books. Dai Xuelin, a Beijing-based social media editor at the Guangxi Normal University Press, and his business partner Zhang Xiaoxiong were sentenced to five years and three and one-half years, respectively, in prison for running an “illegal business operation” because they resold books published in Hong Kong that were not authorized for sale in the mainland.
Following the death in July of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, the government censored a broad array of related words and images across public media and on social media platforms. Besides his name and image, phrases such as “rest in peace,” “grey,” quotes from his writings, images of candles, and even candle emojis were blocked online and from private messages sent on social media. Attempts to access censored search results resulted in a message saying the result could not be displayed “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies.”
The government tightly controlled and highly censored domestic internet usage. According to an official report released in July by the China Internet Network Information Center, the country had 751 million internet users, accounting for 54.3 percent of its total population. The report noted 19.92 million new internet users in the first half of the year, with approximately 201 million going online from rural areas. Major media companies estimated that 625 million persons, mainly urban residents, obtained their news from social and online media sources.
Although the internet was widely available, it was heavily censored. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government also reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat those who posted alternative views. Internet companies also employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship.
During the year the government issued a number of new regulations to tighten its control over online speech and content. The regulations increased government oversight over internet livestreaming, bulletin board services, instant messaging applications, group chats, and other online services. The government also finalized draft regulations that strengthened government control over internet news information services; it had not yet finalized draft regulations issued for public comment during 2016 that would further strengthen government oversight over online publishing.
The Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in June, allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources.” Article 12 of the law criminalizes using the internet to “creat[e] or disseminat[e] false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although they had previously exercised this authority prior to the law’s passage.
The CAC finalized regulations on Internet News Information Services that require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure that news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extended longstanding traditional media controls to new media–including online and social media–to ensure these sources also adhere to the Communist Party directive.
In June the Beijing Cyberspace Administration forced companies to close celebrity gossip social media accounts, citing new rules designed to create an “uplifting mainstream media environment.” Included in the closing was “China’s Number One Paparazzi” Zhou Wei, who had more than seven million followers on his Weibo microblog account. References to homosexuality and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia were also banned. Writers who cover lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex; gender; and youth health issues expressed concern over how to proceed without being shut down.
New CAC regulations on livestreaming came into effect on July 15. All live-streaming platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps were required to register with CAC. Licensed central media and affiliations are not required to register. Throughout the year the government published details of its crackdown on live-streaming content, detailing its efforts to shut down dozens of offending live-streaming accounts.
The SAPPRFT set out further limits in September on posting audio and visual material to social media. The new rules require a special permit for transmission of audiovisual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued two directives during the year restricting the use of unauthorized virtual private network (VPN) services as part of the government’s longstanding crackdown on online speech and content. The ministry’s move was targeted at individual rather than enterprise VPN users. Ministry officials acknowledged during a July 25 press conference the need for major corporations and other users to retain access to authorized VPN services. Nonetheless, many smaller businesses, academics, and others expressed concern over the integrity of communications transmitted using authorized VPN services. The directive reflected a more aggressive stance towards unauthorized VPN use.
The new rules and regulations issued during the year–combined with the massive online presence of citizens who must live under these restrictions–severely restricted internet freedom. The regulatory tightening imposed by security services and propaganda officials resulted in an internet management model that permits some internet traffic for commercial gain while severely curtailing political opinion.
GreatFire.org, a website run by activists tracking online censorship in the country, reported that thousands of domains, web links, social media searches, and internet protocol addresses that it monitored in the country remained blocked. In addition to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the government continued to block almost all access to Google websites, including its email service, photograph program, map service, calendar application, and YouTube. Other blocked websites included Pinterest, SnapChat, Picasa, WordPress, and Periscope, among many others. While countless news and social media sites remained blocked, a large percentage of censored websites were gambling or pornographic websites.
Government censors continued to block websites or online content related to topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and all content related to the Panama Papers. Many other websites for international media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, remained perennially blocked, in addition to human rights websites, such as those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In addition, in July the last two major Chinese-language news websites originating outside the country were blocked–Financial Times Chineseand Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao. With their departure, all Chinese-language newspaper websites available on the mainland fell under the control of the Communist Party.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. In August blogger and activist Wu Gan, known by his pen name “Super Vulgar Butcher,” was tried in a Tianjin court for “subversion of state power.” Wu spent two years in pretrial detention without access to the lawyers his family hired, and there was evidence he was tortured during that incarceration. His father was also detained for part of that time but later released without charge. Prior to his trial, Wu released a video statement denying any wrongdoing and calling his trial a “farce.” His trial was held in secret, and afterward the court released a statement stating that Wu “recognized that his behavior violated criminal law.” On December 26, the court sentenced Wu to eight years in prison followed by five years’ deprivation of political rights. Following the verdict, Wu released a statement restating he was tortured and identifying the perpetrators of this mistreatment. Family and friends believed his long detention and his lengthy sentence were due to his refusal to confess to any crimes and retract his accusations of torture.
In addition there continued to be reports of cyberattacks against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign governments, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available. In July, Apple Inc. removed VPN services from its app store in the country. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year, such as during the period prior to the 19th Party Congress.
Government officials were increasingly willing to prosecute individuals for using VPN software. In Guangzhou a Dongguan court sentenced a local citizen to nine months’ imprisonment and fined him 5,000 yuan ($758) as punishment for selling VPN software.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This is defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
Following President Xi’s calls for establishing an alternative form of global internet governance at CAC’s December 2015 World Internet Conference, the government continued its international diplomatic efforts towards the establishment of a new, government-led multilateral system to replace the existing multistakeholder system that currently includes a variety of international stakeholders, including representatives from business and civil society. The CAC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs both released major cyberpolicy strategies during the year that called for adoption of the multilateral approach, and the government encouraged members of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to support its internet governance agenda during summit events that it hosted. The government’s 2017 World Internet Conference, held December 3-5, again included calls for countries to adopt an “internet sovereignty” model that would increase government censorship power.
The government continued to introduce new measures implementing a “Social Credit System,” which is intended to collect vast amounts of data to create credit scores for individuals and companies in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce public corruption. Unlike Western financial credit-rating systems, the government’s Social Credit System is designed also to collect information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, quality of friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics. This system is also intended to result in increased self-censorship, as netizens would be liable for their statements, relationships, and even for information others shared on social media groups. Netizens’ credit scores decline when they express impermissible ideas, spread banned content, or associate with anyone who does so, and a decline in score means a loss of access to information-sharing applications and websites. An individual’s “social credit score,” among other things, quantifies a person’s loyalty to the government by monitoring citizens’ online activity and relationships. Points are awarded and deducted based on the “loyalty” of sites visited, as well as the “loyalty” of other netizens a person interacts with.
In September the government announced new regulations that place responsibility on the organizers of chat groups on messaging apps for ensuring that impermissible content is not shared on the group chat. Under these new rules, the creator of a WeChat group, for example, could be held liable for failing to report impermissible content shared by anyone in the chat group. According to an announcement by the CAC, the companies that provide chat platforms are responsible for tracking and assigning “social credit ratings.” Users with low social credit scores lose the privilege of creating groups, and even the ability to use the platforms, a significant loss now that a majority of young persons use messaging platforms for not only social but also many economic interactions.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive SAPPRFT and Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
The CCP requires undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, to complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought. The government declared 2017 to be the “Year of Education Quality on University Ideological and Political Lessons,” and 29 prominent universities were inspected to assess their promotion of Marxist theory and socialist core values. State media reported the government dispatched more than 200 “experts” to at least 2,500 college and university classes nationwide to inspect and attend ideological and political classes. A Financial Times report in June suggested these inspections focused on universities with Western ties.
The government also placed new regulations on private K-12 schools. A Wall Street Journal article stated such changes were motivated by the central government’s desire to have more influence in education by requiring a CCP presence in these schools. As of July international students were also required to take political theory classes.
In June, Education Minister Chen Baosheng stressed that higher education institutions needed to better promote Marxist theory and “socialist core values.” Two Chinese professors were fired for criticizing Mao Zedong in online posts in January and June.
In December 2016 Xi Jinping chaired the National Ideology and Political Work Conference for Higher Education and called for turning the academy into a “stronghold that adheres to party leadership.” Xi stressed that “China’s colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning under the Party’s leadership; they are colleges and universities with Chinese socialist characteristics.” Xi further asserted that strengthening the role of Marxism in the curriculum was needed to “guide the teachers and students to become staunch believers in the socialist value system.” Xi specifically called on professors to become “staunch supporters of the Party’s rule.”
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority nationality areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
Academic censorship was on the rise during the year, and the CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. In a case that made international headlines, in August the Cambridge University Press excluded 300 articles and book reviews from the online version of its prestigious China Quarterly periodical available in the country. It was responding to a demand by the General Administration of Press and Publication, which threatened to shut down the website if the articles were not removed. The articles touched on a broad set of themes, including Taiwan relations, the Cultural Revolution, the crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, and government policies towards ethnic minorities. After widespread criticism, Cambridge University Press reversed its decision and reposted the articles. According to the Financial Times, this case led academics to fear that universities would be forced to make concessions or lose access to the country’s lucrative market.
In September a foreign researcher announced that government authorities were systematically erasing historical records as part of their process of digitization. While working through the digitization of historical documents, they deleted Chinese journal articles from the 1950s that contradict explanations of party history promoted by President Xi. These databases are a primary source for academic research by domestic and foreign academics.
The CCP actively promotes censorship of Chinese students outside the country. A New York Times opinion article asserted that Chinese students on Australian campuses tended to self-censor and monitor each other, threatening free and open debate on campus. A Chinese commencement speaker at the University of Maryland who criticized China and Chinese authorities was excoriated in Chinese social media, and the student later apologized for her comments. The New York Times stated that the 150 chapters of the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations “…have worked in tandem with Beijing to promote a pro-Chinese agenda and tamp down anti-Chinese speech on Western campuses.” A Time article reported Taiwan universities signed agreements with mainland Chinese counterparts promising to avoid teaching sensitive content to secure lucrative fee-paying students from China. The government stated it would no longer fund scholars going to the University of California San Diego after a commencement speech there by the Dalai Lama.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts in China. In July the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture prohibited Justin Bieber from performing in order to “maintain order in the Chinese market and purify the Chinese performance environment.” The government continued to forbid public performances of Handel’s Messiah, according to an August report by the Economist. Authorities also scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
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 that 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 that 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.
Several significant demonstrations took place in Beijing in late 2016 and during the year. In January approximately 500 People’s Liberation Army veterans protested over unpaid benefits. The crowd, while sizable, was considerably smaller than the thousands of veterans who took to the streets in October 2016 outside the headquarters of the Central Military Commission. In June approximately 100 protesters clashed with Beijing police in the city’s Changping District. The protesters were parents who objected to the city’s plans to assign their children to a new, less affluent school. Police detained at least three protesters. In July police in Beijing closed city streets to shut down a protest over the government’s targeting of a company called Shanxinhui. The government had shut down the company over allegations it was a thinly disguised pyramid scheme, but protesters claimed it was a social organization that served the poor.
In February more than 100 petitioners from Raoping County in Guangdong Province protested in front of the nearby Chaozhou Municipal Government headquarters. Local officials had sold villagers’ farmland to a battery disassembling and disposal mill, which resulted in severe environmental damage, including pollution of the villagers’ major drinking-water source, the nearby Huang-Gang-He River. Police violently dismissed the peaceful demonstration in the evening, detaining 12 villagers.
In March police in Henan Province used tear gas and fired pepper spray at thousands of protesters who gathered to demonstrate against forced evictions in a suburb of Henan’s Shangqiu City. Radio Free Asia reported that several persons, including some elderly residents, were severely injured in encounter.
In April police formally charged four demonstrators–Chen Ruifeng, Mai Pinglin, Mai Yingqiang, and Wang Er–on suspicion of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order and to disrupt traffic.”
In May prominent Guangdong human rights activist Li Biyun and dozens of villagers from Rongli village took to the streets with banners and firecrackers to celebrate the arrest of former Jiangmen Municipal Party secretary and mayor Liu Weigen, who was under investigation for bribery. Li led the march, followed by villagers holding red banners that read, “Support Xi’s anticorruption campaign.” Police and security forces filmed the demonstrations but took no action.
Rights lawyers and activists who advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience were detained, arrested, and in some cases sentenced to prison terms. Lawyer Tang Jingling continued to serve his five-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” for promoting his ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience. Yuan Xinting, also sentenced in the same case in January 2016, remained in prison. Their associate, Wang Qingying, was released from prison in November 2016. He reported being tortured while in detention.
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 under the guise of ensuring public safety.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that 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, which went into effect in September 2016, 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 August 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 that 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.”
On January 1, the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities with 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 that NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be placed on a “blacklist” and barred from operating in the country.
In the first year of the Foreign NGO Management Law’s implementation, some international NGOs reported that it became 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 NGO’s conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. Even after the Ministry of Public Security published a list of sponsors in December 2016, NGOs reported that most government agencies had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Potential Professional Supervisory Units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what would be expected of them by authorities. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, also left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell under 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 September approximately 185 of the MPS-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 June there were more than 670,000 legally registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported that 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. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds under the law, 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 prohibited 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, to provide protection and assistance to select categories of refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports that North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to repatriate North Korean citizens forcibly. According to press reports, some North Koreans detained by government authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release.
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. Public security officers maintained checkpoints in most counties and on roads leading into many towns as well as within major cities, such as Lhasa. Restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese migrants or tourists in Tibetan areas. Uighurs in the XUAR also faced restrictions on movement within the XUAR itself. 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 cities and on public roads. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas.
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 2015 National Economic and Social Development published by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 294 million persons lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Of that number, 247 million individuals worked outside their home district. Many 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.
In 2015 the government announced that all citizens were entitled to a household registration (also known as a hukou), including children born to a single parent or children born in violation of the one-child policy. On March 24, the Ministry of Public Security announced it had issued 14 million hukous to regularize the status of undocumented women and children.
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. Wu Rongrong, a women’s rights activist who gained global prominence in 2015 after being detained for trying to pass out stickers with antisexual harassment slogans, was denied a travel permit because of “unresolved legal cases” against her, and she was told the travel ban was for 10 years. After she posted about the situation on social media, which garnered international attention, the travel ban was suddenly lifted.
Uighurs, particularly those residing in the XUAR, 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 Haj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered residents of the XUAR to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. The passport recall, however, was not limited to Uighur areas. Family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country. During the year the government also made a concerted effort to compel Uighurs studying abroad to return to China. Upon return, some of them were detained or disappeared.
In the TAR and Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Yunnan, and Sichuan Provinces, Tibetans, especially Buddhist monks and nuns, experienced great difficulty acquiring passports. The unwillingness of government authorities in Tibetan areas to issue or renew passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for a large segment of 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 who were apprehended while attempting 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 did not provide protection against the expulsion or forcible return of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, especially North Korean refugees. 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. The government continued to deny UNHCR permission to operate outside of Beijing.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the government detained 41 North Koreans in July and August alone, compared with 51 documented detentions of North Korean refugees from June 2016 to July 2017. In the same report, HRW estimated that among these 92 North Korean refugees, family members reported that at least 46 were refouled.
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 allowed UNHCR to assist the relatively small number of non-North Korean and non-Burmese refugees. 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.
Authorities continued to repatriate North Korean refugees forcibly, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported such refugees 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.
The government continued to prevent UNHCR from having access to North Korean or Burmese refugees. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
In some instances the government pressured other countries to return asylum seekers or UNHCR-recognized refugees forcibly. In July, Egypt detained more than 100 Uighurs, and forcibly returned a portion to China, including some who were seeking asylum.
Access to Basic Services: North Korean asylum seekers and North Koreans 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. International media reported that as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were married to Chinese spouses, 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.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the resettlement 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. The government worked with UNHCR in granting exit permission for a small number of non-Burmese and non-North Korean refugees to resettle in third countries.