China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 the first three weeks of January, the CAC closed 730 websites and 9,300 mobile apps, and during the second quarter of the year, it shuttered a total of 2,899 websites. The CAC announced that it had deleted more than seven million pieces of online information, and 9,382 mobile apps by April. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which included politically sensitive materials. For example, in July alone the CAC reportedly collected nearly 12 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information.
The CAC also specifically ordered Tencent’s “Tiantian Kuaibao” news app to make changes, alleging it had been spreading “vulgar and low-brow information that was harmful and damaging to the internet ecosystem,” per the CAC statement. New approvals for offerings on Tencent’s gaming platforms were frozen for nine months in 2018 for any new video game approvals as part of an industry-wide tightening of the video game market, but this was the first time the news app had been criticized. Tencent’s popular messaging app WeChat announced in late February that it had closed more than 40,000 public accounts since the beginning of the year and removed 79,000 articles. The announcement stated the contents of the closed accounts were “false, exaggerated and vulgar” and that they “conveyed a culture of hopelessness and depression,” which “tarnished users’ taste” and the overall environment of the platform.
The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to freely communicate.
On April 8, popular social media site Weibo (similar to Twitter and owned by Sina) announced it had suspended more than 50 popular accounts “according to relevant laws and regulations,” as they included “politically harmful information.” Account owners received notifications from Weibo that the suspensions would last 90 to 180 days. Account holders included Yu Jianrong, a prominent scholar of rural development and activist for the country’s peasants, who reportedly had not published information deemed sensitive for several years but had 7.2 million followers at the time his Weibo account shut down.
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,” and criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate 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 the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
Xinhua issued an authoritative news piece in January stating that the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) had released two new documents regarding short-video market regulation: one on regulation of the platforms and one concerning censorship. The new censorship measures imposed stricter criteria for short videos online. The guidelines, which were believed to have been issued at the government’s direction, banned 100 types of inappropriate content, from videos of users dressing up in Communist Party costumes to those “promoting money worship and hedonism.” The CNSA documents openly discussed the “content review” standards it expected of these online video services. Other content to be removed included anything that “attacks China’s political or legal systems,” “content that damages China’s image,” “foot fetishes or sexual moaning,” and “spoofing the national anthem.” The documents called for platforms to expand their internal censorship teams as business grows and changes, and to keep at least one “content review” employee on staff for every 1,000 new videos posted to their platform each day.
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 CCP directives.
In June censors abruptly shut down the app of the financial news aggregator wallstreetcn.com, which had been downloaded more than 100 million times, as well as its website. Earlier in the year, regulators fined wallstreetcn.com for distributing news without a license, and disrupting “online news order.” In the shutdown notice the CAC said that wallstreetcn.com was in breach of cybersecurity measures.
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.
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 finalization of the Cybersecurity Law in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, imposing penalties on network operators that provide services to users who do not provide real-name information. In response, Baidu and Sina Weibo announced 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. In March, following a chemical plant explosion outside of Shanghai, the local government jammed drones sent by media outlets to capture footage of the explosion.
In December 2018 the Zhuhai Court sentenced prominent anticensorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua to a jail term of two years for “inciting subversion of state power” in a closed-door trial. He was released from prison on November 8. Zhen, also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, reportedly provided technical guidance to domestic Internet users on how to circumvent the Great Firewall to make their posts visible overseas. He was also the executive governor of a website, Rights Movement, which helped collect and disseminate information on rights protections.
Many if not most of the major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as the websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The government further restricted this space during the year, adding the Washington Post, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Australia’s the Age and News, and Wikipedia to the list of websites blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Hong Kong protests that occurred during the year were subject to heavy, selective censorship: the government initially struck any mention of the protests from media and online discussions, then began to allow and even promote reports criticizing the protesters, while continuing to prohibit access to positive or neutral reporting on the protesters, including reporting that detailed the protesters’ demands for democracy and accountability for police actions.
On August 5, Sun Yat-sen University doctoral student Chen Chun joined the protests in Hong Kong and posted his support for the Hong Kong protesters on his Weibo account. Other netizens reported him to Guangdong police, and his account was shut down.
Censorship on Chinese-owned social media platforms of users in other countries also occurred. In November TikTok, which was owned by Bytedance, blocked the account of a foreign-based user who had posted a video to raise awareness of the continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. After a public outcry, TikTok restored her account and admitted her video had been temporarily removed “due to human moderation error.”
The government also punished Chinese citizens for expressing their opinions on foreign social media platforms while outside the country. In November a court in Wuhan sentenced Luo Daiqing to six months’ imprisonment on charges of “provocation” for posting a set of images mocking Chinese leaders on Twitter. Luo posted the images while living in Minnesota, where he was a student; he was arrested in July on a visit home to Wuhan.
The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information. In June at least 10 prominent blogs that published financial news and analyses were shut down and had all past content erased. This happened at the same time that government propaganda sources were publishing specific new messages about the country’s economy.
Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube.
Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users there. A recent round of government attention on Twitter users in China started in late 2018. A Chinese dissident who lived in Beijing said the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau summoned him twice on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and presented printed pages of his tweets as evidence. Internet monitors and activists tallied at least 40 cases of government authorities pressuring users in person to delete their tweets or their Twitter accounts. One user spent 15 days in a detention center, while police threatened another user’s family, and a third Twitter user was chained to a chair for eight hours of interrogation.
During the year authorities continued to manipulate 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 March the anonymous netizen behind @AirMovingDevice, a Twitter account that specialized in using publicly available data to critically analyze government activity, declared she or he would be deleting all previous tweets and ceasing communication, adding, “it is not my intention to subvert state or Party authority.”
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On July 29, a court in Sichuan sentenced prominent blogger Huang Qi–a Chinese internet pioneer who once won CCP praise for using the web to “combat social ills”–to 12 years in prison for “deliberately disclosing state secrets” and “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” The charges arose from Huang’s efforts to publicize cases of human rights abuses on the 64Tianwang blog. Huang Qi had been jailed twice previously, for a total of eight years, as a result of his blogging that exposed local government malfeasance and brutality. After Huang’s release from those sentences, he continued his blogging activities.
On January 29, a court in Hubei sentenced Liu Feiyu to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because he ran a news portal publicizing government corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, there were continuing 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 entities, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
References to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. A Weibo account featuring lesbian topics, where more than 143,000 users swapped information, was abruptly shut down in April and then reopened several weeks later. Several scenes in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody that depicted the main character’s gay relationships were cut out of the version shown in Chinese movie theaters.
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.
On June 9, police in Jiuxiangling District summoned Guo Yongfeng, a Christian and former participant of a local democratic movement who lived in Shenzhen, to Xili Police Station in response to his online post about his intention to sue Tencent for banning several of his social media accounts. Police warned Guo against disseminating information online about rights protection and organizing related assemblies, and they did not release him until he wrote a letter of guarantee.