a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities, however, limited and did not respect these rights, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued to impose ever-tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics such as public health.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens often avoided discussing political matters, leaders, or “sensitive” topics for fear of official punishment. Authorities routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP or criticized President Xi’s leadership. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Many others confirmed authorities regularly warned them against meeting with foreign reporters or diplomats and to avoid participating in diplomatic receptions or public programs organized by foreign entities.
Those who made comments deemed politically sensitive in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media, or who posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures, as did members of their families. In addition, an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from authorities. The threat of peer-to-peer observation and possible referral to authorities further eroded freedom of speech.
On May 5, the Chengjiao People’s Court in Sanya, Hainan, sentenced Luo Changping, an internet influencer who in October 2021 made “insulting” remarks about a movie regarding the Korean War, to seven months’ imprisonment and was ordered to make a public apology, according to Radio France International.
Authorities arrested or detained countless citizens for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on public health concerns, including COVID-19.
This trend was especially stark in Xinjiang, where the government ran a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP operated a system to limit in-person and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped Muslims and members of non-Han ethnic minorities and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate.
During the year the government extensively used mobile phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang employed a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
Numerous ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by threats from government officials against members of their family who lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country (see section 1.e., Transnational Repression).
The government restricted the expression of views it found objectionable, even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online, the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments.
Control of public depictions of President Xi was severe, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon character on social media because internet users used it to represent Xi. Social media sites did not allow comments related to Xi and other prominent PRC leaders.
Censors removed arguments posted by Guangdong University of Finance and Economics professor Tong Zhiwei on the legality of Shanghai’s COVID-19 lockdowns early in the year and suspended his Weibo account, according to an overseas site tracking censorship. Tong had challenged the government’s legal authority to create makeshift hospitals and to require residents provide access to their homes.
In May the CCP issued a notice warning retired members not to “make negative political comments” and that “violations of disciplinary rules should be dealt with seriously.” The notice stressed that party departments should ensure that retired cadres and party members “listen to the party and follow the party.”
On April 18, RFA reported that censors deleted lists of persons who died during COVID-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and blocked a website that hosted the information. According to RFA, this list included at least 152 individuals whose deaths were a result of the government’s zero-COVID policy, including suicides of persons locked in high-rise apartments. RFA reported that authorities censored a rapper’s video of his song “New Slave” about the Shanghai lockdown.
On April 22, a compilation of recorded telephone calls by Shanghai-based citizens to local authorities pleading for support, named “Voices of April,” gained public attention. The recordings revealed individuals pleading for food and medicine; in one case parents complained that their baby was taken from them to a quarantine facility after having tested positive for COVID-19. Authorities attempted to censor the video, but it spread as individuals added content such as film trailers and cat videos to its beginning to evade censors. By the afternoon of April 23, censors had deleted the video from PRC internet and social media apps.
In May university students in Tianjin began an online campaign to end COVID-related campus lockdowns before censors began blocking their posts. Using a range of social media platforms and hashtags, students questioned why local authorities were continuing campus lockdowns after two weeks with no reported community spread. As censors began deleting hashtags such as “#Haven’tTianjinUniversitiesAlreadyReopened” and “#ReopenNankaiUniversity,” students started using names of celebrities for hashtags to evade censors until they were eventually blocked as well, according to media reports.
On May 18, current affairs magazine The Diplomat reported that the government was censoring prominent voices that were discussing the government’s COVID-19 lockdown policy. For example, authorities censored an article published in the National Science Review by Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a respiratory disease specialist, who suggested ways to ease the country’s COVID-19 restrictions. The government also censored a post by Dr. Miu Xiaohui, a retired infectious disease expert, calculating how many persons with diabetes might have died from lack of treatment during Shanghai’s lockdown. Media reported that authorities censored a post by prominent businessman Wang Sicong questioning the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for COVID-19.
On June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, various social media accounts reported that WeChat users were unable to change their profile picture. To censor social media expressions of commemoration, Weibo blocked the candle, fallen leaf, and birthday cake emojis as well as Chinese characters standing for “64”, a stand-in for “June 4th,” a phenomenon that website What’s on Weibo documented as having occurred every year on June 4 for the past decade.
Media reported that in June popular Taobao live streamer Li Jiaqi, known as “Lipstick Brother,” dropped his live stream in the middle of recording when a tank-shaped cake appeared on camera. While he claimed that it was due to an equipment malfunction, Li disappeared from all social media accounts and from the public eye for three months, according to media reports. He started streaming again in September.
Also in June according to China Digital Times, provincial authorities took measures to stop residents from commemorating the anniversary of the July 2021 floods in Henan Province that killed nearly 400 persons. Authorities reportedly prevented florists from selling flowers to anyone intending to place them in memory of the victims, plainclothes police were observed removing flowers near metro stations where individuals had drowned, and Weibo censored the hashtag “#One Year Anniversary of July 20th Torrential Rains in Zhengzhou, Henan Province#.”
Media reported that following the June 10 attack on women in Tangshan, Weibo suspended more than 900 accounts for instigating “gender confrontation” and for “spreading rumors.”
On June 14, China Digital Times revealed that authorities censored a WeChat account that posted a folk song called “Don’t Drink the Celebratory Toast.” The song advised listeners not to forget what happened during Shanghai’s COVID-19 lockdown. It also featured the catchphrase “We are the last generation,” alluding to a popular video that was released during Shanghai’s lockdown showing a local police officer who urged a Shanghai resident to comply with COVID-19 restrictions “to avoid impact on the next generation.” The man countered, “We are the last generation.”
Following the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, RFA reported on July 10 that a teacher in Tangshan was punished after he criticized online commenters for celebrating Abe’s death. His former employer, Tangshan Normal University, released a statement that the remarks on his Weibo account would be investigated. His post was deleted and his Weibo account banned, media reported.
On July 14, What’s on Weibo posted Weibo’s announcement that it would crack down on the use of homophones by internet users in order to create a more “healthy online environment and stop the spread of misinformation.” The announcement referred to the use of “misspelled words” to avoid censorship. According to the article, Chinese internet users started using the characters for the word Helan, the Mandarin pronunciation of the Netherlands, because it sounds very similar to Henan Province, enabling discussion of protests of a banking scandal in Henan.
In July the National Radio and Television Administration and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism published new rules banning 31 “misbehaviors” by livestreaming hosts. According to media reports, hosts must “uphold correct political values and social values” and should not release or show anything that “undermines the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” The directive stated that those who violated these rules would be placed on a blacklist and banned from livestreaming.
On August 10, news outlets reported that the government suspended the social media accounts of major e-health provider DXY for questioning the promotion of a traditional Chinese medicine to treat COVID-19. The medicine came under scrutiny during the Shanghai lockdowns when it was delivered to households at government expense while households were struggling to obtain food and supplies.
Nonprofit news platform Coda reported in September that authorities censored online commentary critical of the “dynamic zero-COVID policy” implementation in Xinjiang. After authorities began implementing a severe lockdown across the region, Xinjiang residents began to report on several platforms that the lockdown had led to food shortages, denial of non-COVID related emergency medical care, and the inability to purchase basic goods. Censors moved quickly to remove critical comments and videos, as well as to drown out such comments with positive stories about Xinjiang culture.
Media reported that on October 13 (just before the 20th Party Congress), Peng Lifa (pen name Peng Zaishou) disguised as a construction worker unfurled two banners on a highway overpass in Beijing criticizing Xi Jinping and the zero-COVID policy. He was dubbed “Bridge Man” by commentators and was reportedly detained soon after his act. References to, pictures of, and commentary about his protest banners on social media were quickly censored. According to RFA, on October 16, authorities in Zhejiang Province detained and interrogated an individual who supported Bridge Man’s banner protest online; his mobile phone was scanned by police for photographs and contacts. Artist Xiao Liang was also reportedly detained by authorities in mid-October after posting a photograph of a portrait he painted of Peng.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of members of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. Dozens of Uyghur relatives of overseas-based journalists working for RFA’s Uyghur Service remained disappeared or detained in Xinjiang.
Journalists faced the threat of demotion or dismissal for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. Long-standing journalist contacts continued to decline off-the-record conversations, even concerning nonsensitive topics. So-called taboo topics included not only Tibet, Taiwan, and corruption, but also natural disasters, the #MeToo movement, and COVID-19 policies.
During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media. The government also silenced numerous independent journalists by restricting their movement under the guise of pandemic response. Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 World Press Freedom Index tallied at least 102 journalists (professional and nonprofessional) detained in the country. Of these, 60 came from Xinjiang.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) 2021 report on media freedoms, released in January, found that the government continued to intimidate foreign correspondents, their local Chinese colleagues, and individuals they interviewed through physical assaults, online trolling, cyber hacking, and visa denials. Ninety-nine percent of foreign journalists said that reporting conditions did not meet what they considered to be international standards. Authorities also encouraged individuals to file lawsuits or threaten legal action against foreign journalists. Even individuals who explicitly agreed to media interviews later filed lawsuits against foreign correspondents.
The FCCC survey reported that nine foreign correspondents were sued or threatened with legal action by sources or government entities. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they faced online smear campaigns encouraged or instigated by state or state-backed groups, while 62 percent of respondents said they were obstructed at least once by police or other government officials.
Reporting in Xinjiang continued to be difficult. While more correspondents were allowed to travel to Xinjiang in 2021 than in 2020, they faced surveillance and harassment. Of the surveyed journalists who traveled to Xinjiang, 88 percent reported that they were visibly surveilled, 44 percent stated that authorities disrupted their interviews, and 34 percent were forced to delete video footage and photographs.
Local employees working for foreign press outlets reported considerable harassment and intimidation, in addition to authorities’ continued tight enforcement of restrictions on these employees. Foreign news bureaus are prohibited by law from directly hiring Chinese citizens as employees and must rely on personnel hired by the Personnel Service Corporation, a subordinate unit of the Diplomatic Service Bureau affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The code of conduct threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers with information that projects “a good image of the country.” Multiple foreign outlets reported a continuing inability to hire the number of local staff members that they wished, saying authorities continued to impose an unofficial cap of one local researcher per foreign correspondent from media outlets out of favor with authorities. Some outlets even reported trouble getting the Diplomatic Service Bureau’s permission to hire a single local researcher per correspondent. New staff were wary of taking on responsibilities that might be considered politically sensitive, limiting their portfolios and contributions.
According to Freedom House, foreign correspondents in the country were “subjected to mass expulsions or visa rejections based on nationality, attempted interrogations in connection with national security charges, and questionable lawsuits by sources who had explicitly agreed to be interviewed.”
Government officials also sought to suppress journalism outside their borders; see section 1.e., Transnational Repression.
Fan Ruoyi (Haze), a journalist for Bloomberg detained in 2020, was released on bail in January but was still under investigation for endangering national security.
On February 2, What’s on Weibo reported that a Dutch reporter was dragged away by a security guard during a live broadcast for the Dutch channel NOS while reporting on the Winter Olympics from Beijing. According to the article, editor in chief of NOS Nieuws Marcel Gelauf noted that the incident was “a painful example of the current state of press freedom in China.” The security guard later claimed the reporter was standing in a restricted area and did not identify himself, media reported.
While hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic games, PRC authorities warned athletes, coaches, and other participants to avoid “any behavior or speeches” that “violated Chinese laws and regulations.” Recipients understood this as a warning to avoid discussing any sensitive topic with the press. The FCCC reported that security officers prevented reporters from interviewing residents near the Olympic skiing venue. Authorities told reporters that all reporting in public areas required approval. Journalists reported that PRC officials were particularly sensitive about filming anything Olympic-related such as merchandise stores or the Olympic logo. The Washington Post’s China bureau chief reported that online trolls inundated her account with vitriolic comments following a report on the Olympics mascot. Officials reportedly followed and attempted to impede the reporting of National Public Radio’s China correspondent.
On March 4, Beijing police visited Spanish journalist Jaime Santirso and questioned him about his coverage of the National People’s Congress.
Citizen journalist Wang Jixian was threatened with violence by online trolls because his reporting videos from Ukraine did not support the PRC’s narrative about the war.
On June 12, police in Tangshan detained and mistreated reporter Zhang Weihan, who was reporting on the violent assault on four women at a local restaurant on June 10. On June 18, RPN reported that a reporter from Fuzhou was quarantined for COVID-19 in his home after he announced in a WeChat group that he would like to go to Tangshan to investigate the case. RFA reported on June 21 that authorities in Tangshan detained and interrogated journalists who arrived in the city to cover the beatings.
On August 9, independent journalist Mao Huibin was arrested and held at the Tangshan Number 1 Detention Center for allegedly publishing articles on the women who were beaten in Tangshan, according to media reports. Mao was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” after his inquiry into the whereabouts of the women.
On November 27, journalists from at least four foreign media outlets were detained while covering demonstrations in Shanghai. A Reuters journalist was detained for approximately 90 minutes before being released. A BBC reporter was beaten and kicked by police officers and taken away in handcuffs. The BBC reported “no official explanation or apology” for the incident was given by authorities beyond a claim by officials who later released him that they had “arrested him for his own good in case he caught COVID from the crowd.” A correspondent and camera operator from the Swiss television network RTS were detained and their video equipment confiscated following a live broadcast from a protest site. An Associated Press journalist was tackled and hit repeatedly on his head by police and taken to a police station before being released.
Authorities continued to suppress any reporting related to the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. RFA reported in June that journalist Gao Yu was placed under house arrest in Beijing prior to the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. A founding member of the banned China Democracy Party, Zha Jianguo, claimed that police warned him not to speak to the media concerning the anniversary. A representative of the Tiananmen Mothers victims group also reported that she had been banned from giving media interviews.
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular topics were reported or to order they not be reported at all. The government’s propaganda department issued daily guidance on what topics should be promoted in all media outlets and how those topics should be covered. Chinese reporters working for private media companies confirmed increased pressure to conform to government requirements on story selection and content.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP. They faced serious penalties for crossing those lines, which were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and were enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspend or close publications. Government authorities asserted control over technologies such as livestreaming and continued to pressure digital outlets and social media platforms.
The CCP Central Propaganda Department ordered media outlets to adhere strictly to the information provided by official departments. Directives warned against reporting on topics such as COVID-19 outbreaks, the official response, and international inquiries, as well as party and official reputation, health and safety in general, and foreign affairs.
The government sought to exercise complete control over public and private commentary regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, undermining local and international efforts to report on the virus’s spread. COVID-19 information on Chinese social media was closely guarded from the outbreak’s earliest manifestation. Popular livestreaming and messaging platforms WeChat and YY continued censorship protocols.
Because the CCP did not consider internet news companies “official” media, they were subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories.
Citizen journalists faced a difficult climate, with authorities seeking to control content published through social media, including “self-media” or “we-media” accounts. These are typically blogs operated independently on social media without official backing from established outlets. Self-media was one of the biggest emerging trends, with a report by the State Information Center noting that in 2020 online media accounted for 80 percent of the country’s media market. The restrictions had the effect of clamping down on self-employed reporters, who also could not be accredited by the National Press and Publication Administration, which administers tests and grants the licenses required for citizens to work in the profession. Unaccredited reporters may face legal fallout or even criminal charges.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were often blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Government regulations restrict and limit public access to foreign television shows, which are banned during primetime, and local streamers had to limit the foreign portion of their program libraries to less than 30 percent.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and difficult to obtain. 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.
Authorities deleted online comments regarding the March 21 crash of China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 and restricted journalists from accessing the crash site. According to media reports, reporter Du Qiang was prohibited from visiting the site of the crash. China Media Project, a media studies center based at the University of Hong Kong, reported an announcement by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on March 28 that it was tracking down the source who was sharing “illegal information” and spreading “conspiracy theories” about the MU5735 crash. The CAC reported removing more than 279,000 pieces of “illegal and irregular information” from the internet, deleting 2,713 users accounts, and closing 1,295 discussion topics.
Media reported that journalists were restricted from visiting Tangshan where on June 10, a group of men was recorded beating several women. CNN reported that local authorities tightened COVID-19 travel restrictions and journalists trying to report on the incident were interrogated and harassed.
On June 10, The Guardian reported that the local government in Shanghai issued directives restricting use of the term “lockdown” for media reporting on the COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai. According to media reports, the directive stated that local media should not use the term “ending the lockdown” as, unlike in Wuhan, Shanghai authorities had never formally announced a lockdown.
Authorities censored articles from official government sources. In August the PRC think tank Anbound Research Center published a white paper on the country’s COVID-19 measures and said that “it was time for China to adjust epidemic prevention and control policies.” The authors argued that “China’s economy is at risk of stalling and the biggest influencing factor is the impact of the epidemic…the so-called ‘epidemic impact’ is not the epidemic itself but the impact of epidemic prevention and control policies.” The paper was quickly deleted from Anbound’s website and censored on social media platforms.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, censors ordered news outlets and social media accounts to avoid any criticisms of Russia or favorable comments about NATO.
Libel/Slander Laws: By law defamation may be punished by up to three years’ imprisonment; truth is not a defense.
National Security: Authorities often justified restrictions on expression on national security protection grounds. Government leaders cited the threat of terrorism to justify restricting freedom of expression by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.
Media reported that on July 26, Shandong poet and advocate Lu Yang was secretly sentenced to six years in prison in Shandong Province for “subversion of state power.” In 2020 Lu released a video calling for Xi Jinping to step down and to “end the CCP dictatorship.” He was subsequently detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and later arrested for “endangering national security.” His wife was harassed after the sentencing, with government agents telling her not to give interviews to foreign media. They threatened that she would be required to resign from her job and not be able to provide for her family. The family’s assets were confiscated.
The government tightly controlled and highly censored domestic internet usage, monitoring private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The CAC operated a website called the Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information, where internet users can report information deemed harmful to the PRC, including political information.
Domestic internet authorities led by the Cybersecurity Defense Bureau targeted individuals accused of defaming the government online, whether in public or private messages. The CAC directly manages internet content, including online news media, and promotes CCP propaganda. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
On June 26, the CAC promulgated new provisions on internet user account information; internet service providers are required to verify accounts that contain content or logos involving the state or government agencies to prevent someone misleading the public. These provisions also require that all accounts seeking to produce content on specialized topics provide their professional qualifications. On November 16, the CAC issued regulations requiring internet users to use their real name when commenting or “liking” a post and stating users would be warned for posting “negative” information or for spreading rumors.
The government employed 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. CAC regulations require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature reflects government positions and priorities.
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 were subjected to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to communicate freely.
The popular communication app WeChat remained heavily censored. Posts regarding sensitive topics such as PRC politics disappeared when sent to or from a China-registered account. Authorities continued to use the app to monitor political dissidents and other critics, some of whom were detained by police or sentenced to prison for their communications. Chinese citizens moving abroad who continued to use an account created in China were still subject to censorship.
During the 20th Party Congress in October, media reported that WeChat suspended accounts and censored group chats if users sent or forwarded information deemed politically sensitive. Censors also expanded the list of terms blocked on WeChat and other Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and Douyin. WeChat disallowed those who posted or shared critical messages from submitting messages in group chats, or blocked accounts altogether.
The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and it criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also permits security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents.”
Media reported that on November 29, the CAC issued new regulations on digital media in response to nationwide protests against COVID-19 restrictions that took place in late November. There were numerous credible reports of content deemed to express support for the protests being removed from PRC social media platforms. Leaked directives also instructed censors to activate a “Level I Internet Emergency Response” and to crack down on tools used to circumvent the “Chinese Firewall,” such as virtual private networks (VPN), virtual private servers, web accelerators, and overseas accounts.
The government continued efforts to limit VPN use. While the government permitted some users, including major international companies, to utilize authorized VPNs, many smaller businesses, academics, and citizens were prohibited from using these tools. The government regularly penalized those caught using unauthorized VPNs. At the same time the government tacitly allowed individuals to use VPNs to access Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other websites normally inaccessible in the country for the purpose of attacking views that criticized the government. PRC embassies and state-run media outlets, for example, regularly posted in Chinese and English on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year and important political events, as The Economist observed on June 30.
The government blocked thousands of foreign websites, including many major international news and information websites such as those of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and the Economist, as well as websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Authorities blocked many other websites and applications, including but not limited to Google, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, Clubhouse, Signal, and Wikipedia. Despite being blocked, Twitter and other foreign social media were estimated to have millions of users in the country, including government and party officials and prominent journalists and media figures. Authorities also blocked access to scores of foreign university websites.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and criticism of the government’s zero-COVID policy and foreign policy priorities.
Social media posts reported that internet searches for prominent human rights defenders were censored. A search for “Xu Zhiyong” on Baidu and other social media sites like Sina Weibo, Baidu PostBar, and Tencent/Sogou’s Weixin showed no results, while the same Yahoo! search returned more than 300,000 results. Baidu also deleted its wiki article on Xu Zhiyong. A Twitter user noted that Baidu PostBar had forums dedicated to “1988” and “1990” but searches for “1989” received the following notice: “In accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, relevant results have not been displayed.”
Twitter feeds documented the suspension of a Guangzhou company’s Weibo account in February for posting a cartoon featuring Olympic mascot Bing Dwen Dwen in a manner reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Tank Man photograph.
On April 21, Rest of the World, an international NGO focused on journalism and technology, reported that the government penalized social media network Douban for “insufficient censorship.” Authorities fined the company 10.5 million yuan ($1.65 million) and removed its app from Android app stores in China in December 2021. According to Rest of the World, in March the CAC sent a task force to the Douban office to supervise its “rectification.”
On May 19, The Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based academic center focused on communication technologies and human rights, released a study which found that the Microsoft Bing search engine censored searches for what the PRC deemed politically sensitive topics and individuals, such as CCP leaders or political dissidents. The report further found that the censorship affected users in the PRC and North America, in English and Mandarin.
In May The Brookings Institution published a report titled Winning the Web that found the PRC’s amplification of its narrative on Xinjiang and COVID-19 had “exploited search engine results” of Google, Bing, and YouTube. The report found that on these platforms, news searches would frequently return “state-backed content.” For example, “Xinjiang” returned one Chinese state media outlet in the top 10 results in 88 percent of the searches, and on YouTube, state media appeared in the top 10 results in 98 percent of “Xinjiang” searches. The report further found that at least “19 different sources that are not officially affiliated” with the PRC regularly republished PRC state media content “verbatim.”
Media reported state-led online efforts to discourage individuals from openly supporting women’s rights. On July 15, The Diplomat reported that the CCP “tacitly encouraged” cyberbullying of Chinese feminists. The Party’s All China Women’s Federation published an editorial in 2021 claiming that “adhering to the leadership of the party” was fundamental to the development of “Chinese women’s cause” and warned of some “Western feminist organizations.”
On July 27, China Digital Times revealed how Xiaohongshu (a Chinese social media company) censored words and topics to comply with central government censorship guidelines. CAC censorship directives were to be implemented in “real-time.” According to China Digital Times, censored discourse included topics such as carjackings, landslides, disease outbreaks in livestock, labor strikes, geographic discrimination, public criticism of the CCP, and student suicides.
After former General Secretary Hu Jintao was forcibly escorted from the 20th Party Congress on October 22, searches for videos of “Hu Jintao” on Baidu only returned state media photographs of him in his former leadership role. Baidu and Tencent Sogou responded to users who searched for “Hu Jintao” with an automated response that the search was either censored or unavailable.
The government censored business and economic information.
Online references to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and scientifically accurate words for genitalia were banned based on a government pronouncement listing same-sex acts or relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction.
The 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 the Ministry of Public Security and law enforcement authorities.
Restrictions on Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government continued to restrict academic and artistic freedom and 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, domestically and abroad, 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 were also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department controlled appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. For example, Renmin University and Nankai University named new presidents in August who had CCP affiliations but little academic experience. While CCP membership was not always required 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, and civil society) were 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 was restricted, and domestically produced textbooks were under the editorial control of the CCP.
Censorship, indoctrination, and surveillance across all universities led to narrower student participation in academic discussion and a further erosion of academic freedoms. The CCP pressed universities to not only observe and report ideological problems among students, including their online comments, but also to educate others to “correct” Western thinking.
In February authorities began restricting mentions of the Russian war against Ukraine in academic sources. In March five prominent Chinese history professors wrote an open letter calling for peace, expressing their opposition to the war, and expressing firm support for the Ukrainian people defending their country. Censors removed the publication after one hour, and some commenters called the professors “traitors.” In April provincial governments required university teachers to attend lectures to “correct” their thinking on the war in Ukraine to align with the official PRC line.
The popular audio streaming platform Mao’er FM announced on August 23 that due to “technical reasons” it had taken down several of its danmei (love stories between two male characters) radio dramas.
Some additional monitoring measures using advanced technology were reported with the start of the new academic year. In August according to China Central Television, many schools distributed pens equipped with video cameras to elementary school students to monitor the children during class hours. The pens recorded how students took notes in real time and transferred this information to the teachers.
On July 15, news outlets reported that Chinese-developed word processing software WPS had built-in censorship programming that allowed it to censor documents drafted in the program. One author reported that she was unable to access her locally saved content because of WPS censorship protocols. WPS developer Kingsoft replied that it was complying with PRC law.
PRC efforts against academic freedom extended to Chinese students and professors abroad. Authorities routinely monitored the activities of PRC students and faculty members on campuses and in academic institutions outside the country.
Authorities frequently blocked academics from participating in international symposia. Government regulations require Chinese scholars to receive permission from their institutions before participating in any international event in person or online. In March at least five scholars were prevented from attending virtual panels at the annual conference hosted by the Association for Asian Studies. Authorities discouraged or prevented scholars from engaging with some diplomatic missions in China, or from participating in some academic exchange programs sponsored by foreign governments.
The government continued to restrict access to information and foreign research sources. In June the CAC launched an investigation into the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, an academic research service that claimed to have the world’s largest readership. According to media reports, the move was made to preempt “security risks” and protect national security. Media reported that the service’s 60 million articles were screened by PRC government censors, who purged research they felt posed a “national security risk”. In 2021 China Judgements Online, a similar academic database, was purged by PRC authorities. The deletions included most sources relating to sentencing of human rights activists and members of illegal religious organizations.
In May a former instructor at Sichuan University described in the New Yorker being reported by a student for alleged “political wrongdoing” during one of his classes, a phenomenon called jubao. He wrote that “a student might report a teacher for a comment about a sensitive historical event, or a remark that seems to contradict a Communist Party policy … ambiguous statements about Xi Jinping, the President of China, are especially risky.” According to the article, when a student reports a teacher, the school investigates, after which the teacher might be dismissed. The author said this creates an atmosphere in which educators are reluctant to express their opinion; his feedback on a student’s essay was published on social media, which elicited online trolling. Although the school found no wrongdoing, it did not renew his contract.
According to media reports, in June the new movie Top Gun: Maverick was banned. Media stated the decision was due to the film’s positive portrayal of the U.S. military, and because of a Taiwanese flag on a jacket worn by the lead actor. According to the Washington Post, “Tencent executives backed out of the $170 million Paramount Pictures production after they grew concerned that Communist Party officials in Beijing would be angry about the company’s affiliation with a movie celebrating the American military.”
On June 14, Reuters reported that authorities asked Disney to cut scenes depicting a same-sex couple in the movie Lightyear. When Disney refused, release of the film in China was not approved.
On August 23, The New York Times reported that the ending of the movie Minions: The Rise of Gru was changed by PRC censors to spread “socialist core values.” In the original version, the two villains escaped punishment, but in the version released in the PRC, one is imprisoned and the other becomes a dedicated father of three, which The New York Times noted supported the PRC narrative encouraging higher birthrates.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not respect these rights.
The government, often preemptively, harassed and intimidated individuals and their family members by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, keeping them under house arrest, or submitting them to “forced travel” during politically significant holidays.
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, or during foreign country national days, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Uyghurs faced draconian restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, authorities still made identification checks for individuals entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang, security officials operated checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uyghurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas.
The government operated a national household registration system (hukou) and maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, although many provinces and localities eased restrictions. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where 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 provincial capitals, but outside those cities many provinces removed or lowered barriers to move from a rural area to an urban one.
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 2019 National Economic and Social Development, published in 2020 by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 280 million individuals lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles regarding 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.
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.
Experts assessed that the health code systems for monitoring COVID-19 in some areas of the country were used as tools to curtail the freedom of movement of activists and ordinary citizens seeking redress for sensitive problems. Observers said the health code systems provided a tool for surveillance and acted as catalysts for some provinces and cities to bring together various previously siloed data sources, such as individual health information and geolocation history, bolstering the development of the nascent social credit system.
Several news outlets reported that during the July bank protests in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, some citizens’ health codes turned red (indicating the person must quarantine), severely curtailing their ability to enter public grounds and indoor areas, or access public transportation, despite undergoing regular COVID-19 tests and never leaving the city.
Six party officials were “punished” for their misuse of COVID-19 health codes to prevent bank depositors from protesting bank fraud, the Zhengzhou Discipline Commission announced on June 22. The commission investigation revealed 1,317 depositors were illegally given “red codes,” including 871 depositors not located in Zhengzhou.
On June 27, video was widely shared of a daughter and elderly father in Dandong, Liaoning Province, being blocked from picking up the father’s medicine by a police officer because the daughter’s health code was not green. An altercation between the family and the police officer ensued, and afterwards the local police issued a 10-day detention notice for the daughter, while the father was notified that he could be charged for assaulting the officer.
According to her October 31 post on Twitter, Wang Yu, a well-known human rights lawyer, was unable to return to Beijing due to a “pop up” (a notification that a person may have been in an area with a COVID-19 case) on her Beijing Health Kit app. Wang Yu said she had been denied access to Beijing for more than 70 days. In February when the Beijing Health Kit first added “pop ups,” prominent human rights lawyers including Wang Yu were restricted from traveling within China and from returning to Beijing.
Foreign Travel: The government controlled emigration and foreign travel. The government denied passport applications or used 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 activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of activists, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police sometimes cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country, although authorities often provided no reason for such exit bans. Authorities stopped most of these individuals at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could not obtain or renew passports due to restrictions aimed at reducing international travel to minimize COVID-19 infections from overseas. Individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, and petitioners, as well as their family members and members of ethnic minority groups, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise being prevented from traveling overseas.
Uyghurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available.
On May 10, media reported that the National Immigration Administration would strictly restrict PRC citizens from nonessential foreign travel to implement the national zero-COVID policy. RFA reported that border control in Guangzhou City questioned travelers upon arrival about their activities abroad, reasons for returning to China, and whether they planned to travel abroad again. Media reported that passports were clipped to prevent individuals leaving the country. Web publication Sixth Tone further reported that in the first half of 2021, the government issued only 335,000 passports, 2 percent of the total for the same period in 2019.
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 in previous years authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.