Freedom of Expression: Country Studies — China
China Country Study
Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 6.5; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 6.
China's history has been dominated by repressive royal dynasties or kingdoms, civil wars, military government, and, since 1949, a Communist dictatorship called the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since 1978, the Communist government opened up the country to the global market and allowed for the existence of private property, investment, trade, and business. As a result of these economic reforms, China dramatically increased its GDP, although the economy remains dominated by state ownership and control. The PRC’s repressive political system remains unchanged. China is governed by the Communist Party, which monopolizes all government, legal, social, and state economic structures. Party officials and members control much of the private economy. In 1989, the government brutally suppressed mass demonstrations organized in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and around the country that called for democracy and freedom. Since then, any organized dissent has been met with force, arrests, expulsions, and various other forms of repression and state intimidation. Freedom House has categorized the People’s Republic of China as “not free” and among the countries with the worst record of human rights violations since its annual Survey of Freedom in the World began in 1973. In the area of freedom of expression, the government exercises one of the most comprehensive and repressive systems of control of media, the internet, and speech in the world. The Freedom of the Press Report has also categorized China as “not free” and one of the world’s worst violators of media freedom since beginning in 1980.
The PRC is the world's fourth-largest country in area (9,596,960 square kilometers) and the most populous, with an estimated 1.375 billion people in 2016. There are 56 recognized ethnic groups, the most numerous and dominant one being the Han (approximately 92 percent of the population). Minorities in Uyghurstan and Tibet are severely repressed and face ethnic genocide. In gross domestic product (GDP), the PRC is the world's second-largest economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nominal GDP totaled $10.35 trillion in 2014 (second to the US’s $17.35 trillion). Although average income has increased significantly in the last decade, distribution of wealth remains highly concentrated. In 2015, the IMF ranked China 82nd in the world in nominal GDP per capita income at $8,280 per year (the U.S. ranked 5th at $55,904 in PPP measurement.) Transparency International ranks China 79th out of 176 countries and territories in its 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Origins of Imperial China and Achievements of the First Dynasties
Historians date the first dynasty in mainland China, called Xia, to the 21st century BC. The Zhou dynasty (1027 to 221 BC) was the first to claim rule by divine right (the “mandate of heaven”), a doctrine that justified all of China’s successive dynasties over three millennia.
The first to succeed in unifying the six major warlord powers was the Qin dynasty (221–06 BC), which formally begins imperial Chinese history and the use of the term “emperor” for the Chinese leader. Although lasting less than two decades, Qin rulers can claim many of China's early achievements and innovations aimed at consolidating a central state, including the initial building of the Great Wall of China and unifying a system of weights and measures, a currency, a legal code, and the character language. The longer Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) introduced Confucianism, an ethical system elevating ideals of unity, knowledge, and virtue, as the state religion and the ideological foundation of Chinese imperial rule. Subsequent periods of disunity and warlordism ended with the Sui dynasty (AD 581–617), while the longer-ruling Tang dynasty (618–907) integrated Buddhism and Taoism with Confucianism and traditional folk religion.
The Golden Age, Foreign Invasions, and Final Dynasties
The Song dynasty introduced China's Golden Age, but China then experienced two foreign invasions, one from Manchuria (the Jurchen Jin dynasty) and the second by the Mongols (the Yuan dynasty). The Mongols’ rule was overthrown in 1368 by a rebel army led by the peasant Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu's victory marked the start of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming dynasty adopted neo-Confucianism, an offshoot of Confucianism characterized by scholasticism, xenophobia, and a rigid belief in hierarchy. At the same time, the Ming dynasty broke up feudal estates, encouraged private land ownership, and banned slavery. Small agricultural communities became the dominant producer of food. Ming emperors also developed new industries (such as porcelain and textiles) and finalized the completion of the Great Wall of China. The Ming dynasty ended with another Manchurian invasion from the north, which began the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The Manchus imposed a heavy-handed foreign administration. Only Manchus could serve in the army and administration. Han identity was repressed. Under penalty of death, the Qing enforced the Manchu hairstyle (known for the shaving of hair bald in front with the rest tied in a long ponytail) and dress code (considered today traditional Chinese clothing). But in other ways, the Manchu dynasty ruled according to previous Chinese imperial principles and adopted hierarchical neo-Confucian norms.
The End of Imperial Rule and the Short-lived Republic
In the 19th century, European powers used their superior technology in armaments to open China’s trade with the West, especially for opium. The Chinese defeat by Great Britain in the First Opium War (1839–42) forced the Qing to grant the British special trade privileges and to begin the lease of Hong Kong. A peasant revolt called the Taiping Rebellion erupted against the Qing dynasty and its capitulation to foreign rule. The rebellion gained control of a substantial portion of southern territories until being put down with the assistance of British and French forces. But it set a new precedent: 30 million lives were lost due to armed conflict, revolutionary violence, and famine.
The stage for the end of imperial rule was set in 1898, when the Empress Dowager Cixi seized effective control of the state and encouraged the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Its suppression by Britain and the US weakened imperial rule further. By the late 1890s, a national movement had arisen inspired by the revolutionary ideas and writings of Sun Yat-sen. His Three Principles ideology of nationalism, democracy, and people’s welfare had gained a widespread following. An uprising he sparked in a regional capital spread throughout the country. Delegates from provisional assemblies across China established a new government in Nanjing on January 1, 1912, inaugurating the Republic of China. Sun Yat-sen was named president. When the head of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, negotiated the abdication of the six-year-old Emperor Puyi, it put an end to 3000 years of imperial rule. To achieve a united government and avoid civil war, Sun Yat-sen ceded the presidency to Yuan Shikai. This fateful move led to the collapse of republican government. Shikai abolished the nascent national assembly elected in 1913 — mainland China's first and only free election — and moved the capital back to imperial Beijing. When he attempted to create a new dynasty, he was forced from power in 1915. Central administration fell apart, igniting a period of division among various warlords and armed factions that competed for territory.
The United Fronts, the Long March, Japanese Invasion, and Civil War
Sun Yat-sen gained effective control of the south and, still hoping to reunify China, he established a First United Front in 1921 that joined his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After his death in 1925, Sun Yat-sen was succeeded as head of the Kuomintang by General Chiang Kai-shek, who set about forming a central government in Nanjing in 1927. But communist-inspired attempts on his life prompted General Chiang to renounce the United Front. The Kuomintang defeated a number of peasant revolts organized by communist guerrilla leader Mao Zedong. In 1934, facing defeat, Mao ordered the Long March, a 3,000 mile retreat of the communists to escape the Nationalist army. A majority of the rebels died along the way, but the Long March is credited with saving the Communists from total defeat. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria forced Chiang to divert his army from its drive against the Communist forces. As China faced the prospect of a full Japanese invasion, two generals kidnapped Chiang to force him to agree to a Second United Front with the CCP to fight the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). The Nationalist-Communist alliance deteriorated as early as 1940 but it allowed the CCP forces to increase their strength. After the final defeat of Japan, a civil war between the two sides broke out in 1947.
By 1949, the People's Liberation Army gained control on the mainland. Nationalist forces retreated to the island of Taiwan. They declared their government to be the legal continuation of the Republic of China (ROC). The Communists established the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949 to supplant the ROC on the mainland. Armed hostilities ended in 1950, but technically the PRC remains at war with the Republic, which it considers part of a single China. Following a period of dictatorship under the leadership of Chiang Kai Shek (who died in 1975), Taiwan emerged as a stable multiparty democracy with a successful free-market economy. The ROC constitution still claims to be the legitimate government of all China, but most leaders refer to the country as Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive Party recently won both presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2016. It considers Taiwan as its own independent nation-state.
To deal with the fact that China was largely a peasant country, Mao introduced a distinct variant of communism, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants.’
The People's Republic of China
Since being formed in 1949, the People's Republic of China has been ruled by a totalitarian government.
Its constitution, modeled on the Soviet Union, establishes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the supreme political authority within the state. Mao Zedong, as chairman of the CCP and leader of the People's Liberation Army, quickly seized full political powers of the PRC and had himself appointed chairman, later called president, of the government. He also became head of the Central Military Commission. To deal with the fact that China was largely a peasant country, Mao introduced a distinct variant of communism called “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” that instituted the “dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants.” The totalitarian system was in fact the same as that established by Lenin in the Soviet Union. It was based on the principle of “democratic centralism,” meaning centralizing power in the leadership of the revolutionary vanguard communist party.
The Chinese Communist Party established its full control through systematic repression of the population. There were various ideological campaigns (having names like the “The Three Antis Campaign”) to eradicate warlords, landlords, property owners, Nationalists, and any open critics of the CCP. Hundreds of thousands were rounded up at a time and either executed or put in a new penal and labor camp system known as laogai. Political opponents were often taken to high buildings and given the choice to either jump off or be pushed. After Mao’s “Hundred Flowers” movement in 1956 unexpectedly grew into a mass reaction expressing opposition to the CCP’s policies, he ordered a new Anti-Rightist Campaign in which millions of people whose criticism he had solicited were dismissed from their jobs, imprisoned, or executed. In 1958, impatient at the pace of socialist advancement, Mao undertook a new campaign, the Great Leap Forward (1958-63) to fully collectivize agriculture and industry. Forced collectivization proved disastrous. Historians differ on the level of the catastrophe, but demographic experts put the number of people who died from collectivization and the resulting famine at up to 60 million people.
Poster promoting the Great Leap Forward.
The Cultural Revolution
The Great Leap Forward, which the regime publicly blamed on natural disasters, resulted in a curtailing of Mao Zedong's powers. He was replaced as chairman of the PRC by Liu Shaoqi and as general secretary of the party by Deng Xiaoping. Mao responded with the Cultural Revolution. In May 1966, he delivered a speech calling for the eradication of the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) in religion, education, culture, and also within Communist institutions themselves. The campaign incited a new revolutionary fervor that let Mao get rid of his competitors. Millions of people were expelled from government institutions and sent to prison or forced to work on farm collectives. Red Guards, made up of Mao loyalists (Maoists) and radical student paramilitary groups, rampaged through the cities of China to destroy any public expression of “the olds.” The Red Guards carried out kangaroo trials and hangings and led forced marches of offenders to prisons and work collectives. Liu Shaoqi was arrested and Deng Xiaoping was sent to a work collective. Maoists were restored within the state apparatus. The Cultural Revolution lasted until 1976, shortly after Mao's death, and the arrest of the so-called Gang of Four (led by Jiang Qing, Mao's wife), who in official historiography are blamed for the “excesses” of this period.
The Period of Economic Reforms
Deng Xiaoping was politically rehabilitated by his longtime mentor, Zhou Enlai, who served as premier from the 1950s and survived as Mao’s “No. 2” through the Cultural Revolution. Following the deaths of both Zhou and Mao in 1976, Deng regained key posts in the party and maneuvered to gain full control of state policy. In 1978, he introduced a new economic policy called the “Four Modernizations,” a term first introduced by Zhou in 1963 to reform four key areas — agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology. What these new policies introduced was a hybrid capitalist-Communist economy in which state-run conglomerates and private property co-exist and foreign investment is strongly encouraged. Since reforms were adopted, China’s economy has boomed. Although its growth has moderated in recent years, China is predicted to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy by 2030. To achieve such growth, the government moved 250 million peasants to newly constructed cities where industrialization and manufacturing were based, the largest social engineering project in history.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Deng’s policies became a model for other communist regimes like Vietnam (see Country Study). Part of China's “economic miracle” was based on its artificially low labor costs due to the suppression of worker rights. Indeed, China’s growth has diminished partly because labor unrest over the last decade has driven wages higher, causing foreign investors to move to ever cheaper countries (see Country Study in Freedom of Association). Although China boasts a growing middle class, as of 2012, per capita income was still just one-fifth to one-ninth that of the European. Wealth is highly concentrated within the communist elite. The Economist reports that China is the world’s most unequal society in income distribution, with the top tenth percentile receiving 57 percent of income.
The People Protest: From the Democracy Wall to Charter ‘08
While there was a brief loosening of censorship accompanying the Four Modernizations, Deng Xiaoping quickly made clear that economic reforms did not mean political change. One initiative was the Democracy Wall in 1978, a long street wall in Beijing where activists put up large character banners with news and opinion articles. As activists began to call for more human rights, the postings were quickly taken down and what was called “the Beijing Spring” was repressed. The most famous banner was titled “The Fifth Modernization,” by Wei Jinsheng, an electrician who advocated that democracy was an indispensable “fifth modernization” in politics. Along with many others, Wei was arrested and spent a total of eighteen years in prison over the next two decades. He was forcibly exiled in 1997 (see Resources for Liu Binyan’s article “Living in Truth,” a review of Wei Jingsheng’s memoirs).
In 1989, the year of democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, a more serious challenge to Communist Party rule emerged when student protests in Tiananmen Square broke out to demand liberal reforms. After several weeks of growing demonstrations in Beijing and cities throughout the country, Deng Xiaoping ordered the army and police to suppress the democracy movement with force. Thousands were killed or maimed. Tens of thousands were imprisoned and many more expelled from universities and other state institutions or forced into exile. Since then, the state has used all the tools of a police state to prevent any recurrence of the Tiananmen Square protests. Many people were arrested to prevent the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown (see Resources).
Nevertheless, a dissident movement has emerged in China similar to movements that arose in the Soviet bloc. In 2008, Liu Xiaobo along with other leading dissidents launched Charter ’08, a political manifesto in favor of democratic change modeled on the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia. Charter ’08 gained 1,300 signatures before it was banned by government censors from the internet. Its leaders and many of its signers were arrested. Liu Xiaobo, previously imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, was sentenced to 11 years in forced labor for “conspiracy to subvert the state.” In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In retaliation for their contacts with foreign journalists, his wife remains under house arrest and her mother was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on trumped-up fraud charges. More recently, another initiative called the New Citizens’ Movement has been similarly repressed (see Country Study in Freedom of Association and New York Times article in Resources).
Mao Zedong's image continues to adorn many buildings in today’s China.
Communist Dictatorship Unchanged
The PRC has gone through three full political transfers of power since Deng Xiaoping’s retirement from political life in 1992. None of these changes in top personnel resulted in political liberalization. As of 2012, Xi Jinping is the supreme leader. Like his predecessors, he combines the posts of chairman of the Communist Party of China, state president (chairman of the state council), and head of the Central Military Commission. Overall, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with an estimated 80 million members, remains in total control of politics, the state, and the economy. The People’s Congress, the formal legislature, is made up of Communist Party functionaries and appointed regional representatives, all of whom are selected by the central leadership. Within China’s “democratic centralist” system, the power of Xi Jinping is only contested by factions within the Politburo loyal to previous leaders (former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) or that have built up local power bases. Since Xi Jinping came to power, he has cemented his control through an “anti-corruption” campaign that has resulted in the removal of 400,000 party officials, many of whom have been sentenced to prison, suspension of civil liberties, and fines. The purge included several top figures from the party such as Bo Xilai, the party leader in Chongqing. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2013 on corruption charges.
Suppression of Autonomous Regions: Tibet and Uyghurstan
The PRC continues to suppress two autonomous regions: Tibet and Uyghurstan, both ethnically distinct regions that had maintained autonomy under much of Chinese imperial rule.
Tibet established its independence in 1913. Having a devoutly Buddhist society, Tibet was governed by its religious leader, the Dalai Lama. In 1951, the People’s Revolutionary Army invaded Tibet and it was made an Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China in 1959. Martial law was imposed and the Dalai Lama and many of his followers fled to exile in India. Since then, Chinese authorities have brutally repressed the Tibet’s unique Buddhist culture and society. The Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has advocated negotiations with the Chinese government for a return to autonomy. The Chinese authorities agreed to talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives as a condition for being awarded the 2008 Olympics, but these were suspended. No progress was made toward a negotiated solution. Instead, Chinese authorities stepped up a policy of importing Han Chinese to the territory and using modernization projects to destroy venerated historical and cultural sites. Tibetans continue to resist Chinese rule. In one protest, 300 Tibetan monks sought to draw world attention to the destruction of Tibetan culture through a desperate campaign of public self-immolations in Tibet’s capital, Llasa.
Uyghurstan, a region in northeast China, is officially called the Autonomous Xinjiang Uyghur Region. Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group that adheres to Islam, have resisted Chinese control for decades only to suffer similar repression as in Tibet. Tensions between Uyghur and Han communities have risen following years of heavy Han immigration into the region and discrimination against Uyghurs by officials. After protests in 2009 against the displacement of Uyghur workers by Han immigrants, one thousand Uyghurs were arrested and dozens sentenced to long prison terms, some to the death penalty. Since then, the autonomous region has been under heavy security. Activities aimed at preserving Uyghur culture and language has been repressed.
Hong Kong: A Threatened Haven of Freedom
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 after the end of a ninety-nine year lease granted under the Qing dynasty. It is now governed under a formal agreement made with the United Kingdom guaranteeing respect for Hong Kong's self-governance and separate system of laws — a policy the PRC calls “one country, two systems.” During negotiations between Britain and China, a strong civic and political movement arose in Hong Kong to enhance and protect democratic freedoms. Following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, teacher union leader Szeto Wah helped create the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which served as a focal point for Hong Kong’s civil society to turn back anti-democratic initiatives. In 2003, 500,000 citizens demonstrated against a proposed anti-subversion law that was withdrawn as a result of the protest. In 2012, a new “national education” curriculum proposed for Hong Kong schools based on Chinese Communist Party historiography was also withdrawn as a result of similar protests. Annually on June 4, the Hong Kong Alliance organizes a commemoration of the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. On the 25th anniversary in 2014, more than one hundred thousand people gathered in a candlelight vigil in defiance of threats by Chinese authorities. Soon afterwards, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement organized an informal public referendum on whether China’s chief executive should be chosen through direct election and opening more seats of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to direct vote. The government issued a memorandum rejecting such democratic changes and reiterating its final control over the affairs of the territory, sparking a months-long protest movement and occupation of central Hong Kong. The protests dissipated under police pressure but Hong Kong democracy leaders vow to continue their campaign for direct elections. For some, the suppression of the Umbrella Revolution and efforts to democratize the Legislative Council have led to new efforts demanding independence of Hong Kong.
Freedom of Expression
The suppression of free expression in China today reflects its nearly 3000-year history of imperial rule and the increasing rigidity of imperial state doctrines. A brief period of greater freedom during and after the period of the Republic of China did not take hold within a conflict-ridden country. Today, the People’s Republic of China exercises a comprehensive and repressive system of control over the media, the internet, and speech. All broadcast and print media as well as book publication and distribution are controlled by the state and the Communist Party of China. Internet and wireless communication has encouraged some free speech through blogs and social media, but overall the internet and digital forms of expression are tightly restricted by a large state apparatus monitoring and controlling communication and access to information.
Imperial China and the Republic
From the outset of its written history, emperors and territorial warlords imposed rigid systems of control over expression that rewarded obedience and repressed dissent. Under succeeding Confucian and neo-Confucian doctrines that stressed loyalty and submission; free thought and inquiry were discouraged. In the ninth and 10th centuries AD, Chinese emperors established a formal list of censored books as soon as book printing in multiple copies began. Unlike in Europe, where a religious Reformation fostered intellectual differences, in China all religious tendencies (Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion) were absorbed into a single state system. Many Chinese intellectuals spoke out, achieved scientific discovery, and developed new means of expression, but none of China’s intellectual or scientific achievements succeeded in superseding the longer traditions of repressive government.
In the late imperial period, there arose greater intellectual and political ferment, especially among exiles living in Japan, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Newspapers produced in these communities were circulated within China. Many émigrés were influenced by Western thought, including Sun Yat-sen, who studied in British-run schools in Honolulu and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, he developed and gained initial adherents to his “Three Principles” ideology of nationalism, democracy, and people's welfare and he was able to inspire political followers within China. The Republic of China sparked greater intellectual vibrancy and diversity but it failed to take deep hold. Democratic hopes were supplanted by Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian Kuomintang and then by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Under the People's Republic of China, all media quickly became controlled by the state. Censorship was introduced and various political campaigns enforced ideological uniformity.
The People's Republic of China
When it seized power of the mainland in 1949, the CCP ended all forms of intellectual freedom and imposed a single ideology, communism, governing all aspects of life. The civil society that was given a brief life during the republican period was destroyed. Under the People's Republic of China, all media quickly became controlled by the state. Censorship was introduced almost immediately and various ideological campaigns enforced political uniformity. Any deviation from the communist line was repressed. Social mobilization further discouraged dissent. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Cultural Revolution reinforced the penalties for straying from established orthodoxy through an ongoing and terrifying ideological campaign (see above). Although Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and privatization marked an economic departure from Communist orthodoxy, political control was not relaxed. Deng’s regime quickly clamped down on free expression initiatives, such as the Democracy Wall movement, or forcibly suppressed political protest movements, such as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations (see above). Today, freedom of expression remains fully suppressed by state controls.
Media Control and Censorship
The period of economic reforms brought about an increase in broadcast and print media. Today in the People’s Republic of China, there are more than 2,000 newspapers, 7,000 magazines and journals, 1,000 radio stations, and 3,700 television stations. However, the proliferation of broadcast and print media and their commercialization has not created an independent media. The increase of media has taken place mostly within the framework of state ownership or state-sponsored ownership. By law, any “private” media must have majority state or communist party ownership, meaning “private” does not mean independent. The only national television broadcaster is the state-run China Central Television (CCTV); all local stations are required to broadcast its news shows exclusively. All major cities have one state-owned local broadcaster and at least one state-owned newspaper.
[A]ll media are still strictly supervised by the state's enormous propaganda and censorship apparatus.
All media are strictly supervised by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, which has corresponding branches at all levels of administration. Nearly all significant appointments of editors, broadcasters, and senior journalists at media outlets remain controlled by the party's nomenklatura, or patronage, system. Once appointed, editors and journalists must attend “ideology reinforcement conferences,” where they are directed in the content they should and should not include. The realm of taboo topics is enormous, among them official history, challenges to the political monopoly of the CCP, negative portrayals of CCP leaders, the existence of censorship itself, forced sterilizations required by the previous one-child policy, the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre, Tibet, Uyghurstan, and Hong Kong, dissidents or banned movements like Falun Gong, among many, many other topics.
All media comply with “propaganda circulars,” often issued multiple times a day by the Central Propaganda Department and its local branches. These provide specific direction on positive propaganda that should be included and information that must be excluded from the news. Editors and journalists who dare to report on local corruption are often severely punished and face dismissal, bans, or arrest. Some are prosecuted under the Protection of National Secrets Law, which by definition means that the alleged violation of the law is never known. (See Freedom House links in Resources for further description of the censorship apparatus.)
China and the Internet
The internet has greatly expanded with an estimated 600 million internet subscribers and 500 million out of more than 1 billion mobile devices capable of accessing the internet. However, the internet is highly monitored by the censorship apparatus and many additional boundaries are set for its use. Restrictions strictly control what sites are allowed to be accessed as well as what may be posted.
The state’s “Great Firewall” restricts access to foreign web sites reporting news, places strict filters on topics (such as the Arab Spring, the “color revolutions” that overthrew dictatorships, and highly specific topics related to politics); specific web sites (for example Freedom House, other human rights organizations, Wikipedia, among many thousands of others); news services (the New York Times and Bloomberg News have been blocked for their coverage of the wealth accumulation among the Chinese elite, while many others are also blocked); and foreign social media and microblogging sites (such as You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter). In this latter category, China created parallel companies and sites like Sina Weibo for microblogging and Tencent’s WeChat for instant messaging, where all posts are monitored. In general, any websites considered by authorities to be politically or socially dangerous are inaccessible to Chinese users. As many as 500,000 people work in the Chinese administration to actively monitor website and blogging traffic and post pro-regime comments in discussions. Foreign search engine companies like Google and Yahoo! actively cooperate with internet censors by creating filters.
Many web users get around formal restrictions to successfully disseminate information and express dissenting views on the internet. The large size of this independently minded web community is indicated by mass spontaneous campaigns around public disasters. By posting unofficial pictures and accounts before official censors have a chance to control reporting, microbloggers, often with millions of followers, have forced authorities to change news coverage of events. Such campaigns have even affected public policy, forcing changes to development plans that endanger the environment among other policies. (On internet controls, see the special report in Economist and articles in the New York Times in Resources.)
The current Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping, continues to carry out policies aimed at consolidating his power. The anti-corruption campaign reached a new level in 2015-16 both in scale and scope. In 2015 alone, it was reported that a total of 400,000 officials had been dismissed in the campaign, many of them arrested and charged with criminal offenses for corruption. In the highest profile case to date, Zhou Yongkang, the former top security official and a former member of the Politburo, was sentenced to life imprisonment in June for abuse of power and taking bribes related to oil investment. Xi’s consolidation of power is reflected in media coverage indicating a new cult of personality not seen since the rule of Deng Xiaoping. As reported in The New York Times, state media accounts of his most recent public appearances portray Xi “as a demigod.” He himself stated on a public tour that the media “exists to serve the Communist Party and must pledge fealty to Mr. Xi.”
The regime has maintained a high level of repression for any dissent and has further cracked down on free expression. In January 2013, journalists at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly went on strike after censorship officials changed a New Year’s editorial urging greater adherence to China’s constitution, a position being advocated by the New Citizens’ Movement. The journalists’ protest gained online support and anti- censorship street demonstrations were organized by students, intellectuals, and artists. The incident at the Southern Weekly was repeated at several other newspapers. These online and public protests, however, were quickly tamped down. In response, later in 2013, officials used the incident to issue stricter guidelines on media coverage, restricting further the topics that could be covered by journalists such as antigovernment protests, torture, certain cases of official corruption, and fatal industrial accidents. According to Freedom House, the guidelines tightened controls on use of foreign sources or microblogs and required Chinese journalists “to pass a new ideological exam in order to receive their press cards.”
The regime has maintained a high level of repression for any dissent and has further cracked down on free expression. . . .
Also starting in 2013, the Chinese authorities stepped up its efforts against “cybercrime” — defined as posting pro-democracy opinions or information on taboo topics — by arresting hundreds, if not thousands, of bloggers, for “rumor mongering,” “inciting public disorder,” or trumped up criminal charges like engaging in prostitution (see link to “Busting China’s Bloggers“ in Resources). In addition, a court ruling broadly expanded prosecutors’ power to initiate criminal defamation charges against bloggers for content deemed false, defamatory, or threatening to public interest if that information is “widely” disseminated (viewed by more than 5,000 users or reposted more than 500 times).
These controls and crackdowns on expression have continued according to the 2016 Freedom in the World and Freedom of the Press country reports. The authorities have also increased repression of “mainstream” journalists at state-controlled media. (The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 44 cases of state-registered journalists imprisoned on various charges, such as divulging state secrets or acts of defamation at the end of 2014; the number increased in 2015-16.) In addition, the Chinese authorities have stepped up an active campaign to influence social media — it was reported recently that government “trollers” post 488 million items a day.
Several activists connected with the New Citizens Movement — a network of individuals seeking adherence within the legal system to human rights guarantees in the Constitution — were sentenced. One leading member, Liu Jiacai from Hubei province, was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power” in articles posted online and in public gatherings of fellow activists. Relatedly, in July 2015, there was an “unprecedented crackdown” on civil rights lawyers. Within one 48-hour period two hundred lawyers and other professionals from law firms and public-interest groups known to defend civil and human rights activists were placed under detention or house arrest; a number simply “disappeared.” In an act reflecting the growing trend of Chinese police authorities acting outside state borders, the son of one lawyer was seized while traveling in Myanmar and forcibly returned to house arrest in China.
There continued to be a high focus on activists from Uyghurstan. In one case, a Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, was arrested in January 2014, together with several of his students. He had recently begun the website Uyghur Online “dedicated to improving interethnic understanding.” In September, Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism. The students remained in custody in undisclosed locations. The authorities also tried to affect reporting abroad by the American-Uyghur citizen Shohret Hoshur, who works for the US-based Radio Free China. They sentenced one of his brothers living in Urumqi to 5 years’ imprisonment in 2014 and arrested his two other brothers in 2015. Hoshur has not stopped his reporting.
As noted above, Hong Kong retains greater freedom of expression. However, its media are under constant and increasing pressure of the Chinese authorities. In January 2014, for example, Kevin Lau Chun-to, a popular editor-in-chief of one of Hong Kong’s most respected independent newspapers, Ming Pao, was suddenly ousted by the newspaper’s ownership group based on the Chinese mainland. In March 2014, the former editor was violently attacked in an attempted assassination. Thousands of people immediately went to the streets in protest. (In a recorded message from his hospital bed, Chun-to told demonstrators, “Violence is meant to intimidate. If we are frightened into submission, we lose our freedom.”) More recently, the Chinese authorities appeared to step up the pressure. The editor-in-chief and four other employees of the publisher Mighty Current Media, which specializes in books on current Chinese leaders, disappeared and were presumed to be abducted from Hong Kong and taken to Beijing. The chief editor, Lee Bo, was said to send a fax to his wife stating that he had gone “voluntarily” to aid Beijing police in a corruption investigation. Another employee recorded a video “admitting” to criminal offenses. The case indicates again the Chinese government’s increasing willingness to violate state boundaries in its campaign of repression and intimidation.