It seems that hardly a day passes that individuals using social media and websites in China are restricted, closed down or prosecuted, usually with some variation of “inciting subversion of state power” as the reason. China’s almost blanket control of the country’s Internet – and consequently all forms of public dissent – has become the model for other countries to emulate for many of the same reasons.
The latest of these is the case of Kwon Pyong, who had been active on social media speaking out against authoritarian rule and human rights violations in China and who also participated in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014. He was indicted in February by the authorities who cited 15 comments he posted on Twitter and Facebook, both of which are blocked in China. Days before his trial began, Kwon’s lawyers were dismissed, a tactic increasingly used by Chinese authorities to block activists’ right to effective legal representation.
On another front, The New York Times app was wiped from Apple’s App Store in China in January. The paper’s website has been blocked in China since 2012 when Chinese authorities moved against it and other international publications including The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. But readers in China could continue to access content through the paper’s English and Chinese-language apps.
Also in January, mainlanders who got around the block to big-name websites by using virtual private networks may now face criminal charges. The use of VPNs and special cable connections in China must now be approved by the government, essentially making these services illegal in the country.
In early February, Guangxi Normal University Press social media editor Dai Xuelin received a five-year prison sentence for running an “illegal business operation”. Dai and his business partner Zhang Xiaoxiong, who was sentenced to 3.5 years, had been independently distributing unauthorised books from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Their case was reportedly handled by the same Ningbo police who pursued their sources, the five Causeway Bay booksellers who went missing in late 2015.
The case of the arrest of news website 64 Tianwang founder Huang Qi last December is fairly typical of what news websites can expect for “disclosing state secrets” – which can mean a sentence of many years in prison. Since then, 64 Tianwang’s “citizen journalists” continue to suffer systematic repression by the authorities.
While China’s news website journalists can face serious consequences, conditions for foreign correspondents in China also remain difficult, with journalists reporting cases of harassment, surveillance, and restrictions on where they can work, according to findings by the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China which were reported in detail in the last issue of The Correspondent.
China’s powerful internet censorship body the Cyberspace Administration of China further tightened its grip on online news reports towards the end of 2016 by warning all news or social network websites against publishing news without proper verification.
“All websites should bear the key responsibility to further streamline the course of reporting and publishing of news, and set up a sound internal monitoring mechanism among all mobile news portals [and the social media chat websites] Weibo or WeChat,” Xinhua reported at the time.
“It is forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts,” it said.
The CAC also ordered its regional subordinates to fully fulfill their duties on the basis of content management, strengthen supervision and inspection, and severely punish fake news or news that deviated from the facts.
“No website is allowed to report public news without specifying the sources, or report news that quotes untrue origins,” Xinhua said, adding that the fabrication of news or distortion of the facts were also strictly prohibited.
Officials say internet restrictions, including the blocking of popular foreign websites such as Google and Facebook, are needed to ensure security in the face of rising threats, such as terrorism, and also to stop “the spread of damaging rumours”.
And the authorities have their work cut out for them with more than 600 million Internet users, 400 million mobile users, and 300 million microbloggers. The amount of pure content and communication created and enjoyed hourly is staggering.
Before the authorities began tightening China’s Great Firewall just over three years ago, much of that content was unimaginable these days: pointed comments, reporting, pictures, and jokes on corruption, food safety, transport conditions, dodgy deals, abuse of authority, and scores of other challenging topics.
Now the likes of Sina Weibo, a feature-rich, user-friendly platform that enjoys immense popularity, and other social media sites such as Tencent (the second-largest microblogging platform), YouKu, a video-sharing site, and Renren and Kaixin, Facebook-like social networking sites are being ultra- careful to avoid prosecution or restrictions by the authorities.
In the past two years some of the banned words and phrases – most you would expect – including: Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law (mistress, etc) and almost any combination of words or associations
Microblog platforms use a variety of methods to comply with government censorship requests. Keyword filtering is the most widely deployed method to limit content. Some terms will prevent a post from being published at all; others will mark it for editorial review, while other terms cannot be searched through the platform’s search engine, making those posts difficult to access.
China Digital Times researches and maintains lists of terms banned by Sina Weibo search and has collected more than 3,000 banned or temporarily banned search words over the past five years. In addition, Sina Weibo users often report that their posts have been published for only the author to see, so they may not realise at first that they have been censored.
In the past two years some of the banned words and phrases – most you would expect – including: Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law (mistress, etc) and almost any combination of words or associations; of all things Zhou Fang (internet controlling body); flowers bloom in warm spring (lifting ban on publications); Tibetan government-in-exile, but also the parliament of the Central Tibetan Administration, and the Dalai Lama; June 4 and Tiananmen, massacre and tanks (pointed at a person), student movement; Hong Kong and riot and demonstration, universal suffrage, Ten Years (film); forbidden to broadcast, Freedom to Write Award, Southern Metropolis News; go back on one’s word; female infants and family planning; protest, take to streets, dark night forum, human rights; Kashgar and violence, terrorist attack, holy war, Muslim (beasts); violence and terror, weapon, explosive devices; entreaty to take power, army change; Cultural Revolution, incompetent (public security), communist thief, elder (continues to live), death sentence, removal from office, secret execution; of course, anything Taiwan; there also is a focus on moral tone – various swear words (and body parts), names of drugs – to name a few.
If a user posts on a forbidden topic despite the filtering techniques, their account can be closed temporarily as a warning, or permanently for repeated offenses. According to an internal management notice from Sina that was leaked online, any “harmful” information that is posted must be deleted within five minutes, and posts by blacklisted users, who are still allowed to have an account, must be checked before publishing. Also, weibo service providers are required to give public security agencies access to their back end, through which officers can directly enter keywords that should be blocked and immediately delete videos and photos.
Besides the keyword filter system there are also personnel to manually review content before publishing, and transfer that information to a third tier where staff track current events to help the front end improve and update their banned keyword lists.
A new Chinese-language website pledging to provide Hong Kong with “independent, accurate and fair” news is the latest journalism venture to open in the city, in an attempt to counter increasing Chinese control of the media. Citizen News was launched January 1 by a group of journalists, including Kevin Lau Chun-to and Daisy Li Yuet-wah, who say they plan to cover a wide range of issues and views across the political spectrum.
The idea of Citizen News was developed in 2014 when Lau was recovering from an attack in which an unknown man slashed the former editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao with a meat cleaver. It is unclear whether the attack was linked to Lau’s journalism, but in an interview with The New York Times Lau said he could not think of any other reason for it.
As the Chinese government continues to increase its influence over the city’s traditional media, particularly through pro-Beijing business interests taking ownership of newspapers, the attack on Lau has come to symbolise the extent to which the situation has deteriorated. A group of news websites has emerged to counter the tide of this restrictive environment, but the journalists behind them face the risk of being detained when travelling to the mainland, financial uncertainty, problems with access, and cyberattacks.
An example of the pressures faced is illustrated by the case of Tony Tsoi Tong-hoo, the co-founder of House News, who unexpectedly closed the news website in July 2014. Shortly after the closure, Tsoi, who was also CEO of a Hong Kong electronics manufacturer, had gone missing for several days earlier in the month. In a note released to the public explaining the closure, Tsoi said that he was “haunted with fear” every time he crossed the border between Hong Kong and the mainland. On one occasion State Security Police detained him and pressured him to denounce Occupy Central and the Umbrella movement.
In December 2014 Tsoi resigned from his position at the electronics company and founded Stand News with two editors from his previous outlet. To better resist external pressure and maintain independence, Stand
News abandoned the for-profit model of House News and operates as a trust financed by public donations.
The nonprofit model is also being used by Citizen News. Li, the site’s editor-in-chief and former chief executive of the online news division of Apple Daily News and Hong Kong Journalists’ Association stalwart, said the website is exploring new operation models such as crowdfunding. The website also offers grants to journalists covering issues that are often ignored by the city’s mainstream media.
“If we can succeed, we bring hope to the young journalists: if we old people can, the young people definitely can,” said Li.
Crowdfunding is also used by the English-language news website Hong Kong Free Press, which was founded in 2015. Its editor-in-chief, Tom Grundy, said that funding remains a continuing concern, but that he has become less worried as the website matured. “If we do good work, I think our readers will support us each year,” Grundy said. The site’s second crowdfunding campaign last year meant that it had “fully funded” 2017.
Grundy said the biggest problem for Hong Kong Free Press is the ban on journalists from digital-only news outlets accessing government press conferences and press releases – although this is currently under review by the government which is worried about the lack of a clear definition for “online media” as a reason for it being imposed.
Digital journalists also face the risk of digital and physical attacks. Oiwan Lam, co-founder of Inmedia, a Chinese-language news portal, said the website has been “a constant target of denial-of-service attacks.”
Li said Citizen News’ founders were not overly concerned about the threat of attack or pressure. “We do what we need to do. The corrosion of press freedom starts not necessarily from pressure from power, but from news organisations choosing to self-censor,” she said.
Citizen News website offers grants to journalists covering issues that are ignored by the media.