Xi Jinping’s “Cyber Sovereignty” Fast Eroding Space for Free Expression

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Xi Jinping’s “Cyber Sovereignty” Fast Eroding Space for Free Expression

(Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, April 19, 2018) – China’s leaders have long adopted or amended national laws, regulations, and policies to place constraints on citizens’ online communications and activities. Since Xi Jinping came to power, the pace of expanding censorship and control over cyberspace has accelerated in the name of “cyber sovereignty.” Just in the past year, a flurry of measures has been proposed or implemented to increase police surveillance of the Internet under the guise of protecting “national security,” a term with a vague definition in Chinese law. The Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) often use these laws, regulations, and policies to target the online activities of human rights defenders, political critics, and ethnic minorities, as well as reduce freedoms in cyberspace for businesses and ordinary citizens. Today more than ever, the CCP-controlled government has immense power to monitor and remove content on the Internet, and also to punish citizens for posting or spreading online information or comments that authorities deem are “politically threatening.”

Proposed regulations released in early April 2018 would further clarify and codify the role of public security organs in monitoring and inspecting Internet service providers (ISPs) and organizations that use the Internet in China. The Ministry of Public Security’s “Regulations on Public Security Organs Internet Safety Supervision and Inspection” (公安机关互联网安全监督检查规定), which will be open for public comment until May 4, largely spell out the role that China’s police have in implementing the Cyber Security Law. As drafted, the rules expand the scope under which police can inspect and monitor ISPs and entities utilizing the Internet, outside of criminal investigations (Articles 11-13). Inspections can take place through both on-site and remote connections and focus on a number of issues, including whether and how ISPs manage users’ content, and blocking and deleting “illegal” information that has already been posted online.

In another move, a notice from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has stepped up police work to stomp out the sale of virtual private networks (VPNs) that do not have government authorization. The MIIT issued the notice in January 2017, from which time authorities launched a 14-month crackdown on “illegal” VPNs. The notice effectively outlawed many VPNs used inside the country, including secure tools that human rights defenders have used to access websites and social media platforms blocked by authorities, as well as to communicate and mobilize actions online. While previous measures targeting unauthorized VPNs led to some disruptions in their use, it appears that police have more aggressively enforced restrictions following the MIIT directive. Chinese citizens were detained or imprisoned for selling VPNs during the official crackdown period. A particularly severe punishment was given to an IT engineer from Guangxi, Wu Xiangyang (吴向洋), who was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison in December for selling VPNs that lacked government authorization.

Since the Cyber Security Law, which lays out strict monitoring and surveillance over Internet activities, came into force in June 2017, authorities have increased restrictions on free expression and the free flow of information. The law has, among other things, prohibited the creation of “websites and communication groups” for “spreading…information related to unlawful and criminal activities.” Possibly to enforce such legislation, Chinese police have targeted groups reporting online about China’s human rights problems. While not shutting down their sites outright, police have affected such organizations’ capacity to function by persecuting their founders and contributors. The heads of some of these groups are now facing indictment and trial, including Guangdong activist Zhen Jianghua (甄江华) of Human Rights Campaign in China (HRCC), Liu Feiyue (刘飞跃) of Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (CRLW), and Huang Qi (黄琦) of 64 Tianwang Human Rights Centre. Several citizen journalists who had volunteered with these organizations have also been persecuted in the past two years, being subjected to police intimidation, forced disappearance, detention, and imprisonment.

In the current oppressive environment, social media platforms in China have taken to self-censorship to “clean up” users’ content and to establish their own restrictions before state censors or police become involved. For example, Tencent recently blocked certain videos being viewed on WeChat, which Tencent owns, and QQ. The videos originated from platforms that regulators had previously accused of distributing “inappropriate” content. In a rare act of successful pushback from Chinese netizens, Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, dropped a days-old policy on April 16 to ban “gay-themed” content after an intense public outcry, led by China’s increasingly vocal LGBTQ community. Sina Weibo’s policy was an apparent effort to “clean up” its platform in line with the government’s vision.

Chinese authorities have also tried to monitor and censor popular instant-messaging applications, particularly WeChat and WhatsApp, almost as quickly as these tools have proliferated, and since last year have escalated the disruption of these tools. In one prominent example of censorship, authorities removed comments about the July 2017 death of dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) from cyberspace. The outpouring of public sentiment triggered what is believed to be the first instance of image filtering in one-to-one chats on social media and messaging apps.

China punishes alleged “cybercrimes”: Wu Xiangyang (left) was given a 5.5-year sentence over restrictive VPN rules, and Zhang Guanghong (right) is awaiting trial for comments he made on WhatsApp about President Xi Jinping.

In the run-up to the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, authorities placed more conditions on sharing information via private messaging tools, and took severe measures to control the apps and root out alleged “criminal” activity by users. Authorities closed tens of thousands of WeChat accounts, allegedly due to “rumor-mongering.” In one case, police in September took into custody Liu Pengfei (刘鹏飞), a scholar who had headed a discussion group on WeChat that focused on current affairs and Chinese politics. A Guangdong-based netizen, Zhang Guanghong (张广红), was detained in October after he allegedly sent messages in a WhatsApp group that included content critical of Xi Jinping. Zhang’s case has since been sent to a court for prosecution.

The Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (CAC), China’s Internet oversight and censorship agency, has issued many policies on online information and communications to push toward Xi’s repressive vision of “cyber sovereignty.” The CAC, which was established in 2014, has placed constraints on Internet publishing as well as the sharing of audio and video files via social networking platforms. Its regulations have targeted independent content on news websites, increased the burden on app providers to cut down the spread of so-called “illegal information,” ordered news sites to purge online comments espousing views prohibited by the government, and required app providers take action against users who post content that “endangers national security” or “disrupts the public order.” In addition, CAC rules that took effect in October 2017 require that WeChat group leaders to be held liable for content discussed by members, and that users open accounts with their real identities.

As China deprives its citizens of their free expression rights through policies and practices to meet its ultimate aim of “cyber sovereignty,” CHRD calls on the international community to demand that the government: Amend relevant laws and regulations to remove restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including for information on the Internet and sent through instant-messaging apps, that are not in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; immediately release those being held in detention or prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression and press through cyberspace activities; and take steps to ensure that all individuals, including bloggers, journalists, and human rights defenders, can freely exercise their right to freedom of expression, online and offline, without fear of persecution.


Renee Xia, International Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

Victor Clemens, Researcher (English), +1 209 643 0539, victorclemens[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @VictorClemens

Frances Eve, Researcher (English), +852 6695 4083 franceseve[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @FrancesEveCHRD


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