A weekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People's Republic of China
Issue No. 43: December 15, 2011
BROADCAST / PRINT MEDIA NEWS
Amid criticism, state media ignore Putin’s ‘Confucius Prize’
At an award ceremony in Beijing on December 9, Chinese organizers formally presented the “Confucius Peace Prize” to four Russian exchange students standing in for Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin (see CMB No. 40). Chinese state media ran no coverage of the event, and the government has generally distanced itself from the prize since it was created by a group of Chinese academics in a riposte to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Putin has been long criticized internationally for overseeing extensive human rights abuses and a general departure from democratic norms, and he has recently faced unprecedented street protests over rampant fraud in Russia’s December 4 parliamentary elections. The Chinese foreign ministry declined to comment on the Confucius prize, though a foreign ministry spokesperson said China believed that the official election results reflected “the wishes of the Russian people.” Meanwhile, popular Beijing-based blogger Sun Xingjie said the Confucius Peace Prize had “disgraced” China’s image abroad, as various reports by the foreign press have portrayed it as an award funded by the Chinese government. Thousands of netizens have posted critical messages to the Sina Weibo microblog account opened earlier this month by the Russian embassy in China. According to the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, one post read, “Russia is shameless. Putin is manipulating the elections.”
NEW MEDIA / TECHNOLOGY NEWS
Censors suppress news of village revolt
China’s internet censorship apparatus has restricted online information about Wukan, a village in Guangdong Province where residents recently expelled local authorities by force. The unrest stemmed from a series of government land seizures, and came to a head when a villager named Xue Jinbo died in custody on December 11. He was detained on December 9 after being chosen to represent villagers in negotiations with officials. The Lufeng city government, which administers Wukan, claimed that Xue had “fallen ill” and died of “cardiac failure.” It posted his death announcement on the city’s official website, which immediately drew angry responses from netizens expressing the suspicion that he was tortured to death. Xue’s family members said police refused to release the body, on which they had seen “cuts and bruises” as well as apparently broken fingers. The death prompted villagers to force the party secretary out of town, while security forces surrounded the village, blocking food shipments and, according to some news reports, cutting off internet access. China Media Bulletin editors found that searches on Sina Weibo for terms such as “Wukan” and “Xue Jinbo” yielded a message that says, “According to relevant law, regulations, and policies, search results cannot be displayed.” On December 14, about 20 netizens gathered in Guangzhou after launching a campaign on Twitter in support of the villagers. The group distributed flyers and banners, which were immediately confiscated by plainclothes security men. The Wukan case is not the first time officials have engaged in a high-profile confrontation with residents in this part of Guangdong. In 2005, police in the nearby village of Dongzhou opened fire on villagers demonstrating against land grabs, reportedly killing as many as 30 people.
Microblog usage declining as censorship grows
In a “watershed moment” for the leading Chinese microblogging service, Sina Weibo, the Financial Times reported on December 9 that usage is decreasing as information controls ramp up (see CMB No. 42). The article cites statistics from Alexa indicating that the average amount of time spent on Sina Weibo has dropped from 29 minutes per day in July to 20 minutes, a slide that is “more dramatic than changes seen on other Chinese websites.” The decline coincides with growing restrictions on postings with politically relevant information. An internet entrepreneur and blogger named Xie Wen told the Financial Times that circulation of his posts has fallen sharply since the government increased pressure on Sina Weibo to crack down on “rumors.” Meanwhile, Sina Weibo has apparently replaced rankings of popular posts based on netizen responses with a collection of topics selected by its editorial staff. It also may be interfering with articles published by well-known bloggers who have a record of criticizing the authorities. Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent Beijing blogger and human rights lawyer, reported being denied access to a premium feature because his name had been listed as a “sensitive key term.” Several other users complained that messages they write are visible only to themselves. The decline in usage raises the question of how far Sina can go in complying with Communist Party censorship while maintaining its own viability as a profit-making business.
Activists mount Twitter campaign for Nobel laureate’s release
Chinese activists have initiated an online campaign in support of jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo on the anniversary of his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Messages asking netizens to write postcards to prisons where Liu and other Chinese dissidents are being held have been posted on the Twitter microblog service, which is blocked in China but accessed by many in the Chinese human rights community via circumvention tools. In an open letter published by Reporters Without Borders, prominent Beijing-based activist Hu Jia also called for Liu’s release and noted that his treatment in prison had improved when he was nominated for the prize (see CMB No. 37). Meanwhile, an international committee of prominent individuals was formed on the eve of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on December 10, International Human Rights Day. The group is calling for the Chinese government to release Liu, who was sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” after he coauthored and circulated the prodemocracy manifesto Charter 08. The committee, which includes five Nobel laureates and former Czech president Vaclav Havel, said Beijing is silencing Liu’s family and friends following its earlier “international wave of intimidation” surrounding the 2010 prize ceremony.
Two detained for disseminating ‘rumor’ video online
According to state-run Xinhua news agency, two men were detained on December 11 in Hunan Province’s Changsha City after making a false statement about the police on the internet. They will reportedly be held in custody for five days. The pair uploaded a video and claimed that 5,000 officers and 100 police vehicles had guarded a wedding convoy on the street, which would suggest a misuse of public resources for influential individuals. Local police said the video was taken when a group of officers were returning from a training drill, and happened to be passing by the wedding procession. State media reported that the video had quickly received a large number of hits, indicating that the “rumor” had spread “too quickly.” The Chinese Communist Party has recently pursued a campaign against so-called rumors circulating on microblogs. As in many other countries, Chinese cyberspace is replete with gossip and speculation, but the restrictions on “rumors” in China often focus on news and information that the authorities find inconvenient, whether or not it is factual.
Online democracy advocate released after 8 years in prison
On December 13, Shandong-based writer Huang Jinqiu announced that he had been released in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, on October 20 after serving eight years in prison. Huang had published hundreds of articles online, including on the U.S.-based website Boxun, with many of them criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and advocating an end to one-party rule in China. He also attempted to organize and recruit members for the China Patriot Democracy Party. First detained in September 2003, he was sentenced in 2004 to 12 years in prison for “subversion of state power.” While in prison, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital and subjected to torture and physical abuse, enduring beatings, having his toes crushed, and shocks from electric batons. The abuse resulted in permanent leg injuries that make walking difficult for him. Huang’s sentence was reduced for manual labor he performed while in prison, but his “political rights” will remain restricted for the next four years. Huang’s family was warned that he would face rearrest if he contacted anyone overseas, leading to the delay in the news of his release.
TIBET & XINJIANG
Tibetans and Uighurs detained for journalism, Kadeer film
Radio Free Asia reported on December 7 that seven Uighurs had been detained by police during December 1 raids in the Xinjiang city of Gulja. The police confiscated recordings of the documentary film The 10 Conditions of Love, written and directed by Australian filmmaker John Lewis and featuring the exiled Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer. A former political prisoner herself, Kadeer currently resides in the United States, and the Chinese authorities accuse her of instigating ethnic violence in Xinjiang. The fate of the December 1 detainees was not immediately clear, but Uighurs charged with disseminating antigovernment information have been sentenced to long prison terms in the past. Indeed, according to the annual census of imprisoned journalists released in early December by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than half of the 27 journalists listed as imprisoned in China were Uighurs or Tibetans, though the actual number is likely much higher given the difficulty of confirming such cases. As CPJ observed, there has been a significant increase in imprisonment of Uighurs and Tibetans since bouts of ethnic unrest in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions in 2009 and 2008, respectively. The whereabouts of two Uighur reporters scheduled for release in 2011 remain uncertain. One, Abdulghani Memetemin, was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to nine years in prison for “leaking state secrets.” The other, Mehbube Ablesh, was sentenced to a three-year term in 2008 on separatism charges.
Huawei scales back presence in Iran
On December 9, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei announced that it will no longer seek new business in Iran “due to the increasingly complex situation” there. Through a press release, the company also said it would limit its activities with existing Iranian partners, but continue offering “necessary services to ensure communications” on networks that had already been or were already being delivered. The decision was made after the Wall Street Journal reported in October that the company had provided Iranian telecom companies with equipment that enables them and police to track users, including dissidents, via their mobile telephones (see CMB No. 39). Iran has viewed its partnerships with Chinese companies as a viable alternative to Western contracts, and Huawei’s announcement was hailed by democracy activists as a significant victory against the oppressive regime in Tehran. However, many expressed suspicions that the motive was to boost Huawei’s image in the United States, where regulators have so far rejected its involvement in key telecommunications infrastructure because of concerns that it could jeopardize national security.
China, Philippines plan joint media website
Herminio Coloma, secretary of the Philippines’ Presidential Communications Operations Office, said on December 7 that China and the Philippines planned to launch a joint web portal. The decision was made after the vice president of the state-run China International Publishing Group (CIPG), Huang Youyi, visited the Philippine capital of Manila in November. Huang also oversees the English-language news portal China Internet Information. According to Coloma, the Philippines-China site would be a platform to promote tourism, culture, education, and communications technology. He also said the two countries would conduct more exchange programs for journalists and communications officials. It remains to be seen whether the planned web portal will restrict comments and information that the Chinese government deems harmful, as the Philippines does not generally engage in formal censorship and is home to a vibrant civil society. A day after the announcement, demonstrators took to the streets in the Philippines to protest the execution in China of a Filipino migrant worker charged with drug trafficking, an example of the kind of tensions that could emerge between Filipino netizens and the Chinese government. The Philippines is rated Partly Free in Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom of the Press report and is one of only two Southeast Asian nations that have abolished the death penalty.
U.S. agencies link cyberespionage to China’s military
U.S. intelligence agencies have identified between 12 and 20 Chinese groups—most connected to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and nonmilitary organizations such as universities—as being responsible for cyberespionage attacks that have stolen billions of dollars’ worth of data from U.S. companies and government entities. Collectively, the groups are believed to employ hundreds of people. In a recent investigation, some of whose details were relayed to the Wall Street Journal, cybersecurity analysts and intelligence experts successfully identified the groups based on the types of software used, the internet addresses employed, and the targets affected. In addition, the investigators have tracked enough intrusions that their links to the Chinese government and military are becoming clearer. These findings, alongside an inadvertent admission of PLA involvement in cyberattacks that appeared on state-run television over the summer, are reportedly leading the U.S. government to take a more assertive stance when confronting Chinese officials on the issue.
British star defends Chinese film on Nanjing massacre, attempts to visit Chen Guangcheng
Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s latest picture—The Flowers of War, starring Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale—will open in China on December 16 and a week later in the United States. The story is set in Nanjing during Japan’s 1930s invasion and occupation of China. Bale plays an American mortician who arrives in Nanjing to bury a priest but then tries to save Chinese schoolgirls and prostitutes from brutal treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Critics have characterized the film as nationalistic and anti-Japanese in its depiction of events, though historians agree that tens of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered and countless women subjected to rape during the occupation. Speaking to reporters at an early screening, Bale rejected the “propaganda” label and argued that the film was “far more a movie about human beings and the nature of human beings’ responses to crisis.” He said he did not know how extensively Chinese authorities had interfered in the production (see video in first link below). On December 15, the actor traveled to Shandong Province in an attempt to visit blind, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Bale and CNN reporters accompanying him were stopped, chased, and roughed up by plainclothes police (see video in second link below). The film reportedly cost almost $100 million, making it the most expensive in China to date (see CMB No. 30), and some see it as the Chinese film industry’s first chance at an Academy Award. Zhang, the director, also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Hollywood companies continue to eye China as a large potential market, despite its restrictive quotas on foreign films. China-U.S. co-productions can circumvent these quotas. In the latest such enterprise, DreamWorks—the U.S. studio responsible for animated films including Kung Fu Panda—is reportedly planning a Shanghai-based co-production venture to be known as DreamWorks East.