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Analysis: Is Xi Flying Too Close to the Sun?

CHINA MEDIA BULLETIN 
Issue No. 127: Mar 2018                Subscribe  / Read Online  / PDF
Monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China

Analysis: Is Xi Flying Too Close to the Sun?

In the News:

Tightened censorship on National People’s Congress, end of term limitsCensorship and surveillance: WeChat upgrade, feminists silenced, privacy concernsXinjiang: Reprisals against Uighurs at home and abroadHong Kong & Macau: By-election opens door to suppression of dissentBeyond China: Tibet event ban in India, Taiwan spy case, U.S. campus meddling

Featured PrisonerYao Wentian

What to Watch For

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Photo of the Month: Eye-roll seen around the world

This is one of many memes emerging after reporter Liang Xiangyi from financial news outlet Yicai was caught on state television rolling her eyes at a long-winded question from the fawning correspondent to her left during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. Liang’s eye roll went viral on Sina Weibo and inspired a wealth of memes before censors caught up. Censors also worked rapidly to stem the spread of the original video clip, in one example deleting it within 45 minutes of posting once it had been shared 54 times, according to data from Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope project. Credit: Hong Kong Free Press.

Editor’s note: To view links to articles that informed this issue of the China Media Bulletin, please see the online version. 

ANALYSIS  Is Xi Flying Too Close to the Sun?

The Chinese leader’s power grab may be undermining his party’s long-term survival strategy.

by Sarah Cook 

Xi Jinping appears to be at the apex of his power. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have signed off on the removal of term limits, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament approved the constitutional change almost unanimously, and it was greeted with fawning reactions from state media. 

But even as censors work vigorously to scrub voices of dissent from the internet, there are already signs that Xi’s audacious gamble for “stability” could ultimately backfire.

An eruption of online ridicule

The sheer scale of the censorship and the content it has deleted points to a sizeable contingent of Chinese citizens who disagree with the removal of term limits. On February 25, when the pending change was first announced, data from Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope project showed a spike in deletions on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform.

Much of the dissent has come in the form of ridicule aimed directly at Xi. The most prominent memes include portrayals of Xi as Winnie the Pooh—either wearing a crown or refusing to let go of a honey pot—and facetious greetings from past imperial rulers to the new Chinese emperor. Other critics have used metaphors to avoid censorship, making references to moving backward, dating a boyfriend forever, or how passengers should respond to a driver working extra shifts. Besides social media, such mockery has appeared in online videos, banners on college campuses, and as replies on the popular Q&A app Zhihu. 

Some netizen humor has spread beyond the term-limit issue to the broader political theater of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, which passed the amendment as part of its two-week annual session. This is best epitomized by a viral video clip of a reporter rolling her eyes at a colleague’s doctrinaire question during the congress session. A whole new generation of eye-rolling memes was thus born. Users hailed the reporter’s candid reaction for capturing their own frustrations, calling it “an eye-rolling representing all people who don’t dare to do so.”

Angering the apolitical

The combined weight of the term-limit announcement and the related censorship have provoked concerns and resentment among a wide swath of Chinese citizens who might otherwise consider themselves apolitical. These people are now expressing their worries about China’s direction to acquaintances and looking for ways around censorship.

Numerous foreign and Chinese observers have noted the stunned reaction of many ordinary people to the news, using words like “shock,” “betrayal,” and “regression.” A statement by overseas students describes how “even the least politically savvy people among our friends started to express their doubt, disapproval, and anger on social media.”

One of the censorship tactics that appears to have expanded dramatically in recent weeks is the deletion of accounts of people who voice or share criticism, as opposed to deletion of the offending posts. This punishment was previously reserved for more outspoken activists. A 19-year-old coder was detained for developing a tool to help people whose accounts were deleted find each other. He spoke of the phenomenon to the Globe and Mail in military terms, saying, “I can't tell you how many people in my friend circle were bombed, there are so, so many. I can't count it." His tool was reportedly downloaded 240,000 times within 12 hours, implying a massive purge of accounts.

Student dissent

Crucially, objections to the constitutional change have spread among Chinese students at foreign universities, who represent the children of China’s middle and upper classes. A poster campaign on college campuses was first spotted on March 1 at the University of California in San Diego. Three weeks later, Freedom House researchers found references to the critical posters appearing at 40 universities in 10 countries across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region, including one in China’s Shanxi Province and two in Hong Kong. Many of these universities are among the world’s most prominent academic institutions and home to large numbers of Chinese students. 

In some cases dissent has even been visible among Chinese professors. One photo that circulated online shows law professors from Beijing University rolling their eyes. A post of the image on Twitter notes that it has gone viral, and that the eye-rolling was in reference not just to the obsequious news coverage of the congress session but also to the term-limit abolition itself: “Xi Jinping rolled China’s political system back to 40 years ago, in order to fulfill his own ‘China Dream.’ The only thing people can do is roll their eyes.”

All the power, all the blame

Expressions of dissent like those noted above are not without risk. Fearing reprisals against themselves and their families in China, students promoting the university poster campaign have sought to remain anonymous and advised those hanging posters to do so under cover of darkness, even when wearing masks. The 19-year-old coder who was detained also had blood taken during his questioning, apparently for entry into a DNA database of “people of concern.” And there have been various other reports of people who posted criticism or mockery online being detained by police in recent weeks. 

But even as such repression removes visible signs of dissent, it poses its own risks for Xi and the CCP. A 2015 Freedom House report on the first two years of Xi’s rule noted his early steps to dispense with various “survival strategies” and adaptations made by the party in the aftermath of prodemocracy protests and their violent suppression in 1989. Political scientists have credited those very strategies for the CCP’s political longevity to date. 

Among them were forms of “containment” in which the party sought to limit both the scope of its repression and the blame for any abuses. For example, by decentralizing and diversifying policymaking via more collective leadership within the CCP, the party was able to blame shortcomings and even systemic abuses on lower-level officials or individual scapegoats, preserving its overall legitimacy. As Xi amasses personal power and the party increases control over state agencies as part of a government shake-up, however, the space for such plausible deniability shrinks. If (or perhaps when) a serious crisis erupts—in the economy, the environment, public health, or security—Xi and the party as a whole are more likely to be blamed by the public. Similarly, as the scope repression and censorship expand to affect more and more people, the number of those feeling disillusioned, disempowered, or resentful toward the party is also likely to increase.

In the immediate term, Xi’s hold on power may appear to be as secure as ever. But if the recent rumblings of dissent and the ever-expanding effort to suppress them are any indication, then Xi and the CCP may encounter trouble sooner than they would like.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. Alexander Lin, a graduate student at New York University, provided research assistance for this article. This article was also published in the Diplomat on March 27, 2018.

Tightened censorship on National People’s Congress, end of term limits

On February 25, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced plans to remove presidential term limits from China’s constitution, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely. Censorship targeting criticism—or even mere discussion—of the change was swift and aggressive, continuing through the annual “Two Sessions” of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CCPCC).

Some of the censorship tactics have been used during the Two Sessions before, such as deleting large numbers of Weibo microblog posts, issuing a raft of propaganda directives, blacking out coverage by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and tearing out offending pages of the Economist. Data from Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope project show a spike in Sina Weibo deletions on February 25, the date of the initial constitutional change announcement. In another familiar move, political dissidents including Hu Jia were sent on forced “holidays” so that they would not be in Beijing during the Two Sessions.

However, other recent measures were unusual and may reflect a trend toward even tighter controls, especially over social media applications. Examples of unusually aggressive censorship include: 

Blocked keywords: Dozens of search terms were blocked on Weibo to muffle criticism of the constitutional amendment and of Xi himself. China Digital Times ran tests to arrive at a long list of taboo terms, including “I object,” allusions to imperial rule, and mocking nicknames for Xi such as “Winnie the Pooh.” Also blocked was “Yuan Shikai,” the first president of the Republic of China, who in 1915 declared himself emperor. Even the letter “N” briefly vanished, lest netizens use it in the equation N > 2, where N is the number of presidential terms. Weibo was scrubbed so clean that trending topics were reduced to such innocuous discussions as “super-rich girlfriends” and whether you “can you eat a cup of noodles on a high-speed train.” 
Zhihu app: On March 2, the Beijing Cyberspace Administration ordered a seven-day suspension of the Quora-like Q&A platform Zhihu from all app stores due to its “lax supervision and the spread of illegal information.” The number and content of the alleged “illegal” posts was not released, but the timing of the suspension may offer a clue. China Digital Times identified a post that was censored by Zhihu alluding to the danger that Xi will be president for life.WeChat questioning: Bu Yongzhu, a rights defender in Guangdong Province, was questioned by police on March 13 after he posted congratulatory “cables” to Xi from past imperial dynasties to a group on the popular messaging application WeChat. Another user told Financial Times reporter Tom Hancock that his account was permanently disabled because he commented on the announcement of the proposed amendment on February 28. Yet another netizen was interrogated about a digital tool he built to help users reconnect after their social media accounts had been deleted, with police taking his blood for DNA identification and reportedly marking him as a “person of key concern.”Propaganda directives: China Digital Timespublished 23 leaked directives issued by the Henan Province Propaganda Department during the Two Sessions, instructing media outlets as to which pieces of legislation they should not “hype,” and which not to report on at all. An urgent March 13 notice from an unidentified bureau barred the media from covering the “blue-clothed reporter incident.” That reporter, Liang Xiangyi, was caught on state television rolling her eyes at a long-winded question from the obsequious correspondent to her left. Liang’s eye roll went viral on Weibo and inspired many memes before her name was blocked. Contrary to rumor, Liang was not fired by her employer, the financial news outlet Yicai, though she was temporarily suspended from covering the Two Sessions.

Censorship and surveillance: WeChat upgrade, feminists silenced, privacy concerns

WeChat restricts more comments, images:WeChat has started using a form of artificial intelligence (AI) technology called optical character recognition (OCR) to filter images with text that contains sensitive words, according to Johannes Ullrich of the SANS Internet Storm Center. Posting images of text is a widespread netizen tactic for sharing content with sensitive keywords that a simple text scan would otherwise detect and automatically censor. Users began noticing text-image posts disappearing intermittently last year, Ullrich reports. To date, human censors have been required to manually identify and delete such images. Should the OCR capability be deployed throughout WeChat, censorship of images could increase dramatically, along with false positives. The OCR blocking was unannounced, but another new form of censorship on the platform has been public from the start. Ahead of the Two Sessions, WeChat gave notice on March 11 that the comment function would be disabled for newly registered official accounts “in response to a request from the relevant department.” Official accounts are those set up by content creators like companies, media outlets, and government bodies to broadcast directly to followers. Those that registered within the last three months and had not yet enabled comments were also affected. WeChat has given no indication of when the restriction will be lifted.Feminist social media accounts censored: The Weibo and WeChat accounts of Feminist Voices (女权之声), a media and advocacy platform, were suspended on the evening of March 8, International Women’s Day. Feminist Voices had seen a spike in traffic just before the suspension, as the editors shared photos of women denouncing sexual harassment. When founding editor Lü Pin asked Weibo about the suspension, she was told that the account had posted “sensitive content.” Weibo did not specify which content that was. Feminist Voices has been suspended before, including on International Women’s Day in 2017, and the editors promised “we will never give up.” Six days after the suspension, a group of women held a colorful “funeral” for Feminist Voices while vowing to pursue all legal channels to recover their platform. Data privacy concerns grow as AI expands: The China Economic Life Survey, jointly conducted by internet giant Tencent and state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), found that 76.3 percent of respondents see AI as a threat to their privacy. This indicates that Chinese consumers may be growing more protective of their privacy rights than previously thought. The change appears to be in response to greater awareness of local police across China employing facial recognition, demographic data collection, and other AI and big-data methods. On January 1, Shanghai launched its “smart safety” initiative with the aspiration to “stretch the ‘antennae’ of the police to every corner of the city.” The CCTV/Tencent survey came out just days after U.S.-based technology firm Apple transferred Chinese users’ iCloud data to a third-party server in Guizhou in order to comply with the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, which requires the data of Chinese consumers to be stored in China. An iCloud user claimed that his data were stolen on the first day after the switch, and that the relevant employee was subsequently fired, but that many questions remained unanswered.

XINJIANG Reprisals against Uighurs at home and abroad

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region increasingly resembles a high-tech police state. Xinjiang authorities are now extracting information from Uighurs living abroad and detaining their family members still in the region. This development comes amid a spike in public security spending in Xinjiang, including on surveillance equipment and other devices. Per capita spending on domestic security in Xinjiang increased 92.8 percent from 2016 to 2017, to nearly 10 times the amount spent in 2007, according to a recent study by scholar Adrian Zenz. On March 15, Uighurs outside China held demonstrations in 14 cities worldwide to protest Beijing’s endless “strike hard” campaign in their home region and its growing reach overseas.

Big data policing: A Human Rights Watch report released on February 26 describes a “predictive policing program” in Xinjiang that aggregates personal data from numerous sources, including video surveillance cameras, Wi-Fi hotspots, security checkpoints, and face-to-face inquiries. Since August 2016, the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” has been tracking health records, prayer habits, license plates, and other information on virtually every Uighur in Xinjiang and using the data to generate “predictive warnings” of criminal acts and flag individuals with strong religious identity. Most Uighurs in Xinjiang are not even aware that such information is being collected and used to target them as a group. Some of those identified by the system are detained indefinitely without charge in extralegal “political education” centers, which collectively hold tens of thousands of Uighurs. WeChat as tool of coercion, control: Increased surveillance on WeChat is affecting Uighurs living in Xinjiang and abroad. Ahead of the Two Sessions, internet police launched a “clean-up” campaign requiring that they be granted access to WeChat groups of 10 or more users and listing nine forbidden topics that could land a violator in prison for up to eight years. Many users withdrew from WeChat around this time, fearing that they would be detained if they used the app to contact family abroad. The police have also harnessed WeChat to connect with overseas Uighurs and gather information on activists, often pressuring relatives back in Xinjiang to compel the overseas users to cooperate and add state monitors to their WeChat groups. In the cases of two Uighurs living in the United States, “their families said, ‘You have to add them. If you don’t add them, life will get difficult for us,’” according to Ilshat Hassan, president of the Uyghur American Association. The Chinese police are also demanding personal information from Uighurs in France, incluiding those who are French citizens.Detentions expand beyond China’s borders: The families of four Radio Free Asia (RFA) Uighur-service reporters were detained in Xinjiang on February 28, and a fifth RFA journalist’s family was detained on March 1. All of the reporters are based in the United States, and at least three are U.S. citizens. The detentions appear to be government reprisals for their coverage of ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang; the journalists’ articles often include intrepid reporting and confirmations of violations from police or officials in the region. Meanwhile, at least 50 Uighur women married to Pakistani men have been detained and their husbands’ Chinese visas not renewed. Some of the RFA reporters’ families and the Uighur women are believed to be held in political reeducation centers.

HONG KONG & MACAU By-election opens door to suppression of dissent

Prodemocracy candidates won only two of four open Legislative Council (LegCo) seats in by-elections held on March 11, following relatively low turnout at the polls. The resulting overall seat count means that the democratic bloc has lost its power to veto legislation for the first time, and pro-Beijing legislators will be able to force through restrictive legislation, such as a security bill called for under Article 23 of the Basic Law or a cybersecurity law like the one being considered in Macau. Six LegCo seats have been vacant since last summer due to disqualifications of democratic politicians who used their oaths of office as opportunities to protest Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The March 11 by-elections filled four of those six seats; balloting for the two remaining seats has not yet been scheduled.

Prodemocracy independent Au Nok-hin won the Hong Kong Island geographical constituency seat. He came late to the race, stepping up after Demosistō candidate Agnes Chow was banned by election officials on the grounds that her party, founded by Umbrella Movement leaders Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, supports “self-determination” for Hong Kong and would therefore not uphold the Basic Law. A voter is now challenging Au’s eligibility, claiming that Au also seeks self-determination and that he burned a copy of the Basic Law at a recent protest. Au’s case will be heard on March 28, one week after his swearing in. Gary Fan of the Neo Democrats party won in New Territories East.

In Kowloon West, Edward Yiu lost by 1 percentage point to Vincent Cheng of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. Yiu blamed his own campaign tactics, which did not appeal to the constituency’s working-class voters. An establishment candidate also secured a victory in the functional constituency for the architectural industry.

Democrats typically fare well in geographical constituencies, where lawmakers are elected by popular vote. Pro-Beijng establishment candidates have historically done better in functional constituencies, where legislators are chosen to represent various industries and economic sectors. Yew Chiew Ping warns that following the loss of the prodemocracy camp’s veto power, the LegCo is in danger of becoming “yet another rubber-stamp parliament.”

Separately, three authors were disinvited from the inaugural Macau Literary Festival after the organizers were “unofficially” told by “the relevant authorities” that they may not be granted entry to the autonomous territory. One of the authors is Jung Chang, known for her memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Wild Swans, and her unflinching biography of Mao Zedong. The other two, Suki Kim and James Church, have both written about China’s ally North Korea.

BEYOND CHINA Tibet event ban in India, Taiwan spy case, U.S. campus meddling

India bans Tibet rally: An interfaith prayer meeting and a massive rally planned for the end of March in New Delhi have both been canceled under pressure from the Indian government. The Dalai Lama was expected to attend both events, which were to mark 60 years since the Tibetan uprising against Chinese Communist rule. The rally will now take place in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. A senior Foreign Ministry official told Reuters that “it’s a very sensitive time for India and China ties and we want to ease tensions.” Last year, the two countries had a 73-day military standoff in the disputed territory of Doklam, and Beijing protested over separate visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, large parts of which are also claimed by China.Taiwan news site, Facebook page recruited spies for China: Two Taiwanese nationals and a Chinese student will stand trial in Taiwan for allegedly recruiting informants, particularly senior military officials, through the pro-unification website Fire News. The site was funded by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO); Wang Ping-chung, spokesperson of the pro-unification New Party, was paid over US$500,000 annually to run the website and its Facebook page. The people allegedly behind the recruitment scheme, known as “Star Fire T Project,” reportedly earned US$100 for every new Facebook follower who read at least 70 percent of the outlet’s posts, and progressively larger sums for users who interacted more on the site and who agreed to meet offline. An in-person meeting during which the contact spoke about their political feelings earned the team US$1,680, and the contact was referred for further processing by the TAO. The court hearing is scheduled to begin March 26. The Fire News Facebook page was last updated on March 6; the website was down as of March 18. Consulates influence U.S. student groups: Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) across the United States face increasing pressure from Chinese consulates to engage in political activities, according to an investigative report by Foreign Policy. For years, the consulates have offered cash payments through CSSAs for attendance at welcome parties during visits by Chinese presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. But the growing influence and financial support from the consulates has alarmed some CSSA leaders. The consulates organize WeChat groups for CSSAs by region, broadcasting messages to student officers. Some consulates have variously offered funding, asked student groups to spread propaganda, and requested photos and reports of NPC plenum viewing parties. CSSA members are not of one mind regarding these pressures, but many are uncomfortable with the consular requests, fearing that their American classmates and their schools will view them as spies. At a security briefing in February, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray said the bureau is investigating several Sino-American academic groups. Asian American advocacy organizations accused Wray of profiling Chinese students, and Sinocism’s Bill Bishop warns that “it’s important not to conflate party influence with all Chinese people.”Members of Congress sound alarm on Confucius Institutes: U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing Congress and institutes of higher education to restrict Confucius Institutes (CIs), which provide Chinese language and cultural programming on campuses around the world—and promote the Chinese government’s political agenda. In the House of Representatives, Joe Wilson (R-SC) has drafted a bill that would update the Foreign Agents Registration Act such that CIs would be required to register as foreign agents. “The American people need to know that they are being provided propaganda,” Wilson told Foreign Policy. On March 9, Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) wrote letters to the University of Massachusetts–Boston and to Tufts University requesting that they cut ties with their CIs, and advised 38 other Boston-area colleges that do not currently have CIs to keep it that way. On March 12, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee responsible for education, urging a revision of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act that would lower the threshold for disclosure of gifts to colleges and universities from foreign governments and stipulate that any institution that accepts CI funding would lose a proportional amount of federal funding.

FEATURED PRISONER Yao Wentian

Yao Wentian (Yiu Man-tin), a Hong Kong publisher in his mid-70s, is serving a 10-year prison sentence apparently in connection with plans to publish a biography critical of Chinese president Xi Jinping. He is suffering from serious medical problems. 

Yao was the owner of Morning Bell Press, a small business specializing in publishing the works of dissident Chinese writers. He was reportedly preparing to publish a book by exiled writer Yu Jie titled Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping when he was detained in Shenzhen on October 27, 2013 while carrying paint to a friend. Authorities accused him of smuggling industrial chemicals. In May 2014, Yao was sentenced to an unusually harsh 10 years in prison, reinforcing suspicions that the detention was in reprisal for his publishing efforts. Yu Jie’s book was ultimately released by another publisher in early 2014 and remains banned in China.

Family members report Yao is being held in Dongwan Prison in Guangdong and is in poor health without proper medical treatment. In May 2017, lawmakers from Hong Kong wrote a letter to Chinese authorities urging his release on medical parole and noting that he had already suffered five heart attacks in prison. His wife is also in poor health, making it difficult for her to visit Yao.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Longevity of NPC censorship: Watch for either the continuation or the reduction of enhanced censorship surrounding the Two Sessions—including banned keywords, blocked applications, mass account deletions on Sina Weibo, and upgraded filtering capabilities on WeChat. 

Changes to domestic and foreign propaganda apparatus: As part of a larger restructuring that emerged from the Two Sessions, two notable changes to media-related entities were announced: the creation of the Voice of China (a merger of China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio) to “strengthen international communication,” and the folding of China’s top media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), directly into the CCP’s Propaganda Department. Watch for implementation of these changes and the extent to which they strengthen party control over media narratives at home and abroad. 

Expanded high-tech policing: Alongside increased security spending and surveillance in Xinjiang, recent months have brought reports of police in Zhejiang Province wearing facial-recognition glasses, new technologies for monitoring residents in Shanghai, and pilot projects involving voice recognition. Watch for new examples of high-tech policing, expansion of tools like the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” beyond Xinjiang, and any examples of citizens being detained through such monitoring for peacefully exercising their right to free expression

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