The next generation of China’s leaders will be named during the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that opens today in Beijing. They include the party’s general secretary, who will also be China’s president, the prime minister and the chairman of the National People’s Congress.
Disturbed by the increased control of news and information in the past month, in which considerable resources have been used to gag the media and dissidents, Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to loosen online surveillance and controls so that Chinese citizens can exercise their rights to free speech and freedom of information.
“It is very worrying that the five years since the last congress have seen no let-up in the government’s harsh treatment of dissent or its desire for absolute control over news and information,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Even if we do not yet know the names of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, we already know there is no intention of ending the policy of censoring news and cracking down on those who try to use their freedom of expression.
“The arrests and imposition of jail sentences are continuing, while the censorship ‘soldiers’ are tireless in their surveillance of those who express political views and try to promote a democratic debate on the Internet.
“We urge the future president and party general secretary to put an end to the arrests of journalists, bloggers and dissidents and the constant violations of freedom of information. Maintaining order and stability cannot be used to justify cracking down on those who defend human rights and freedom of expression.”
Reporters Without Borders has compiled a partial summary of the many violations of freedom of information during the last weeks preceding the opening of the congress, as they show that the government plans to pursue its authoritarian policies.
The media freedom organization will redouble its vigilance during the congress and will continue to log every new case of censorship on a specially-created webpage
See the news feed here
Arrests and sentences, harassment of dissidents, their families and supporters
In the run-up to the congress, the authorities cracked down on human rights activists and dissidents who are permanently suspected of wanting to destabilize the state.
Hu Jia, a well-known human rights activist who has been under house arrest since his release from prison in June 2011, was beaten and briefly detained after he began a hunger strike. His Internet connection was also temporarily cut after he posted comments on Twitter. The Internet is his only way of communicating with his wife, Zeng Jinyan, and his daughter, who are now based in Hong Kong.
The families of dissidents are routinely the targets of government harassment and reprisals. Defending the detained Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo endangers his wife, the artist and photographer Liu Xia, who is under house arrest and permanently watched by the police.
The restrictions imposed on her have been tightened in recent months. Reporters Without Borders posted a video of her on 13 October that showed her at a window of her apartment, completely isolated from the outside world.
The human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng is now in the United States, but his relatives still in China are being harassed. At the end of October, the authorities carried out a violent search of the home of his brother, Chen Guangfu, and arrested Chen’s son. Chen tried to file a complaint with a court in Yina, in Shandong province, but the court refused to register it.
More recently, the authorities in Jinan arrested the lawyer Shu Xiangxin on a charge of blackmail and extortion on the night of 5 November and seized his computer. His wife, who was interviewed by Radio Free Asia, was also interrogated for several hours by the police.
Prior to his arrest, Shandong province officials had been harassing Shu for posting information online about the expropriation of land from villagers in the province and he recently received a beating from unidentified individuals.
Censoring “sensitive” information
The authorities applied themselves in October to tightening their grip on “sensitive” information that could affect the congress. The government’s censors also made every effort to get complete control of news coverage throughout the country.
For example, reports about a demonstration in the village of Yingge, on the southern island of Hainan, were censored as soon as they appeared online. Several hundred thousand people reportedly took part in the demonstration against the proposed construction of a power plant.
Messages posted on Weibo about demonstrations were removed and the accounts on which they were posted were blocked. The Sina Weibo, Wang Yi, Teng Xun and Tian Ya She Qu microblogging platforms also experienced similar censorship.
The authorities searched the premises of a Beijing-based website called the “China justice and anti-corruption networks” and put its servers out of commission. The person in charge of the site, which covered human rights violations including land expropriation in various provinces, confirmed that the cyber-police had disconnected its servers and blocked several of its IP addresses.
Social networks have been placed under close watch and QQ, the main Chinese instant messaging service, is getting close attention from the cyber-authorities. Owned by Tencent Holdings, the QQ software allows the authorities to monitor all exchanges and use keywords and expressions to search them. The author of any message can be identified by a software user number (see photo).
QQ software surveillance interface
Suppressing “bad news” in Tibet
Instead of restoring peace by abandoning its discriminatory policies against ethnic minorities, the regime persists in stifling the voices of dissidents who try to circulate information from within the Tibet enclave. All street demonstrations are banned and arrests are frequent. The increase in repression in Tibet is reflected in a wave of arbitrary arrests in Tibetan monasteries.
The arbitrary nature of the arrests in the region is becoming more and more flagrant, while the increase in police raids is pushing monks to acts of despair. Around 60 self-immolations are estimated to have taken place since the start of 2009. The exact number is not known because they authorities try to hide them from the international community.
In order to contain the information coming out of the region, the movements of the population are strictly regulated. Access to the city of Lhasa is getting harder and harder because its Tibetan inhabitants are required to have a specific identity card.
The authorities have banned schoolchildren in Hezuo, the capital of Gannan, a Tibetan prefecture in the western province of Gansu, from taking holidays outside of the region, and have suppressed mobile phone communication in the Tibetan part of Sichuan province, permitting only fixed telephone use.
Anonymous sources have reported that in Gannan virtually all communications have been blocked, the sale of SIM cards has been suspended and Internet cafés have been closed.
The Chinese government is particularly concerned to suppress any information about the frequent self-immolations by Tibetan monks.
Tibet Post International, a Reporters Without Borders-backed online newspaper based in the northern Indian city of Dharamsala, learned on 1 November that four monks identified as Lobsang Choephel, Tsundue, Losel and Topden had been arrested in Tsoe Gaden Choeling monastery on charges of “disseminating information and evidence abroad.” It is not known where they are currently being held.
Similarly, a 38-year-old monk identified as Jinpa, who had already been detained in 2008 for circulating information abroad, was arrested again for no clear reason on 25 October.
Two days before that, the 19-year-old Tibetan monk Tashi Norbu was arrested for making a call with a Smartphone, apparently because it can be used for connecting to the Internet. Smartphone owners have often been targeted during police raids on monasteries.
It has meanwhile been confirmed that Golog Jigme Gyatso, a monk who helped Dhondup Wangchen secretly film the 2008 documentary “Leaving Fear Behind,” was arrested on 20 September when he returned to Gansu province.
Keeping the foreign media in check
The party also tries to control the foreign media, which play a key role in informing both the international community and the Chinese public, the victims of the increased censorship of the local media.
After the website of Bloomberg, a news agency specializing in business and finance, was censored on 29 June for investigating the fortune amassed by the family of Vice-President Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao’s expected successor as president and party general secretary, the New York Times was censored and threatened with a lawsuit after it ran a story about the fortune acquired by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family.
The foreign media also made up for the gaps in the Chinese media’s coverage of the demonstrations in late October in the coastal city of Ningbo against the proposed expansion of a petrochemical plant. For the most part, the authorities restricted the Chinese media’s coverage to use of the official news agency stories, but foreign reporters were able to mingle with the protesters, who even helped them with their coverage.
Aware of the foreign media’s steadily-growing influence, the authorities have reinforced the blocking of the Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia and Deutsche Welle websites. A few weeks ago it was possible to circumvent the censorship by using proxies and VPNs, but some sources are reporting that such tools are now much less effective.
The employees of foreign media are also being targeted. In October, two Sky News journalists and an AFP journalist were arrested.
China is ranked 174th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is on the 2012 Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet.”