Internet dissidents in China

Retweet this! Arrests and online censorship in China.

Please find below a list of Chinese who are or have been imprisoned in China often for “inciting subversion of state power” using the internet as a means of information dissemination. In many cases, the internet properties which these activists were using were complicit in police investigations and provided full access to these accounts. Wikipedia has an excellent list of all dissidents in China which is surprisingly not blocked by the great firewall (even in Chinese!) at the time of publication. Much of the information which follows was gathered from that list.

In the period before social media, internet-related arrests of dissidents were far fewer than today’s levels. This of course is in part due to the fewer number of internet users in China in the early 2000s. But this is also due to the less “social” and “public” nature of the internet. Many of the arrests were facilitated by the internet companies themselves, as in the case of Yahoo. Perhaps because of the prominent cases of these Yahoo dissidents, more Chinese are being careful about what online services they use to post and share information. In reading the background material on these dissidents, there appears to be two distinct periods of arrests: those that have occurred before social media rose to prominence and those that have occurred since.

Incidences of censorship in the age of social media

Since the rise of social media, there appears to be an increasingly large number of arrests of Chinese citizens who have “incited subversion of state power” through their use of the internet. Many arrests are of people who have posted on foreign social media websites that are blocked in China, particularly on Twitter. A playful and innocuous tweet, on a website inaccessible to the vast majority of Chinese, can still land you in jail in China. Many dissidents upon release have practised self-censorship for fear that they end up back in jail. The rise in the number of arrests and detentions during the Jasmine Revolution also points to the relative ease with which the authorities can find “subversive” information in the social age. Not only are the perpetrators of these messages arrested, but the messages themselves are deleted. A quick scan of the FreeWeibo.com web site will show the extent of this censorship.

But the larger picture is frightening. The age of social combined with the rise of mobile internet access in China, means that tens of millions of people who may have a legitimate beef about government corruption or tainted milk or H7N9 or the daily frustrations of living in a more polluted, more expensive country need to tread very carefully indeed when it comes to publicly sharing those worries. There have been far too many recent instances of Chinese getting locked up for sharing “subversive” information via social media.

But there is also something that indicates that there is yet much hope. While some of these “dissidents” decide to keep silent after their release, many get right back at sharing information. And more people are sharing their information. We see on a daily basis the number of posts that have been censored - this number is only headed in one direction. If the authorities were to arrest each and every person who retweeted an innocuous tweet the country’s prisons would soon be overflowing. Something surely has to give in this game of cat and mouse.

Reading the Twitter feeds and stories of the courageous people listed below can also inspire. We know that we will not rest until we have brought transparency to online censorship in China.

It is our hope to keep the list below as updated as possible - it is by no means meant to be comprehensive. If you have any further information regarding any of the people listed below, or new information about recent cases, please email charlie.smith@greatfire.org.

Social media censorship arrests

#H7N9

As of April 10, ten people had been arrested for spreading reports about “fake” H7N9 cases. At that time there were 31 confirmed cases and nine deaths. As of April 15, there are 60 cases and 13 deaths. Several of the rumours concerned Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces - all of which now have confirmed cases of H7N9. In 2002/3 the Chinese authorities kept the spread of SARS under wraps. Had information been more forthcoming, health officials believe that they could have taken measures which would have prevented the spread of the disease earlier. Instead, 774 people died because of SARS.

@Stariver

Offense

On Nov 5, 2012, @Starriver tweeted a comparison of the 18th Party Congress to the movie Final Destination:

#剧透推 #慎入 死神来了6即将上映。大会堂突然倒塌,正在开会的2000多人只有7人幸免,事后却又一一离奇死亡。是上帝的游戏,还是死神的怒火,神秘数字18怎样开启 地狱之门?11月8日全球院线震撼登场!

— Cather (@Stariver) November 5, 2012

Translation:

#SpoilerTweet# #EnterAtYourPeril# Final Destination 6 will soon hit theaters. The Great Hall of the People suddenly collapses, killing all but seven of the 2000 people meeting there. Later, one-by-one the survivors die in strange ways. Is this God playing games, or the Devil venting his wrath? What does the mysterious number 18 have to do with unlocking the gate to Hell? An earthshaking experience premieres globally on Nov. 18!

On Nov 7, his Twitter account went silent.

Real Identity

@Stariver’s public Twitter profile linked to his blog on NetEase. One way the authorities could find his real identity would be to call NetEase and get the IP address of the user managing that blog. They could then call the Internet Server Provider of that IP address and get the real identity of the person registered under that account.

Arrest

Zhai Xiaobing, an investment banker who had studied at Peking University, was arrested on November 7 and released a month later.

Status

@Stariver started posting again on 28 Mar, 2013.

Summer of 2012

Over 5,000 netizens had been arrested by summer of 2012. According to the police, those who committed minor offences would be warned while those who were involved in more serious crime would be punished accordingly. Much of this crackdown has centered around China’s internet cafes and coincided with a leadership handover in the country.

Jasmine Revolution

Hundreds of people were detained or went missing during the attempted Jasmine Revolution in China in February and March of 2011. Foreign Policy has an overview of some of the more prominent activists who were detained, many of whom have since been released. The title of the FP story - “Missing Before Action” - is a very accurate reflection of how authorities used arrests and detention to block any attempt at emulating the events of the Arab Spring.

Guo Weidong (郭卫东)

Offense

At the start of the Jasmine Revolution in China, authorities who were monitoring Guo’s popular Twitter account (@daxa) decided that he should be detained. Guo, however, had stood out from other activists in that he was sceptical of such a revolution.

Arrest

Guo Weidong was arrested in early 2011 as part of a broad crackdown on activists who may have been trying to ignite a Jasmine Revolution in China. Guo said later that anybody who was subjected to detention or house arrest in China experienced  "depression and humiliation."

Status

Guo has also stopped posting on his blog, leaving readers with a last post saying that his family now lives in fear and that he sees no future for fairness and justice.  He still, however, remains active on Twitter.

夏商:第1夫人首次出访,微博上一片叫好:“衣服好看,容貌不错,总算带得出去 了。”难道这是国家形象的核心价值?值得你们这些整天喝地沟油、吸PM2.5、交20%房产税的屁民狂欢?真以为一个第1夫人就能挽回没教养、没信仰、暴 发户的国际形象?满屏的傻逼,天生犯贱。

— 郭大虾 (@daxa) March 25, 2013

Cheng Jiangping (程建萍)

Offense

Cheng retweeted a tweet from her fiance about the anti-Japanese demonstrations across China.

愤青们,冲啊!RT @wxhch: 反日游行、砸日系产品这类事,多年前郭泉他们就干过,没啥新花样。其实最给力的是立即飞到上海,砸了世博园的日本 馆。

— 王译 (@wangyi09) October 17, 2010

Real Identity

Also known as Wang Yi.

Arrest

Cheng was sentenced to a year in a forced labour camp in November, 2010. She went on hunger strike during her internment (to no avail).

Status

Cheng was released after one year. She still actively tweets.

Zhao Lianhai (赵连海)

Offense

Another former government official, Zhao worked on food safety in China and was active in helping families whose children were harmed by tainted milk in China.

Arrest

Zhao was detained in November, 2009 for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. He was sentenced on November 10, 2010 to 2½ years prison. Zhao was subsequently released on medical parole.

Status

He remains active via Twitter and via Google. China has since experienced more tainted milk scandals and mainland families now travel to Hong Kong in an effort to secure cans of imported powdered baby milk. Zhao lives outside of Beijing but he and his family are still subjected to police harassment.

Incidences of censorship before the age of social media

One of the best known incidents of internet companies providing user information to Chinese police is Yahoo, and in particular, the first four individuals listed below. Rebecca MacKinnon has an excellent post about how Yahoo has structured its operations in China and what that means for user privacy. The short of it is this - Yahoo chose to offer its free email service in China and hosted their servers in China which means that they subjected their business to Chinese laws. Rebecca feels that when they established their email service in China, Yahoo probably did not think about the legal implications of what they were doing.

It is interesting to note that in 2002 Yahoo voluntarily signed the “Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry” and in September 2005, Yahoo spokesperson Mary Osako (now working for Amazon) said: “Just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based.” Of the cases listed below, Yahoo comes to our attention most often largely because the free email service the company provides in China meant that Chinese police were able to issue court orders for information.

Yahoo complicity in Chinese censorship requests

Tan Zuoren (谭作人)

Offense

After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake Tan came up with a proposal called the "5.12 Student Archive" (5·12学生档案) asking people who lost their children in the quake to set up a victim database.

Arrest

Tan Zuoren was formally accused of defaming the Communist Party of China in email comments about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. On February 9, 2010. he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”.

Status

He is in Ya'an prison in Sichuan. Just recently, strong quake jolted China's Sichuan again. Ya’an prison is evacuated and he was reported to be safe.

Wang Xiaoning (王小宁)

Offense

Wang distributed anonymous pro-democracy internet writings via his Yahoo email account and on Yahoo Groups.

Arrest

Convicted to a 10-year sentence for “inciting subversion”. According to the written court verdict, the Chinese government convicted Wang, in part, on evidence provided by Yahoo.

Status

Wang Xiaoning was released from Beijing Prison No. 2 in August, 2012.

Jiang Lijun (姜力钧)

Offense

Jiang was one of five activists who signed an open letter calling for political reform that was posted on the internet ahead of the Communist Party congress in November 2002.

Arrest

According to the verdict issued by the Beijing courts,  “user information provided by Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. for the email account ZYMZd2002 used jointly by Li Yibing and Jiang Lijun” enabled police to access Jiang’s email account and find in his drafts folder an email with the subject heading “Declaration”. This email was similar to articles written by other activists that had also been recovered by police.

Status

Reporters Without Borders said in a statement: "Little by little we are piecing together the evidence for what we have long suspected, that Yahoo is implicated in the arrest of most of the people we have been defending." Jiang Lijun was sentenced to four years in prison in 2003 but his whereabouts remain unknown.

Li Zhi (李智)

Offense

He exposed corruption by local authorities on forums and in information he published on the internet.

Arrest

The verdict against him showed that Yahoo and Sina had “supplied information confirming that Li Zhi had set up an email account using their services”. Li Zhi’s ISP also helped the authorities by providing his address and telephone number based on the IP address used to access his email.

Status

Li Zhi, a former government official in Sichuan province, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2003 for "subverting state power" and has since been released. It is interesting to note that in this case Li was convicted of actually subverting the power of the state, unlike his peers who are accused of ‘inciting’ state subversion.

He Depu (何德普)

Offense

He posted an open letter to the 16th Party Congress calling for, among other things, political reforms, a reassessment of the events of June, 1989 and expanding democratic elections in China.

Arrest

He Depu was arrested in November, 2002 and sentenced in November, 2003 for “inciting subversion”. He wrote a post about how he remained active on important issues while still in prison.

Status

He was released in January, 2011 and was immediately beaten by police for apparently continuing to speak out.

Shi Tao (师涛)

Offense

He is believed to have posted an internal Communist Party message (to a Yahoo Group) warning journalists about the dangers of social unrest resulting from the return of dissidents for the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Arrest

Shi Tao was jailed for 10 years in 2005 for "divulging state secrets". Yahoo helped the Chinese authorities gather evidence about Shi Tao by sharing his email account details as well as the location and time when messages were sent. Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning’s families brought a lawsuit against Yahoo which the company settled out of court after an unsuccessful attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed.

Status

The Chairman of the US congressional panel investigating this incident had this to say about Yahoo: “Much of this testimony reveals that while technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.” Yahoo vowed in 2007 that it would "provide financial, humanitarian and legal support to these families" yet Shi Tao still remains in prison.

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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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