Press Freedom in China Bulletin: April

Welcome to IFJ Asia-Pacific’s monthly Press Freedom in China Campaign e-bulletin. The next bulletin will be sent onMay8, 2016.

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In this bulletin:

1.    Investigation into resignation letter sees media workers harassed

2.    Authorities remove online dissident opinions

3.    Media banned from reporting on the ‘Panama Papers’

4.    Hong Kong independent film banned on the Mainland

5.    ‘Typo’ leads to Xinhua editor suspension

6.    Journalists harassed and threatened by authorities

7.    Restrictive orders issued in March

8.    Inner Mongolian media continues to be harassed

9.    Hong Kong photographer receives threats

10.  South China Morning Post social media shut down

11.  Other news from across China

12.  FCCC annual survey highlights improvements for foreign correspondents

13.  Chinese government online outlet The Paper launches in English

14.  ‘Father’ of the Great Firewall red-faced over VPN use

1.    Investigation into resignation letter sees media workers harassed

On March 4, an open letter calling for President Xi Jinping’s resignation was on watching.cn, an online state and private sector joint media venture. The letter was quickly taken down; however it has since sparked a strong investigation by authorities, questioning and interrogating staff, as well as reports of harassment to relatives of exiled activists.

According to various reports, people have also been detained through the investigation, including, Ouyang Hongliang, the CEO of watching.cn, Huang Zhijie, the executive chief-editor, as well as two editors and ten members of the IT department. It remains unclear when they were detained, how long they will be detained for or what they are being detained for. There are also reports of media workers on the Mainland been detained, including Gua Jia (Jia Jia), as well as the relatives of two exiled Chinese activists.

On March 15, Gua Jia was detained by police as he travelled from Beijing to Hong Kong. Reports state that Gua was detained because he had informed Ouyang when he saw the letter on the website. On March 25, Wen Yunchao (Bei Feng) reported that his parents and younger brother had been detained by police in Gunangdong province. Wen said that he suspected police detained his family to force him to admit he was involved in the letter. Wen continues to deny any involvement.

On March 27, three siblings of Zhang Ping (Chang Ping) were detained by police in Sichuan, with police claiming they arrested the siblings for involvement in a fire. However Zhang said that police told his brother to ask him to stop criticising the government and remove his commentaries on German news site, Deutsche Welle. Zhang’s siblings and Wen’s family members were released but remain under police supervision.

A series of online attacks were also reported following the release of the letter. On March 11, Cai Chu, from US-based caiyu.org, said that the website was attacked and harassed online, with a series of articles posted on social media accusing Cai of forming a syndicate with other people to write and publish the letter. The website also received a series of DDOS (denial of service attacks).

On March 30, for the first time, the government through Hong Lei, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, said in a routine press conference that ‘any act attempting to destroy the national stability, they can’t succeed’. This was the first comment by the government on any detentions.

2.    Authorities remove online dissident opinions

Following President Xi’s media tour in February, Ren Zhiqiang, a veteran Communist and businessman voiced his criticisms on his personal weibo account. On March 8, Caixin, a prominent and relatively outspoken Mainland media outlet reported via Twitter that the Cyber Space Administration Office had deleted a series of articles interviewing Jiang Hong, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The articles were published on March 3, in which Jiang did not directly criticise the authorities, but made obscure remains about President Xi’s comments on his media tour. Jiang said: “Being a civilian [of China], freedom of expression must be protested. Now, the only thing worrying me is whether media is able to reflect the viewpoints of members of the CPPCC and the National Party Congressman?” In addition, Jiang also expressed strong sentiments about the state of the general public who remain a “little bit confused and wishes to speak less”.

On March 11, Zhou Fang, a Xinhua journalist published an open letter accusing the Cyber Administration Office of abusing its powers to deprive critizen’s right to free speech and violating the law. In the letter, he accused the censors of using tactics reminiscent of the Maoist times to silence and smear critics. Many believe that the letter reflects the discontent among the media community about the tighter censorship. In the letter, he said “Under the crude rule of the Internet control, online expression has been massively suppressed, and the public’s freedom of expression has been violated to an extreme degree”. According to Radio Free Asia, Zhou is now handling administrative work.

3.    Media banned from reporting on the ‘Panama Papers’

On April 4, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a report known as the ‘Panama Papers’, detailed the use of offshore holdings in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands. The documents revealed the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders, including members of China’s Communist Party elite. Relatives of President Xi Jinping as well as eight other members of the Communist Party, including members of the politburo standing committee were named in the papers.

According to the China Digital Times, the provincial Cyber Administrative Office made an oral directive to local media that banned the publication of the papers. The directive also said that if media who had already published reports did not remove them immediately they would face harsh punishments. A number of outlets did not follow the directive, with some publishing reports, but kept them off the front page of newspapers and websites. Any of the reports that were published by Chinese media regarding the papers, withheld the information surrounding Chinese officials. 

4.    Hong Kong independent film banned on the Mainland

Ten Years, an independent film about the state of Hong Kong in 2025 won the Best Film awarded at the Hong Kong Film Awards on April 3. As soon as the award was delivered, the State Administration of Press Publication Radio Film and Television (SAPPRFT) issued a directive banning all media from reporting on the film. According to a series of directives that were issued, no media was allowed to report on the film, the awards or live broadcast from the awards.

5.    ‘Typo’ leads to Xinhua editor suspension

Li Kai, the 48-year-old editor of Xinhua was suspended from his work after the publication of an article said President Jinping was the ‘last leader of China’ instead of ‘highest leader of China’. Three days after it was published, the Singapore-based Strait Times reported that Li was suspended from his duty and had his application to become a member of the Communist Party cancelled. The report said that senior management from Xinhua said that the error was a ‘political mistake’ and ‘badly influenced’ but that Li had made a typing error.

6.    Journalists harassed and threatened by authorities

Zhang Guilun and Fu Yifei from the state-owned newspaper Science and Technology Daily reported that they had been threatened and harassment by Song Xin, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and Vice-President of a state-owned enterprise, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp on March 16.

Song accused the media workers of bias and said: “(you) cannot casually report. It you with to continue your work, you should pay attention. I have already noted down your press card number, you should be careful the relevant bureau will arrest you!” Fu said that the media outlet had received a complaint due to a series of negative articles about local companies.

7.    Restrictive orders issued in March

a)    March 4: an order forced all online media outlets to delete a documentary about the Tianjin chemical explosion in 2015 by NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster.

b)    March 22: an order demanded all media not to republish reports that said more than several 100 million yuans worth of tainted vaccines had be widely distributed to 10 provinces across the country. The report was originally published online. The order also demanded that all online administrators tightly monitor the online commentary.

c)    March 24: an order was issued stating that no reports or commentary were to be published about a documentary film from Independent Television UK. The film is about Saudi Arabia. In addition, all online administrations were ordered to tightly monitor commentary and online messages.

d)    March 24: an order was issued banning all media from reporting on a story from UK-based The Times which claimed that five Chinese swimmers were under investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

8.    Inner Mongolian media continues to be harassed

According to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre (SMHRIC), two herders, Munkh and Tuyaa, were arrested by the local police when they were protesting in front of a government building on March 7. Munkh was sentenced to 15 days detention and Tuyaa was released about 24 hours detention.

On March 8, Saishingaa, a well-known, outspoken herder from Bayan-Ulaan Som of Urad Middle Banner was taken away by a SWAT team. He was detained by police for 15 days in administrative detention, with police citing ‘resisting arrest and providing information to foreign news media and organisations’. Saishingaa had been protesting the ‘illegal appropriation’ of land by local officials on a forged document. He had filed a number of lawsuits, but they had all failed.

On March 21, three Mongolian herders including Burdee, Achilalt and Enkhbat were arrested by police on accusations of ‘instigating illegal gatherings via the internet’. They were sentenced to 10 days detention.

Local police issued a statement saying, ‘the internet is a public and open space. Internet surging must be down in a civilised way. Laws and regulations must be voluntarily abided by netizens. Acts of disturbing public order, obstructing social management, sabotaging public interest and violating the laws must be strictly investigated and harshly punished by the police’.

9.    Hong Kong photographer receives threats 

Hong Kong-based photographer from Ming Pao Daily reported that he was manhandled by Meng Jiangzhu’s bodyguards on March 17. The photographer was trying to ask Meng, the head of the Central Public Security Comprehensive Management Commission, about the missing media workers from Causeway Bay booksellers. During the incident, the bodyguards said to the photographer, “Don’t yell!!! Do you believe I can kill you?” The photographers tried to get help from Meng, but the bodyguard pushed the photographer further and used his hand to cover his mouth.

10.  South China Morning Post social media shut down

On March 7, the South China Morning Posts’ weibo and wechat accounts in Mainland China were reportedly suspended. No reason was given, however it was widely believed that the accounts were suspended due to an article written by Wang Xiangwei, the former editor in chief. In the article, Wang urged the government to learn lessons from the Cultural Revolution and warned of ‘turning left’. On March 11, Reuters reported that the Cyber Space Administration Office said that it had monitoring powers to shut down accounts under the laws, but did not specific what laws were breached.

11.  Other news

a)    The Thai government has dropped charges against Hong Kong photographer, Anthony Kwan Hok-Chun. On August 23, Kwan was arrested as he tried to board a flight following working on assignment in Bangkok. Kwan was arrested for carrying bullet-proof vest, which is deemed an illegal weapon in Thailand.

b)    Lee Bo, a shareholder of Causeway Bau bookstore, who disappeared in late 2016 was released and allowed to travel back to Hong Kong on March 24. However, Lee was only allowed to stay in Hong Kong for one night, they he was escorted back to Mainland by a shareholder of a Hong Kong Sauna Parole . Lee refused to answer questions about his detainment. However the short release came after two other bookstore workers were released in early March. Gui Minhai and Lam Wing-Kai are still detained in China and their family members were unable to contact them.

c)    In March, two publications, Sun newspaper and Face magazine announced that they would close in April. During the same period, media group Sing Tao announced that all senior management would receive a 20% pay cut this financial year. On April 1, Asia Television Limited ended after the government decided to discontinue its free to air broadcasting license. ATV continues to face numerous lawsuits regarding unpaid wages of staff.

12.  FCCC annual survey highlights improvements for foreign correspondents

According to the 2016 annual survey of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China members, there have been positive changes in the experiences of foreign correspondents in the past 12 months. The renewal process for press cards and residence visas have substantially improved, with 72% of 142 responses were able to renew their press cards from the Foreign Ministry within seven working days. About 87% received their new residence visas within the 10 working days from police bureau when the pledge was given 15 working days. The FCCC noted Chinese authorities had paid efforts to shorten the waiting time.
However the survey also found out less than
4% of respondents reported problems renewing their press cards or visas where the authorities continued used political manner as the measurement to override media’s right.

Yet the threats for journalists remain. Ursula Gauthier, a correspondent for the French publication L’Obs, became the first foreign reporter expelled from China since 2012; some other journalists also received different kind of threats. A journalist said a policeman asked for personal details. The report said “I was also asked in detail about aspects of my CV, and previous postings. I do not see how this is relevant to my work within China.” J-2 visiting journalist visas continue to be a problem.

13.  Chinese government online outlet The Paper launches in English

The Paper is a new media success story out of China. The online outlet, which covers contentious issues including official corruption, is overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. While the Chinese government continues to restrict press freedom and what the Chinese people what and read, the growth of The Paper is clear, with over 10 million downloads of its app. On April 6, The Paper launched its English version, Sixth Tone.

The launch of the English version, comes at a time when the Chinese people are hungry for news and media. Project manager, Mr. Wei, hopes the website’s name reflects how they want to meet it: Mandarin has five tones, including a lesser-known fifth, “no-tone” tone. “We want to be the sixth one. We want to be fresh and different,” he said.The IFJ welcome to have another media outlet serve the public but we wish all the journalists can uphold the principle of press freedom.     

Read more here

14.   ‘Father’ of the Great Firewall red-faced over VPN use

Mr Fang Binxing, also known as the ‘father’ of the Great Firewall was left red-faced in early April after he was blocked by the firewall he established during a university lecture. According to Ming Pao, Mr Fang was giving a speech on internet security at the Harbin Institute of Technology when he tried to access a South Korean website, but was blocked by the system. To continue with his speech, he was forced to set up a virtual private network (VPN) - a common practice used to skirt state censorship - in full view of the audience.

Mr Fang has long been a controversial figure among Chinese internet users, and this latest incident quickly drew ridicule on social media. "Blocked by his own system… This is just too hilarious," one Sina Weibo user writes. Another mocks Mr Fang for being so dedicated to his work that he didn't leave a back-door in the system, "even for himself".

Read more here

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