In 2020, CDT Chinese editors launched the CDT Censorship Digest series. The series will collect and quote from news and online speech that was censored by Chinese authorities during the previous month, as well as summarize efforts to preserve and strengthen freedom of speech in Chinese society. When relevant to CDT English readers, we will translate the Chinese series in part or in full. CDT has translated an excerpt from the full CDT Chinese digest for September 2020, adapted to include links to English coverage when available:
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1935 novel “Invitation to a Beheading” can serve as a metaphor for today’s China. The novel’s protagonist, death row inmate Cincinnatus C. is forced to dance circles with his jailer. The greatest crime of totalitarianism is forcing the people—which include among them political victims—into the role of accomplices. To dance with the jailer is to participate in his crime, and execution is without a doubt the most extreme brutality. He was sentenced for the crime of “gnostical turpitude,” and, after battling with the system to even learn the date of his execution, watched the false world around him—including the executioner and his shackles—dissolve with him.
After the passing of the Hong Kong National Security Law on July 1, the city’s resistance movement faced a predicament. In the lecture “The Meaning of Public Life” Chinese University of Hong Kong Professor Zhou Baosong discussed how to continue public life when facing a leviathan:
When does the resistance break out? When we realize that we are free subjects and take initiative to say “no” to power. Resistance isn’t always vigorous, it can also occur silently and subtly in everyday places. This type of conscious resistance, as long as it is persistent and becomes a way of life, first will change our selves. Since we are part of the fabric of this world, when we change, the world must change accordingly. [Chinese]
Looking back on September, we see resistance carried out with vigor, and also subtly in daily life. Today, as the public sphere continues to deteriorate, all resistance is conscious resistance, all resistance is an active denial of authority. This is how Cincinnatus saved himself and won his freedom.
Their Only Crime is Opposition
Prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are a natural product of authoritarianism. While the names of the criminal charges used are myriad, they are all in fact a single crime: opposition.
The statistics included 868 political prisoners of various ethnic groups (including Han Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, Mongolian, Korean, and Manchu). Among them, 691 have received sentences ranging from the death penalty, life imprisonment, or fixed term imprisonment. The remaining 177 have been detained without knowing what punishments or sentences they will receive.
The report specifically pointed out that the CCP’s current sentence against Uyghurs, Kazakh elites, and the people is so severe that it is horrifying. It is not uncommon to see imprisonment for more than ten years or death sentences; torture and mistreatment of detained political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are widespread and serious. Many have been subjected to torture or long-term abuse during their detention, and they were forced into mental hospitals, and some were even tortured to death. The authorities’ suppression of religious figures continues. Since Xi Jinping took power, the CCP’s persecution of religious figures has become increasingly serious. In addition, Falun Gong is still one of the most severely suppressed groups by the CCP. Every month, dozens of Falun Gong practitioners are sentenced across the country. [Chinese]
With no doubt, September’s highest profile political prisoner was Ren Zhiqiang. Back in March Ren ruthlessly ridiculed Xi Jinping in an essay that circulated online:
I saw [in Xi’s teleconferenced February 23 speech] not an emperor standing there exhibiting his “new clothes,” but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor. Despite holding a series of loincloths up in an attempt to cover the reality of your nakedness, you don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor, or the determination to let anyone who won’t let you be destroyed. [Source]
Shortly after this essay was published, Ren went missing, and a month later was reported to be under investigation by disciplinary authorities. In late July, he was expelled from the Party for “consistently differing with the Party Central Committee on issues of principle.” On September 22, Ren was sentenced to 18 years on corruption charges.
On September 10, retired Central Party School professor Cai Xia, who is now in the United States, discovered that her bank account in China had been closed. Not only had the CCP cancelled her pension, but now she couldn’t even draw from her savings. In August Cai was expelled from the Party and saw her retirement package disintegrate over remarks she made severely criticizing Xi Jinping.
Also in September, an open letter by former People’s University professor Leng Jiefu to top Party leader Wang Yang began circulating online. The letter put forward two main suggestions: that Xi retire honorably from all Party, government, and military posts; and that China adopt a federal model to safeguard unity in regards to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and ethnic autonomous regions. Leng also called for programs to revitalize the rural economy. In 2012, Leng published an open letter warning that China was “facing conflicts of a political, economic, ideological, and military nature that threaten, in the long term, to rip us apart from north to south.”
On September 10, Beijing-based publisher and film producer Geng Xiaonan was detained with her husband Qin Chen on suspicion of “illegal business operations,” a charge used in the past to suppress dissent. Geng, an energetic supporter of prominent activists, was an outspoken advocate of Xu Zhangrun, the law professor fired by Tsinghua University after a brief detention in July following his earlier suspension over scathing critiques of Xi Jinping. Geng denounced authorities’ accusation that Xu had solicited prostitutes on a trip she had arranged as “just the kind of vile slander that they use against someone they want to silence,” and gave an extended interview to RFA’s Bei Ming—translated by Geremie Barmé at China Heritage—to praise Xu’s work and defend his innocence. Prior to her detention, Geng had voiced concern over the pandemic being used to tighten the surveillance of politically sensitive people.
Former lawyer Chen Qiushi, who late last year was barred from leaving China and banned from social media after visiting Hong Kong to observe the anti-extradition protests, went to Wuhan in the capacity of a citizen journalist to cover the early coronavirus outbreak. He disappeared in February, and after months with no news, his friend Xu Xiaodong, a high-profile MMA fighter, in September revealed that the government had decided not to press charges against him, and that he was healthy and being held under official surveillance in Qingdao.
Wang Qiaoling, wife of former “Black Friday” detainee Li Heping, had planned to attend a Constitution Day celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on September 17. After leaving her home that day, she lost contact with the outside world. She told Radio Free Asia that after leaving the Dongfeng Beiqiao metro station she was robbed of her phone by two plain-clothed men and pushed to the ground, then was forced into a police car and driven home.
Xi Dada, Emperor of the World
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly by video for the annual General Debate of the 75the session on September 22, Xi Jinping took the tone of a global leader, stressing China’s willingness and ability to guide and assist the world in the fight against COVID-19. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Zhang Jun also expressed Beijing’s ambitions to take a lead in the multilateral global order, saying that Xi’s speech “pointed out the direction, added confidence, and added strength to the future of the United Nations.” As CDT Chinese editors have noted with a list of examples, Xi Jinping has long been known to take all possible opportunities to “point out the direction” for the Chinese people—and increasingly, for all of mankind.
So, which way does that direction lead? Deutsche Welle columnist Chang Ping looked at Disney’s recent retelling of Mulan, widely criticized for whitewashing Chinese history and ongoing human rights abuses, as a campaign film for Xi’s vision of governance. As Hollywood attempts to signal its collective support for social justice in the contemporary U.S. context, Chang notes that Mulan displays its increasing willingness to “slavishly follow orders as part of China’s great propaganda campaign.”
What type of world is it that Xi is pointing out the direction toward? Perhaps what happened in China’s direct and peripheral control in September can offer a hint? A Twitter user, for example, disclosed that they’d been “invited to tea” for “ridiculing Xi Jinping” in a QQ group. Screenshots showed their likely offense: triggering alarm by posting a combination of the sensitive words “Xi Dada” and “emperor.”
Mainland: Pervasive Surveillance and Censorship
As people continued to mourn Dr. Li Wenliang in September, the concealing of a separate, still ongoing epidemic was exposed. In a 23,000-character September 11 exposé, Caixin Weekly detailed a Brucellosis outbreak in Lanzhou, Gansu that as of September 14 had been confirmed to have infected 3,245 people. The bacterial outbreak was the result of a leak at a local biochemical pharma factory. Prior to Caixin’s reporting, there had been no formal disclosure of the diagnoses, as local cover-ups and then the COVID-19 outbreak provided ample distraction.
Is it only the drug factory that’s to blame? What about the local authorities? How about the Health Commission? Haven’t we yet learned that concealing a disease can lead to as much harm as the disease itself? If nobody is held responsible, then no lessons are learned and more will suffer next time. The relationship between transparency and public health is clear as day, but this doesn’t stop the CCP from tightly controlling all information and speech.
On September 14, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced the results of a “Clear and Bright” internet rectification campaign. The report noted that a total of 64 websites have been suspended from updating, while 6,907 illegal websites have been closed or seen their licenses canceled. Relevant websites and platforms shut down more than 860,000 illegal accounts and groups in line with user agreements during the campaign.
Meanwhile, the CAC said it had dealt with 13,600 illegal “eating broadcast” accounts in September as part of a crackdown on virally popular mukbang style eating streams, and had advanced other centralized campaigns to manage commercial website media platforms and self-media, disposing of 928,000 “zombie accounts,” 169 accounts with more than a million followers, 72,000 applications for news media qualifications, and also closed 74,000 broadcast accounts.
In September, Xinhua News published a CCP Central Committee document requiring private enterprises to strengthen United Front political and ideological work, instructing them to “be politically sensible people.” VOA Chinese summarizes:
In this document, titled “Opinion on Strengthening the United Front Work of the Private Economy in the New Era,” central CCP authorities stated, “As our own people, private economic figures have always been an important force that our party must unite and rely on for long-term governance.”
This united front work, the document states, should be oriented toward all private enterprises and individuals working in private industry, including main investors, actual controllers, main shareholding operators, major shareholders, Hong Kong and Macau businesspeople who invest in mainland China, and representative individually-owned businesses. However, the document does not mention Taiwanese or foreign businesses.
According to Xinhua News, this is the first document published by the CCP regarding private enterprise united front work since Opening and Reform in 1978. [Chinese]
In Zhejiang this August alone there were 18 cases of administrative penalties for “individuals circumventing the firewall,” making a total of 60 for the year.
Review and e-commerce site Douban Books posted an announcement that the site would be undergoing modifications. From midnight on September 4 until midnight October 3, 2020, certain functionality would be temporarily disabled as internal modifications were underway. During this time, the creation of book reviews, ratings, and comment functions would be temporarily suspended. This marked bad news for the many readers who found community on the site, and worse news for editors and the rest of a publishing industry that relies on the platform.
On September 11, the official Weibo account for bookstore app Shaishufang announced that a user’s account had been banned in the Apple China region for adding 16th century erotic novel “The Golden Lotus” as a favorite.
And, the CCP’s control of speech has already extended overseas.
The English-language film “Five-Cent Life,” released exclusively online, tells the story of Lin Zhao, a victim of Mao-era Chinese political movements. In 1957, she was labelled a rightist and sent to work in the countryside. She was later imprisoned for being seen as participating in a “counterrevolutionary group.” In 1968, she was secretly executed by firing squad in Shanghai by authorities for the crime of “counterrevolutionary activities.” Afterward, authorities collected five cents from Lin Zhao’s mother to cover the cost of the bullet. Lin Zhao was officially rehabilitated in 1980, and she became a symbol of freedom in China. In an interview with RFA Chinese (also published in English), director Phoebe Liu explained that the choice to make the film in English was one of necessity: the sensitive nature of the film’s topic made it impossible to find native Chinese-speaking actors in both the mainland and Taiwan.
An American named Kevin, who randomly became mildly famous on B Site because of the pandemic, originally intended to become a professional blogger. But then, he encountered the terrifying reality of Chinese censorship. “I don’t want to become the next Michael Spavor, the next Michael Kovrig some day. They’ve already been imprisoned for over a year. You can pretty much say the charges against them were fabricated.” He subsequently left China and returned to the United States, because he could freely speak there. […]
The Xinjiang Model Expanding to Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and the World
The treatment of the Uyghur people has drawn condemnation from international rights organizations and leaders. It’s been called genocide—a question that the International Criminal Court has been asked to weigh in on. However, in the eyes of Xi Jinping, Xinjiang has proven to be a successful management model.
On September 25 during the third “Central Xinjiang Work Forum,” Xi Jinping called the CCP’s work in Xinjiang “a success.” The Xinjiang policy, called the “New Era Party Strategy for Xinjiang Governance,” according to Xi’s assessment, had been proven “entirely correct,” and should persist for the long-term to continue to “Sinicize Islam,” and to deepen ideological work. Xi urged authorities to fully and accurately implement the Party’s “Xinjiang Strategy,” “Lawful Xinjiang Governance,” “Xinjiang Unification and Stability,” and “Long-term Xinjiang Development,” to build a united and harmonious Xinjiang.
As Xi praises the policies that have terrorized Xinjiang in recent years, it is obvious that many of the experiences gained and templates utilized in the Xinjiang model are spreading. Not just in the provinces, they’re also spreading in Tibet, in Inner Mongolia, in Hong Kong—and even going global.
An exclusive Reuters investigation revealed that the Chinese government was sending large numbers of Tibetans into “military-style training centers” and forcing them to engage in labor—a similar situation to the Xinjiang “re-education camps.” Reuters reviewed over 100 official Chinese policy documents, procurement lists, and official media reports to find that the government was moving a large number of rural Tibetan laborers to other regions and setting quotas to provide labor for domestic industry. Reuters noted that the Tibet program is expanding even as the international community begins to put pressure on China for the Xinjiang camps.
In Inner Mongolia, protests continued over the regime’s decision to replace local language education with Mandarin. Authorities claimed the protests were incited by foreign forces and carried out large-scale arrests. The Inner Mongolia police continued to issue notices offering rewards for help apprehending hundreds of people wanted for “provoking trouble,” posting photos of many individuals believed to be grabbed from video taken on the scene of the protest. Additionally, police began demanding students report to school on time, holding local officials or the school responsible for failure. Police even entered classrooms to take Mongolian students away.
This terrifying type of totalitarianism has now also begun to permeate Hong Kong classrooms.
According to an Initium Media report, there has been a wave of reports against teachers in Hong Kong. They are being reported by mobilized civilians, and a former chief executive is even offering rewards. One middle school teacher was reported to the Education Bureau for posting anti-extradition movement content on his personal Facebook page:
A month-and-a-half later, he received a notice from the Education Bureau stating that he was ruled to have engaged in “professional misconduct,” but his teacher’s license would not be revoked. It asked him to please respond. He responded, and he then received a letter of official ruling. It was very sparsely worded, simply stating he was deemed to have engaged in professional misconduct and was therefore being sent this letter condemning his actions. “Just one sentence. You engaged in professional misconduct. That’s it. No mention of the considerations, nor any mention of whether or not they accepted the evidence I submitted proving my professionalism.” [Chinese]
This was no isolated case. According to official statistics, from June of last year through June of this year, the Education Bureau received 222 complaints involving the professional misconduct of instructors. Of these, 180 have already been fully investigated, 17 were officially reprimanded, and nine received written warnings. No teacher had his or her teaching license revoked. Another 63 complaints were deemed unsubstantiated. According to the Education Bureau, most of these complaints involved teachers saying inappropriate things, others were suspected of breaking a law.
The report notes that teachers not involved with social movements weren’t necessarily spared—there were also complaints for using “inappropriate teaching materials.” Most Hong Kong middle and primary school teachers use educational videos, plan activities, and/or design their own worksheets outside of the textbook.
Since the report came out, it hasn’t been just the Education Bureau scrutinizing Hong Kong teachers. As the Initium Media report explained, when it comes to the history curriculum of Hong Kong middle schools, there’s a red line that cannot be touched.
September 6 was election day for the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Once again, Hong Kong residents demonstrated in the Kowloon area. The situation evolved into conflict between police and civilians. By five in the afternoon, 90 individuals had been arrested on various charges, including illegal assembly and assaulting police officers. Another 22 people were issued summons for violating pandemic restrictions prohibiting gatherings of two or more people. […]
Twelve Hong Kongers who were caught trying to flee to Taiwan, including “Hong Kong Story” member Li Yuxuan, continue to be detained at the Shenzhen Yantian Detention Center. Mainland defense lawyers representing them were given multiple warnings from the National Security Council to drop the cases. The lawyers were warned that their credentials were at risk if they did interviews. By the end of September, no representing attorneys have been allowed to meet with the detained persons. They are not optimistic about the trial and possible return of these people to Hong Kong. Legal scholars and social activists have criticized the Hong Kong government for not doing its best to protect the human rights of the people of Hong Kong.
Additionally, September suggested that the CCP’s Xinjiang governing model is aimed not just at the people of China, but at free people the world over. The rejection in September of an article written by the U.S. Ambassador to China is an example of this.
The U.S. Embassy in China recently submitted an article to CCP party newspaper The People’s Daily, hoping to have the opinion of U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad be published in the paper. The article was rejected, triggering a shouting match between U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and a People’s Daily spokesperson, making the incident yet another manifestation of a media organization’s involvement in U.S.-China relations.
According to The People’s Daily, Branstad’s article “Resetting the Relationship Based on Reciprocity” was “full of loopholes and seriously inconsistent with the facts,” and it was therefore rejected for publication. “For a long time, People’s Daily has held an active and open attitude to the submission of articles from international friends who are objective and impartial about China, including Ambassador Branstad,” the newspaper spokesperson said.
The move drew criticism from U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, who stated in an English-language press statement, titled “The Hypocrisy of the PRC’s Propaganda System,” that the People’s Daily’s response once again exposed Beijing’s hypocrisy and the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of free speech.
Pompeo’s statement appeared on the official WeChat account of the US Embassy in China, but it was quickly blocked.
At a regularly scheduled press conference on September 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “This action by the United States obviously has nothing to do with freedom of the press. It was designed to find fault [with China] and was a deliberate set up.” [Chinese]
What did Branstad write, anyway?
According to a bilingual backup of the article on the U.S. Department of State’s website, Branstad states that for years, the U.S. has accepted the urging of Chinese leadership to focus on areas of cooperation while setting aside differences. Yet, at the same time, the United States “has made very little progress” in addressing its concerns. Branstad writes: “The Chinese leadership has exploited this approach. Often it has insisted we sweep differences under the table as a prerequisite for engagement.” In addition, sometimes the Chinese leadership “made promises to address our concerns yet failed to follow up.” As a result, the relationship of the two countries “has delivered fewer and fewer of the results that matter to the American people,” as the relationship “became increasingly imbalanced.” Branstad called on the two countries “to build a foundation for understanding and true reciprocity,” and this “must start with the Chinese government being willing to address our concerns about the imbalance in the relationship and allowing our two peoples to build relationships through unrestricted engagement and uncensored discussion.”
On September 13, Terry Edward Branstad suddenly announced he was resigning and preparing to return to the United States, triggering a new round of speculation by Chinese and foreign media about the direction of U.S.-China relations. Some looked back three-quarters of a century to a similar diplomatic situation.
When U.S. Ambassador John Leighton Stuart recommended negotiating with and understanding the Communist Party in a State Department white paper, Mao replied with a sarcastic essay that became a piece of his classic literature. Stuart was the last U.S. Ambassador to China to serve until decades later, when the U.S. and China resumed their diplomatic relations. Following Mao’s template, WeChat user @二大爷 couldn’t help but wonder if history was repeating itself:
U.S. Ambassador Stuart, who was born in China, spent most of his time in service in China. He even said “I’m more of a Chinese person than an American.” He sadly left in August, 1949, because of a famous sarcastic essay, “Farewell, Leighton Stuart!” left nothing but the shadow of ridicule in the hearts of the Chinese people. Thirty years of darkness for US-China relations followed—the most difficult thirty years for the people of China.
Today, we bid another farewell. History will always repeat itself, but it may not always do so in a simple manner.
Farewell, Branstad. [Chinese]
Translation by Bluegill and Josh Rudolph.