The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong is stepping up its efforts to control its image in the world by detaining Chinese citizens, including many ordinary people with little influence, who use foreign social media to criticize Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his government.
Chinese authorities have sentenced more than 50 people to prison over the past three years for using Twitter and other foreign platforms – all of which are blocked in China – to disrupt public order and attack the party, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation of court records and a database maintained by a free speech advocate.
The increasing use of prison sentences marks an escalation of China’s efforts to control reporting and suppress criticism outside of China’s closed internet. In the past, foreign views in social media have been suppressed mainly by arrests and harassment, rarely by detention, human rights activists say.
The documents filed with the court contained offensive remarks ranging from criticism of the state leadership and the Communist Party to discussions of Hong Kong, the northwestern region of Xinjiang and the democratically governed island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory. Of those whose Twitter accounts remained online or whose followers were listed in court records, followers typically ran into the hundreds or low thousands, although one of them had fewer than 30 followers at the time of his arrest.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests from the government’s information office.
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Zhou Shaoqing, an unemployed resident of the port city of Tianjin, was arrested early last year after using Twitter to criticize the Communist Party and its handling of the Covida 19 pandemic.
The Chinese Communist Party system sees stability as its principle, and in the event of major problems, everyone defends themselves, Zhou said in a February 2020 tweet. Hospitals and health care providers will, intentionally or unintentionally, reduce the number of confirmed cases.
Later that month, three men dressed as neighborhood volunteers showed up at Mr. Zhou’s apartment and said they wanted to discuss pandemic measures. When he opened the door, the men stormed in with seven uniformed police officers, pushed him to the ground and took him away to question him about his use of Twitter, he said.
Although Mr. Zhou said he had only about 300 supporters at the time of his arrest, a local court ruled in November that he had seriously undermined social order and sentenced him to nine months in prison. I felt helpless and indignant, he said.
Twitter has become a battleground for propaganda for China, which wants to strengthen its image and influence in the world. Beijing is bolstering its Twitter narrative through a growing network of diplomatic and government accounts, as well as through what cyberpolitical analysts call state-sponsored troll campaigns, which bombard the Chinese government’s position and attack China’s critics.
Huang Gengbao has spent 16 months in prison for criticizing China’s leadership and the Communist Party on Twitter.
The strengthening of law enforcement in China in recent years has coincided with a marked increase in anti-communist statements on Twitter promoted by U.S. agents such as fugitive Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, said Gabriel Lim, a fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy.
The government knows from experience that propaganda only works when combined with censorship of opposing views, says Yatsiu Wang, China researcher at the human rights group Human Rights Watch.
In each of the past two years, at least 25 people have been sentenced to prison for crimes directly related to their social media activities abroad, compared with eight known cases in 2018, according to court records accessed by the magazine. In a 2019 case, the sentence was suspended.
Most cases involved Twitter, but in some cases also activities on Facebook and YouTube, which are also blocked in China. Some cases involved a mix of foreign social media services and Chinese platforms such as WeChat, Weibo and QQ, which are widely used in the country. Most of the detainees have been convicted of inciting conflict and inciting riots, a vague charge often used against critics of the government, while some have been convicted of defamation or inciting subversion of the state system. Their sentences range from six months to four years.
The Journal confirmed 32 of the 58 cases through the government’s online archive. In cases where the original court documents were not (or were no longer) available in the archives, the newspaper viewed copies provided by lawyers or published them in an online database of freedom of expression lawsuits in China maintained by an anonymous activist. Ms. Wang and Yu-Jie Chen, lawyers at Taipei Academia Sinica, examined copies of the database and deemed them authentic, either by comparison with similar documents or by direct examination of the files.
Lawyers involved in some of these cases have also confirmed in the Journal the authenticity of the relevant procedural documents. The activist who maintains the database refused to be identified when he was contacted via Twitter.
Twitter and Facebook declined to comment. Google Inc, which operates YouTube, is not responding to requests.
Mr. Zhou, a native of Tianjin, knows a lot about censorship. The 31-year-old, former content moderator for Chinese technology company ByteDance Ltd, said he had removed politically sensitive and obscene content from popular news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and video sharing platform TikTok. Like many Chinese technology companies, ByteDance supports large teams of content moderators to clean up their online platforms in accordance with internal policies and guidelines from internet regulators.
This experience, he says, deepened his contempt for the Communist Party, a sentiment he expressed on Twitter. ByteDance reported that Mr. Zhou worked in the content moderation unit in Tianjin from July 2018 to January 2019, when he was fired due to his poor performance.
Prosecutors accuse Zhou of posting and sending more than 120 messages on Twitter denigrating the Chinese leader, his political system and his response to the coronavirus, court records show. In November, a Tianjin court convicted him of arguing and causing unrest.
Court records show that Mr. Zhou is classified as schizophrenic by forensic psychiatrists, but can still be held criminally liable. Mr Zhou admitted that he had mental health problems in the past, which he said were used by the authorities to discredit him. He said he confessed during the trial to get a lighter sentence.
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The authorities in Tianjin did not answer the questions. Mr. Zhou’s lawyer, Sun Sheng, declined to comment.
Sun Jiadong, a 41-year-old resident of Zhengzhou in central China, had just 27 Twitter followers when police arrested him in late 2019 for allegedly spreading false information about the party, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, prosecutors said. They reported that the posts attracted 168 users, as well as retweets from 10 users and comments from 95 users.
In October 2019, M. commented. The Sun in a tweet to Chinese state media: Long live Hong Kong, shame on the communist cronies. Sun was sentenced in December to 13 months in prison, which he served while in custody that month, according to court documents. He could not be reached.
Some have started tweeting again after their suggestions. Huang Gengbao, a member of an online activist group called Rose China, was arrested in May 2019 and spent 16 months in detention for criticizing the Chinese leadership and party on Twitter, according to court documents. In the past, they have only threatened and made statements, the 45-year-old said. They did well this time, I didn’t expect them to.
After his release in September, Huang opened a new Twitter account and published a petition asking a higher court to overturn his conviction because most Chinese could not read his tweets due to Chinese internet control. He canceled the station after police reported it, he said. Now I tweet less about things that aren’t too sensitive.
Police in Xuzhou, where Mr Huang was arrested, did not answer questions.
Zhou also resumed tweeting after his release in December. No need to give in to intruders, he said, although he has become more cautious. I’ll be quiet for a while.
Email Chun Han Wong at [email protected].
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