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Country in Focus: China

Population GDP/Capita USD Capital City 2018 XpA Scores
1,392,730,000 9,771 Beijing Freedom of Expression: 0.04
ICCPR signed but not ratified China was an XpA Decliner over both the 2013-2018 and 2008-2018 timeframes. China is among the lowest scoring countries globally, within the bottom quartile Civic Space: 0.05

Constitution of China (People’s Republic of) 1982 (revised 2004)


Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

Digital: 0.05
Media: 0.03
Protection: 0.12
Transparency: 0.10


China has shown no great progress or deterioration in recent years, but maintains a highly restrictive environment for expression of all types. China’s scores are significantly below the regional average for each theme in 2018.

As well as traditional autocratic tactics, like imprisoning journalists and activists, the Chinese authorities have engaged in unprecedented and sophisticated digital measures, as well demonstrating their intention to exert narrative control far outside their borders.[1]

March 2018 saw the removal of China’s constitutional two-term limit on presidency, giving Xi Jinping potential life tenure as leader.[2]

Authorities stepped up their persecution of religious communities in 2018, including mass arbitrary detention; forced political indoctrination; restrictions on movement; mass surveillance; religious oppression against ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang (see below); suppression of Christians in Henan province; and increasing scrutiny of Hui Muslims in Ningxia.[3]

News media under tight control

In January, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced a list of 462 websites and social media pages granted permission to provide online news services. News websites without permission face fines of up to $4,700 (USD).[4]

Only state-approved VPNs are permitted in the country, seriously restricting news gathering, investigations, and secure communication between journalists.[5]

Surveillance expands

In 2018, the government continued to collect – on a mass scale – biometric data (including DNA and voice samples) for use in surveillance, policing, and the ongoing development of the planned nationwide reward-and-punishment system known as the ‘social credit system’.[6]

Social media is under close watch

From March, social media users were required to disclose their name, personal ID, organisation, and phone number before being allowed to post content online.[7]

In September, the Chinese authorities launched a crackdown on social media accounts. Thousands of Twitter users were arrested, detained, and ordered to delete tweets deemed to be ‘political rumour’. An estimated 10,000 social media accounts were affected.[8] Perhaps most alarmingly, this crackdown revealed the authorities’ capacity to identify and locate internet users using circumvention tools (which are essential to access Twitter in China, where the platform is technically banned), as well as those posting criticism.[9]

Alternative social media networks, Weibo and WeChat, were reprimanded for their failure to police usage in line with the country’s laws. WeChat is a key element of the regime’s discourse-control programme. On 3 April, detained activist Huang Qi filed a legal complaint claiming that Tencent – the parent company of WeChat – had given his data and private communications to the police, who were attempting to build a case against him for his work on a human rights news website.

In February, the police questioned and threatened members of several politically liberal ‘Rose Group’ WeChat chats.[10] Since 11 April, at least eight people involved in a WeChat group that attempted to organise support for the families of prisoners of conscience have been detained.[11] China Digital Times (a California-based bilingual news website) published a leaked directive ordering an investigation into an individual who criticised Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, in a WeChat group with only eight members. The instructions identify the person by his real name, address, and phone number, even though he used a pseudonym for the post.[12]

Protesting online surveillance and abuse of personal data, artist Deng Yufeng bought the personal data of 346,000 people online for $800 (USD) and created an art exhibition from it. The exhibition lasted two days before the authorities shut it down and opened an investigation against him.[13]

On 10 April, the authorities demanded that Toutiao – China’s most popular information platform – shut down its social media application, Neihan Duanzi, which allowed users to upload riddles and jokes in multimedia format for others to comment on and vote up or down. Neihan Duanzi had more than 14 million downloads, but authorities felt the content had become ‘vulgar’ and ‘banal’.[14]

In April, Chinese social media platform Weibo announced that posts related to gay culture would be taken down as part of a ‘clean-up’ effort. Many people posted in protest, and Weibo subsequently dropped the restriction.[15]

Filters fail to control the conversation

China’s internet controls are among the most sophisticated in the world; the entire internet is filtered for certain themes and keywords. 2018 witnessed some new filters – and some creative circumventions.


The #MeToo movement took off in China in January, receiving some state and public support. However, the state soon stepped in to attempt to prevent the spread of the movement, even filtering the term ‘sexual harassment’ from search results.

Despite the censorship, Chinese internet users continued the conversation by talking about ‘rice bunnies’, while others used the ‘rice’ and ‘rabbit’ emojis to support the #MeToo campaign.[16]

Removal of term limit

Changes in the constitution allowed incumbent President Xi Jingping to remain in power indefinitely. Debate around the topic was tightly restricted, and keywords related to the removal of term limits were blocked.

Censors were quick to remove a list of terms from social media, including ‘Emperor Xi’, ‘the Emperor’s Dream’, ‘Dream of returning to the Great Qing’, ‘election term’, ‘constitution amendment’, and ‘proclaiming oneself an emperor’.

Citizens found various ways to circumvent this censorship by using riddles, jokes, and creative memes,[17] many of which used Winnie the Pooh to represent Xi Jinping.[18]

Export of hardware, software, and politics

Beijing took steps to export its style of digital repression, including training foreign officials, providing technology to authoritarian governments, and demanding that international companies abide by its content regulations, even when operating outside of China.[19] At least 36 countries sent representatives to Chinese trainings and seminars on new media or information management.[20]

As well as exporting both its political narrative and its technologies, China pressed other governments – including Egypt, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia – to return fleeing asylum seekers to China.[21]

Chinese state-run television broadcaster, China Central Television, provides free content to 1,700 foreign news organisations, as well as organising numerous training and dialogues with politicians of foreign states. In Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, Chinese state channels are included in the most affordable package, while other international channels are only included in more expensive packages.[22] Portuguese channel Porto Canal now has a primetime ‘China Hour’ of content produced by Chinese state media.[23] State media outlet China Daily has an advertorial supplement that has been found in publications across more than 30 countries,[24] and more than 50 stations in 35 countries now carry content from the state radio broadcaster.

Chinese state media outlets are active on social networks that are blocked within China, most notably Facebook. Chinese state media pages often have tens of millions of followers. The television network CGTN’s English account alone has 71 million followers – the largest of any news outlet on Facebook. In fact, three of the top 10 media accounts on Facebook are Chinese state outlets, though there are suspicions of large numbers of fake followers.[25]

In September 2018, a partially Chinese-owned newspaper in South Africa discontinued Azad Essa’s weekly column after he wrote about abuses in Xinjiang.[26] A Taiwanese businessman in Thailand was arrested for comments critical of the Chinese regime.[27] Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – who profited after leaving office by aiding German companies in their contacts with Chinese officials – dismissed mass detentions of Uyghur Muslims as ‘gossip’ in a 2018 interview with Reuters.[28]

International apps affected

In February, note-taking application Evernote was forced to allow Chinese user data to be uploaded onto the Tencent Cloud to comply with data-localisation laws. Airbnb and Alibaba also alerted users that their data could be shared with Chinese government agencies.[29]

In August, Google employees revealed that Google had been developing a censored search-engine app for the Chinese market.[30] The new engine, ‘Project Dragonfly’, would automatically identify and filter sites blocked by the ‘Great Firewall’, China’s internet filtering system.[31] Employees protested the development of this app, and it is unclear whether the project is proceeding.[32]

Selling software

Yitu, a Chinese artificial intelligence firm, recently opened its first international office in Singapore, and is preparing a bid for a government surveillance project that will deploy facial-recognition software in public spaces.[33] Yitu has also supplied ‘wearable cameras with artificial intelligence-powered facial-recognition technology to a local law enforcement agency’ in Malaysia.[34]

In some countries, however, governments are instructing citizens and state agencies not to use Chinese technology. Australia’s Defence Department instructed military personnel not to use WeChat on their mobile phones due to security concerns.[35] In the United Kingdom, the Director of National Cyber Security warned British telecom companies not to use products from Chinese supplier ZTE, as it would ‘present risk to UK national security’.[36] And the United States has moved to clamp down on telecom hardware from both ZTE and Huawei, another major Chinese manufacturer.[37]

Chinese influence in Hong Kong

Chinese Communist Party’s increasing influence

Authorities banned Hong Kong’s pro-independence party in an unprecedented move in late 2018. In recent years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified candidates and removed lawmakers advocating a pro-independence stance; it even branded pro-democracy scholars as threats to national security, while ordering the arrest of young activists pushing for democratic reforms in governance.[38]

On 3 November, an art exhibit and video conference by Chinese–Australian political cartoonist Badiucao was cancelled, due to threats Chinese officials reportedly made against the artist.[39]

Umbrella Movement on trial

The founders of Hong Kong’s ‘Occupy Central’ movement, also known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’, stood trial in November 2018 on charges of conspiracy to commit public nuisance and incitement to commit public nuisance.

If found guilty, sociology professor Chan Kin-man, law professor Benny Tai, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, and six other pro-democracy activists face a maximum of seven-year jail sentence.

The Umbrella Movement re-emerged in 2019. Pressure mounted after June 2019, when the movement took to the streets over an extradition Bill, and expanded across the city demanding not only the implementation of genuine universal suffrage but also an independent inquiry into police behaviour and reforms to the police force.

The protests were met with serious violence, from tear gas to water cannons.[40]

Increasing restrictions on media activity of Hong Kong journalists

In May, non-uniformed police beat and arrested several journalists, days after attacks on journalists in Sichuan covering the earthquake memorial.

Beijing police assaulted Now TV cameraman Chui Chun-Ming and journalist Lee Tung-yan as they interviewed a human rights lawyer. Despite showing his press identification, Chui was injured when five non-uniformed police grabbed him, and was only released after being forced to write an apology letter.[41]

Anti-Mafia campaign targets civil society in Tibet

In February 2018, the Tibet Autonomous Region Public Security Bureau published a list of newly defined forms of ‘organised crime’, banning initiatives for the promotion of local language and culture and the protection of the local environment – activities the list deems to be expressions of support for exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and therefore subversive. Similarly, traditional forms of social organisation, such as the mediation of community and family disputes and community welfare funds, are deemed to constitute organised crime.[42]

Xinjiang: Heightened attacks on freedoms and the Uyghur minority

The state’s ‘Strike Hard against Violent Terrorism’ campaign has made Xinjiang into one of China’s major centres for social control, using innovative and sophisticated technologies as well as more traditional methods, as the ‘political education camps’ have demonstrated.[43]

During 2018, evidence emerged of the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of the 13 million ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as details of the systemic and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life there. Up to 1 million are estimated to be held in camps in the region.[44] The abuses revealed clearly constitute violations of the rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials.

There have been reports of deaths in the political education camps, raising concerns about physical and psychological abuse, as well as stress from poor conditions, overcrowding, and indefinite confinement.[45]

Xingjiang also seems to be the testing ground for China’s growing surveillance regime, with a network of cameras, checkpoints, and human informants. Those of Uyghur or Kazakh ethnicity are watched especially closely.[46] This regime is expanding to other areas across the country.

In Xinjiang, mobile users have been forced to install jingwang (‘clean internet’) – an app that can search for illegal images, prevent the installation of other apps, and send details about the device to a government server.[47] Effectively, the app can track any mobile device and its contents, and is able to locate and share any file on a device.[48]

The authorities themselves use a joint operations application that collates data on citizens on a scale never seen before – from the colour of a person’s car to their exact height—and feeds it into the central system, which links that data to the person’s national identification-card number.[49]



[1] Human Rights Watch, China: Free Anti-Censorship Activist, 2 April 2018, available at; see also Global Voices, ‘“If I don’t oppose dictatorship, am i still a man?”: Chinese activist gets eight years in prison’, 10 January 2018, available at

[2] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019, available at

[3] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p135, available at

[4] Committee to Protect Journalists, Censorship, Surveillance, and Harassment: China Cracks Down on Critics, 20 March 2019, available at

[5] Committee to Protect Journalists, Censorship, Surveillance, and Harassment: China Cracks Down on Critics, 20 March 2019, available at

[6] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p136, available at

[7] Cyberspace Administration of China, Microblogging Information Service Management Regulations, 2 February 2018, available at

[8] International Federation of Journalists, China’s Online Crackdown Continues with Twitter, Weibo and Wechat Shutdowns, 19 November 2018, available at

[9] Global Voices, ‘Crackdown in Beijing: “Using Twitter is more dangerous than street demonstrations”’, 11 December 2018, available at

[10] China Change, ‘Crushing a rose under foot: Chinese authorities target internet chat groups’, 4 April 2018, available at

[11] Radio Free Asia, ‘China detains founder, members of prisoner support chat group’, 18 April 2018, available at

[12] China Digital Times, ‘Clean up harmful information, report wall-scaling tool’, 12 April 2018, available at

[13] Sui-Lee Wee and Elsie Chen, ‘The Personal Data of 346,000 People, Hung on a Museum Wall’, The New York Times, 13 April 2018, available at

[14] Global Voices, ‘No laughing matter: China shuts down popular joke-sharing app’, 11 April 2018, available at

[15] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p147, available at

[16] Samantha Chambers, ‘The amazing banned memes from China’, Index on Censorship, 1 March 2018, available at

[17] Committee to Protect Journalists, Censorship, Surveillance, and Harassment: China Cracks Down on Critics, 20 March 2019, available at

[18] Committee to Protect Journalists, Censorship, Surveillance, and Harassment: China Cracks Down on Critics, 20 March 2019, available at

[19] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2018, available at

[20] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2018, available at

[21] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p149, available at

[22] LA Times, ‘“China has conquered Kenya”: Inside Beijing’s new strategy to win African hearts and minds’, 7 August 2018, available at

[23] Television Asia Plus, CITVC launches ‘China Hour’ in Portugal with Porto Canal, 11 July 2018, available at

[24] Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin, ‘Inside China’s audacious global propaganda campaign’, The Guardian, 7 December 2018, available at

[25] Freedom House, The Globalization of Beijing’s Media Controls: Key Trends from 2018, 19 December 2018, available at

[26] Freedom House, The Globalization of Beijing’s Media Controls: Key Trends from 2018, 19 December 2018, available at

[27] Radio Free Asia, ‘Exclusive: Assisting Chinese radio broadcasters to be arrested in Thailand’, 31 November 2018, available at

[28] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2018, available at

[29] Freedom House, China’s Ever-Expanding Surveillance State, 30 April 2018, available at

[30] ARTICLE 19, Open Letter: Response to Google on Project Dragonfly, China and Human Rights, 11 December 2018, available at

[31] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p139, available at

[32] Jen Copestake, ‘Google China: Has search firm put Project Dragonfly on hold?’, BBC News, 18 December 2018, available at

[33] Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie, ‘Singapore to test facial recognition on lampposts, stoking privacy fears’, Reuters, 13 April 2018, available at

[34] CK Tann, ‘Malaysian police adopt Chinese AI surveillance technology’, Nikkei Asian Review, 18 April 2018, available at

[35] Celia Chen and Iris Deng, ‘WeChat joins list of Chinese technology banned by overseas militaries on security worries’, CNBC, 14 March 2018, available at

[36] The Guardian, ‘China’s ZTE deemed a “national security risk” to UK’, 17 April 2018, available at

[37] Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur and Jack Nicas, ‘Huawei and ZTE hit hard as U.S. moves against Chinese tech firms’, The New York Times, 17 April 2018, available at

[38] Human Rights Watch, Hong Kong’s Heightened Crackdown on Dissent, 25 October 2018, available at

[39] Global Voices, ‘Political cartoonist Badiucao abruptly cancelled his hong kong exhibition — and then went silent’, 6 November 2018, available at

[40] Lily Kuo and Erin Hale, ‘“Hong Kong can’t go back to normal”: protesters keep Umbrella spirit alive’, The Guardian, 28 September 2019, available at

[41] International Federation of Journalists, Hong Kong Journalists Attacked in Beijing, 16 May 2018, available at

[42] Human Rights Watch, Illegal Organizations: China’s Crackdown on Tibetan Social Groups, 30 July 2018, available at

[43] Human Rights Watch, China’s Algorithms of Repression, 1 May 2019, available at

[44] Human Rights Watch, China’s Algorithms of Repression, 1 May 2019, available at

[45] Human Rights Watch, China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, 9 September 2018, available at

[46] Freedom House, China’s Ever-Expanding Surveillance State, 30 April 2018, available at

[47] Kieren McCarthy, ‘China crams spyware on phones in Muslim-majority province’, The Register, 24 July 2017, available at

[48] Adam Lynn, ‘App targeting Uyghur population censors content, lacks basic security’, Open Tech Fund, 31 August 2018, available at

[49] Human Rights Watch, China’s Algorithms of Repression, 1 May 2019, available at