Tightening the screws on dissent: harassment, coercion and censorship

As featured in the CIVICUS Monitor's last update on China, both national and international civil society have condemned proposals for a new security law that would give the authorities sweeping powers to monitor and investigate individuals and organisations, causing concern over potential surveillance of activists. On 28th June 2017, the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) adopted the new security law ostensibly granting more authority to harass, intimidate and persecute an already besieged civic sector. 


Following the death of prominent human rights defender Liu Xiaobocivil society groups have raised the alarm over the ongoing harassment of Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia. Xiaobo was a well-known Chinese intellectual and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, widely recognised for his dedication to the peaceful pro-democracy movement in China. He died under police guard while serving an eleven-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power". Liu Xia, an artist and intellectual, has been held under house arrest since 2010 and was not permitted to visit her husband while he was in prison. Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) issued a statement on her behalf, calling on the authorities to stop their persecution and inhumane treatment: 

"CHRD urges the international community to do everything possible to free Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife and the love of his life. A poet and artist, she has never been accused, charged, or convicted of any crime. Yet since October 2010, she has been subjected to extra-legal restrictions on her movement, communications, and access to medical treatment. Liu Xia was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, and has developed severe depression due to her cruel treatment".

In a further worrying development, reports from China note that Liu Xia is reported to have disappeared. Sources say that the authorities were behind the disappearance and forced Liu Xia to go to southwest China. She has not been seen or heard from for several weeks

In a separate but related incident, Chinese authorities have clamped down on other human rights defenders who publicly mourned the passing of Xiaobo. From 19th July to 3rd August 2017, at least seven individuals were detained for mourning the activist's passing. Authorities tightly controlled Xiaobo's sea burial to prevent any further commemoration. Some activists were even arrested directly after attending the funeral. Security forces have since intimidated Xiaobo's supporters by searching their homes and interrogating those who posted messages of sympathy on social media.

In July 2015, Chinese authorities orchestrated a devastating crackdown on human rights defenders, by rounding up and interrogating over 300 lawyers and rights activists. Often referred to as the “709 crackdowns”, the mass detentions symbolise the regime's disregard for human rights. While many of those originally detained have now been released, two years later, three activists face a pending trial and another two are serving sentences. Credible evidence has also emerged that the activists have been tortured by electrocution and with sleep deprivation. On the two-year anniversary of the 709 crackdowns, international human rights groups reiterated their demands that the Chinese authorities uphold their commitments to human rights and allow the UN Special Rapporteur on torture to conduct an independent investigation into the prison conditions for the activists.

In July 2017, a meeting organised by Chinese LGBTI activists was cancelled under suspicious circumstances. The event, a public seminar to be held in Chengdu, was to raise awareness of issues facing the LGBTI community in China. Coordinated by the organisation, Speak Out, organisers were forced to cancel at the last moment after being informed that the meeting venue was “double-booked” with an official government event. A spokesperson for Speak Out stated that:

"The local state security bureau in Chengdu has also been in touch with us by phone in recent days, asking questions such as what is our next move on the arrangement for any event and what we are going to talk about at the event".

The unexpected cancellation of the event has aroused suspicion among activists that such an action represents a case of discrimination against the LGBTI community as well as a severe restriction on the community's right to freedom of association and assembly. While China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, the level of cultural acceptance toward the LGBTI community remains relatively low. Reports claim that this is the second time in just a few months that a meeting organised by LGBTI activists has been cancelled at the last moment. A meeting in Xian, scheduled for 1st June 2017, was also disbanded after nine activists affiliated with Speak Out were detained and questioned by authorities. While preparing to welcome over 400 participants, organisers were swiftly detained before the meeting began and held for eight hours before being released. 


The Chinese authorities are known for imposing restrictions on freedom of expression on the internet. In a film on this issue, the authorities have reportedly imposed further restrictions by blocking access to the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. Users of the messaging platform in July noted that features of the application stopped working without explanation, leading many to question whether the authorities had intervened to block the service. Chinese authorities have already blocked access to a number of social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. 

In another recent revelation, multinational technology companies, such as Apple and Amazon, have allegedly colluded with the Chinese authorities to remove Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) from their Chinese app stores. Due to restrictions on the internet in China, often referred to as The Great Firewall, authorities can block access to certain websites, apps and digital services as well as censor internet search engines. In order to avoid these restrictions, people often resort to using VPNs to bypass restrictions on content. 

Such disturbing reports come at a time when Chinese authorities are ramping up their censorship of the internet by tightening the screws on VPN providers. On 1st July 2017, one of the most popular VPN providers in China, GreenVPNannounced it would stop service after being pressured by the Chinese authorities. Many fear that the crackdown on internet freedom will inevitably lead to an even more grave situation where citizens have extremely limited access to information and virtually no online spaces for dissent.