Examples of Censorship and Sanctions of Speech About Public Events in China
1. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
According to China's state sponsored media, China's government attempted to cover up the scope of SARS infections during the 2003 outbreak. For example:
On April 3, former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang announced at a press conference held by the State Council Information Office that Beijing had reported 12 SARS cases and 3 deaths by March 31, while repeating again and again that China had effectively controlled the spread of SARS in relevant areas. Minister Zhang, cheerful and smiling, deeply impressed audiences with his comments to a foreign photojournalist who was wearing a gauze mask at the conference: "You are safe here whether you wear the gauze mask or not." . . . .
On April 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly criticized Beijing's epidemic reporting system, pointing out that few hospitals in Beijing had daily SARS case reports. WHO sent experts to Beijing for investigation. On April 11, Beijing was designated as an infected area. However, the Ministry of Health didn't publish the news. Instead, it maintained the previous day's optimistic statement, saying, "The published epidemic information that day included all diagnosed cases in local and army hospitals." . . . .
On April 20, Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang announced at a press conference that Beijing reported 339 diagnosed SARS cases and 402 suspected cases. On the same day, Xinhua News Agency said that the CPC Central Committee had dismissed former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and former Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong.
See, "A Chinese Doctor's Extraordinary April in 2003," Sanlian Life Weekly, No. 23, translated by China.org.cn staff, June 13, 2003, http://www.china.org.cn/english/2003/Jun/66953.htm.
Besides the lack of experience and an emergency response system at the time of the SARS outbreak, a major reason that the disease took such a big toll on people's lives was the official coverup.
In March 2003, Tong, the respiratory physician, was asked to consult on SARS patients in Beijing along with other doctors. There were dozens, if not hundreds of cases, at the time in Beijing. But the public knew very little of what was really going on.
"I knew that things like this couldn't be kept a secret forever; the truth would come out eventually," said Tong.
There were already rumors around the country about the disease and some people were stocking up on masks, vinegar and cough medicines. But accurate, authoritative information was scarce.
The authorities didn't address the issue until early April, when Zhang Wenkang, health minister at the time, downplayed the situation at a press conference and said there were over 1,000 cases in China and only 13 cases in Beijing. He reassured the public that the disease was under control.
The officials didn't face the truth until Jiang Yanyong, a retired doctor from the PLA General Hospital (also known as 301 Hospital) in Beijing, blew the whistle and told Time magazine that there were many more cases than officials had disclosed. On April 20, health officials updated the number of cases in Beijing to 339 and over 1,800 in the country.
It was an attempt to maintain stability and harmony prior to the annual legislative meetings, analysts later sought to explain the coverups.
See, "Legacy of the SARS outbreak," February 21, 2013, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/763304.shtml
At that time China's state sponsored media hailed Jiang Yanyong's whistleblowing: "Referring to his speaking out, Professor Jiang said: 'I believe what I did as a doctor has played a certain role in combating the epidemic.'" People's Daily, May 21, 2003, http://en.people.cn/200305/21/eng20030521_117004.shtml. But as shown by these screenshots below taken on March 8, 2015, Baidu was still censoring search results for "Jiang Yanyong" [蒋彦永], and had banned users from establishing a forum to discuss him.
- An April 23, 2003 People's Daily report titled "Person Detained for Spreading Rumors of an 'unknown virus spreading in Beijing'" [网上散布'北京有不明疫情蔓延'谣言者被捕] stated: "On April 11, a message posted on the Internet with the signature "Steven Shen" stated that "an epidemic that has not yet been diagnosed" is spreading in Beijing, and has "taken the lives of 143 people." This information is purely a rumor. Beijing has never had an "unknown epidemic" spread. . . . According to the provisions of Article 291 of the Criminal Law, the public security organs have detained and reviewed the perpetrators suspected of fabricating and disseminating the harmful information. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), on April 10 "A growing number of investigative media reports suggest that cases in Beijing military hospitals are not being frankly reported." See: "Update 95 - SARS: Chronology of a serial killer," July 4, 2003. https://www.who.int/csr/don/2003_07_04/en/.
- On May 3, 2003, police in Beijing detained Huang Qunwei for posting articles on the Internet between April 25-27 with titles such as ""Absolutely Reliable News, Shanghai Concealed a Large Number of SARS Cases" and "China has Officially Entered an Economic Crisis Due to SARS." The government would later sentence him to three years imprisonment for fabricating and intentionally publicizing false terrorist information. See, State v. Huang Qunwei, (2003) First Intermediate First Instance No. 14991 [黄群威刑事判决书,（2003）一中刑初字第1499号]. According to the WHO's "Chronology," on April 30, "China, accounting for 3460 probable cases of the global total of 5663, now has more cases than the rest of the world combined."
2. The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake
In 2008, China's government censored information and punished several people who shared information about the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan. For example:
- China's search engines censored search results relating to the earthquake. For example, this screenshot was taken on June 16, 2008, and shows a search on Yahoo.cn for "Wenchuan Earthquake Tangshan Earthquake" [汶川地震 唐山地震] returned no results, just a notice saying "The keywords you entered may implicate content that does not comply with relevant laws and regulations." [你输入的关键字可能涉及不符合相关法律法规的内容].
- According to a July 29, 2019 Xinhua report published on the China Daily website titled "12-year sentence for China dissident on state secrets charge": "Huang [Qi], who founded a website documenting official rights abuses, has been jailed twice before, including in 2008 after advocating for parents whose children were killed in a massive earthquake in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Thousands of students died when their shoddily built schools collapsed, but the government has never made public the results of any investigation or held anyone accountable."
- According to an August 13, 2009 China Daily report titled "Activist on trial for subversion": "Tan Zuoren, who had been investigating the deaths of students in last year's Sichuan earthquake, stood trial yesterday for subversion. Tan, a 55-year-old local resident, was accused of telling lies to foreign media organizations after the quake and so 'greatly staining the image of the government and the Party,' according to the indictment offered by Tan's lawyer Pu Zhiqiang." See, State v. Tan Zuoren, (2009) Cheng Xing Criminal First No. 273 [谭作人刑事判决书, （2009)成刑初字第273号].
- On May 18, 2008, Guo Quan was subjected to 10 days administrative detention for using the "5.12" Wenchuan earthquake to assemble dozens of fictitious experts on the Internet on May 13, 2008 in a "China New Democracy Party Disaster Relief Committee" to spread rumors and disturb public order. See, State v. Guo Quan, (2009) Su Intermediate Criminal Second First Instance No. 00021 [郭泉刑事判决书, (2009)宿中刑二初字第0002号].
On May 12, 2011, on the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, the Southern Metropolitan Daily, published by the Propaganda Department of the Guangdong Communist Party Committee, published an editorial entitled "Cherishing Their Memory as We are Borne on the River of Time. " [躺在时间的河流上怀念他们]
In our hearts, we lowered our flags to half mast for them. On the day of mourning we called them home and wished them peace. We gathered together all the human evidence of them we could. We read their names together. We promised that we would bear them constantly in mind, never forgetting, over and over again. We did so much, and yet we did too little. Those of you who were lost and did not return, where are you? Can the light we kindle shine across your path? We cannot do more. We can but present steel zodiacs, and offer up porcelain sunflower seeds, symbolic memorials to your lives once so tangible. What else would you wish us to do?
The editorial contained several oblique references to Ai Weiwei:
- "Read their names together": a reference to Ai Weiwei's project to post the names of the school children who died in the earthquake on Twitter on their birthdays.
- "Steel zodiacs": a reference to the installation of twelve zodiac animal heads by Ai Weiwei called "Circle of Animals Zodiac Heads." It is an outdoor public sculpture exhibition that opened in May 2011 at the Pulitzer Fountain at the Grand Army Plaza in New York City.
- "Porcelain sunflower seeds": a reference to the installation of millions of hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds by Ai Weiwei that opened at the Tate Modern in 2010.
On the Southern Metropolitan Daily's online edition, the title of the article with the link to the
article was replaced with the characters for "Advertisement" [广告].
The screenshots below show that the online article itself was replaced with a notice saying "Very sorry, this article has already been deleted! " [很抱歉,该文章已经被删除!]
(Translation of the article by David Bandurski of the China Media Project - http://cmp.hku.hk/2011/05/12/12235)
3. Babies Poisoned by Melamine in Milk Formula
In 2008, 290,000 infants had to be treated for renal complications and 6 others died as a direct result of the deliberate contamination of infant formula and related dairy products with melamine to make it appear to contain more protein. 21 people were sentenced for their involvement, and two received death sentences. At least four government officials were fired in connection with the scandal. See, "4 officials sacked following baby milk scandal," China Daily, September 17, 2008, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-09/17/content_7034236.htm.
In 2010, Zhao Lianhai was sentenced to 2 1/2 years imprisonment for "disturbing social order" after he started the "Home for Kidney Stone Babies" (结石宝宝之家, jieshibaobao.com) website and attempted to lead parents in getting restitution and treatment for their children who had been poisoned by Sanlu's melamine-tainted milk powder. China's search engines and social media websites censored information about Zhao's case. See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/08/searching-for-information-about-milk.html.
4. The 2011 Wenzhou Train Collision
On July 23, 2011 when two high-speed trains collided on a viaduct in the suburbs of Wenzhou, Zhejiang. The two trains derailed each other, and four cars fell off the viaduct leaving 40 passengers dead and 172 injured. According to a Global Times report published a year later:
Although boasting one of the fastest high-speed trains in the world, the way the Ministry of Railways (MOR) disposed of the wreckage and delayed the results of an investigation into the crash sparked public fury and widespread doubt as to the wisdom of the massive investment in high-speed railways. . . . The investigation report, which was released five months after the deadly crash, blamed the cause on flaws in the trains' operation control system and on an inadequate emergency response by railway authorities. A total of 54 people were identified as being accountable for the crash and received disciplinary punishment. Liu Zhijun and Zhang Shuguang, the former railway minister and deputy chief engineer of the ministry respectively, were mainly said as being to blame and were placed under investigation last year for alleged "severe violation of discipline." But the charges against them are not directly related to the train crash.
See, "Trained the wrong way," Global Times, July 19, 2012, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/722139.shtm.
According to a October 18, 2014 Global Times report titled "Railway official sentenced to 'death with reprieve'" https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/886953.shtml:
The Beijing No.2 Intermediate People's Court also deprived Zhang Shuguang, former head of the now defunct Railway Ministry's transportation bureau and deputy chief engineer, of political rights for life and confiscated all his property. According to the court, Zhang took bribes worth more than 47 million yuan from 14 companies between 2000 and 2011, when he was serving in a variety of positions in the ministry. In particular, some 18.5 million yuan was offered by Wuhan Zheng Yuan Railway Electric Co Ltd under the guise of real estate purchases and membership applications to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In exchange, Zhang would help with contracts related to the sale of trains or parts and the bidding of projects, according to the court.
On July 31 and August 1, 2011, several news outlets published reports claiming Zhang Shuguang [张曙光] was involved in corruption. The screenshots below show that they were deleted within 24 hours.
On July 26, 2011 author and blogger Han Han (韩寒) posted an essay titled "A Country Off the Rails" [脱节的国度] on his Sina Blog . Some excerpts:
You keep asking why they run around like a bunch of lunatics, but they feel that they are paragons of restraint and patience.
You keep asking why they say white is black and black is white, but they feel that they are just telling it like it is.
You keep asking why they shield the murderers, but they feel ashamed they have to give the shaft to their friends-with-benefits.
You keep asking why they cover up the truth, but they feel that they are already very transparent and open.
You keep asking why their lives are so corrupt, but they feel that they lead spartan and simple lives.
You keep asking why they are so arrogant, but they feel that they are profiles in humility.
You feel aggrieved, and they also feel aggrieved. They think that under the rule of the Qing government, ordinary people couldn't even look at TV sets. Now TV sets have entered thousands of households. What great progress this is!
They feel that they built this, and they built that, and you don’t care what happens in the process and you don’t care who it is for, as long as you get to use it. You used to take a day and a night to take the train from Shanghai to Beijing. Now, as long as you don’t get struck by lightning, you'll be there in five hours. Why are you not grateful? Why are you so full of doubts?
. . . .
The reason why the country does not progress is because many among them have been measuring themselves by the Mao Zedong and Stalin era, so they always feel that they are too wronged, too open, too fair, too kind, too low profile. It's not easy. They regard the pace of technology enveloping the times as an illusion of their own initiative and openness, so the more you criticize him, the more he desires totalitarianism, and the more you engage in him, the more he misses Mao.
A friend in State machine told me: you people are never satisfied. If a literati like you had been around forty years ago, you would have been shot. Now you tell me whether this era is progressive or regressive.
I said, you people are never satisfied. If you offered this point of view ninety years ago, you would have been laughed to death. So you tell me, when all is said and done are we living in an age of progress or what.
. . . .
The screenshot below on the left shows the blog post as it appeared on July 27, 2011, and the screenshot on the right shows that it was deleted several hours later that same day.
5. Babies Poisoned by Mercury in Milk Formula
On June 15, 2012, the state sponsored Global Times reported: "Dairy producer Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Co said yesterday that it has started recalling most of its Quanyou series formula milk powder produced from November 2011 to May 2012 since Wednesday, due to excessive mercury content which is harmful to the nervous system." See, "Yili recalls milk powder," Global Times, June 15, 2012.
The same day China's social media networks began censoring search results for "Yili mercury" [伊利 汞]. See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/08/searching-for-information-about-milk.html.
6. The 2012 Beijing Floods
On July 23, 2012, the Global Times reported: "The heaviest rainstorms in 61 years hit the capital over the weekend, resulting in 37 deaths recorded as of 5 pm Sunday, authorities have announced. A total of 25 people drowned, six were killed by collapsing houses, five by electrocution, and one by lightning strike, the Beijing municipal government said on its Sina Weibo account. Over 1.9 million residents have been affected, officials say." See, "Outdated drainage blamed for flood havoc," Global Times, July 23, 2012, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/722780.shtml.
Within 48 hours, Sina Weibo began censoring all searches containing the term "death toll." [死亡人数] Articles in China's state sponsored media that contradicted official death toll claims were deleted. See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2012/07/sina-weibo-censors-searches-relating-to.html and http://blog.feichangdao.com/2012/08/rumor-of-economic-observers-shuttering.html.
7. Beijing Mass Suicide Attempt in 2013
In August 2013 China's state sponsored media reported that ten people tried to commit suicide by drinking pesticide on a busy street near Beijing West Railway Station. Those media reports were deleted and China's social media websites censored results for searches related to the incident. See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/12/sina-weibo-censors-searches-about-mass.html and http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/08/chinas-weibos-news-sites-censor-report.html.
8. The 2013 Lushan Earthquake
In April, 20, 2013, more than 100 people were killed and thousands were injured after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Lushan county in Sichuan.
- On April 22, China's social media websites began censoring search results for "Fan Jiyue" (范继跃) and "Lushan County Party Secretary" (芦山县委书记) after reports emerged Fan Jiyue, party leader of Lushan county, had taken off an expensive luxury wristwatch prior to participating in a photo-op with Premier Li Keqiang during quake-relief work on April 21. See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/04/2013-sichuan-earthquake-web-sites.html.
- On April 23, the state-sponsored Southern Metropolis Daily published an article on its web site entitled "Disaster Victims Blocked by Broken Transportation Lines Assemble to Call Out 'I'm Cold, I'm Hungry'." (交通受阻受灾民众聚集拉幅称“我冷我饿”). According to the article the featured photo showed: "Disaster victims in Lingguan village, Baoxing county, Sichuan, holding up banners saying 'I'm cold I'm hungry' have drawn the attention and support of many." (四川省宝兴县灵关镇，受灾民众举着“我冷饿”的横幅，呼吸各方支持和关注。) The following day China's social media websites began censoring search results for "I'm cold, I'm hungry." See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/04/2013-sichuan-earthquake-images-of.html.
9. Chai Jing's 2015 Anti-Pollution Video "Under the Dome"
China's state sponsored media acknowledged that China had severe pollution problems in 2015:
Air pollution has been a major concern for China throughout 2015, a year that marked a new phase in the country's air pollution control efforts, analysts said, after many cities were engulfed by hazardous smog and multiple measures were initiated against air pollution for the first time. After 2015 began with a controversial documentary about the hazards of smog, Under the Dome, the country has seen a rising public awareness of air pollution, as well as more measures from the government to curb the deterioration of air quality. Though Beijing's first-ever pollution red alert came at the end of the year, the country's battle against air pollution has just begun.
See: "Dark clouds still shroud blue skies," Global Times, December 29, 2015, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/961117.shtml.
According to the state sponsored China Daily:
Chai Jing's one-year project, Under the Dome, marks a comeback for the former presenter and journalist with China Central Television following the birth of her child. It adds a sentimental touch to a matter of public interest with Chai not only an independent observer but also a concerned mother. . . . "I saw smog through my daughter's eyes," Chai said while presenting her film. She recounted how the little girl was confined indoors, patting the window to vent her frustration at being unable to play outside.
"Former TV anchor on crusade against pollution," China Daily, February 28, 2015, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-02/28/content_19681430.htm
When "Under the Dome" was released in early 2015, China's news media, video, and social media websites censored the video and information about the video. See:
- People's Daily Deletes Special Section on Chai Jing's Pollution Video "Under the Dome" http://blog.feichangdao.com/2015/03/watch-peoples-daily-deletes-special.html
- Sina Weibo Begins Censoring Searches for "Under the Dome" http://blog.feichangdao.com/2015/03/sina-weibo-begins-censoring-searches.html
- Copies of Chai Jing's "Under the Dome" Disappear from Baidu Video Services http://blog.feichangdao.com/2015/03/watch-copies-of-chai-jings-under-dome.html
- Phoenix Joins Baidu in Deleting Chai Jing's Pollution Video "Under the Dome" http://blog.feichangdao.com/2015/03/phoenix-joins-baidu-in-deleting-chai.html
10. Protests and Other Public Events
In China people are expected to know that information about public events, even reports of those events by news agencies, may be deemed by police, prosecutors, and judges to be state secrets. See, State v. Zheng Enchong, (2003) Hu No. 2 Intermediate Criminal No. 136 [郑恩宠刑事判决书, (2003)沪二中刑初字第136号]: "Zheng Enchong learned secrets from a police officer surnamed Xu that the Shanghai public security agency was dealing with emergencies arising from a sudden mass incident at the Shanghai Yimin Food Products Factory, he took notes, organized them, and on the morning of the 23rd, faxed a hand-written draft that included the aforementioned secrets from his residence at Puyuan Road to the organization Human Rights in China in New York."
Police in China are empowered by law to punish people without trial for sharing information and opinions about public events. The punishments can range from official reprimands to ordering people to delete information and software, to jailing them for up to 15 days. Some examples:
- In 2013, three days after a woman posted a petition online opposing the construction of a petrochemical plant, police called her in and asked her to delete it. See, http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/05/police-ask-chengdu-woman-to-delete-we.html.
- China's police issue administrative punishment reprimands to people they discover using foreign VPNs, and order them to delete the software. See, https://blog.feichangdao.com/2020/11/disappearing-government-records-show.html.
- China's police jail people who insult them on social media. See, https://blog.feichangdao.com/2020/11/chinas-police-jailing-people-who-call.html.
Even seemingly minor factual errors about traffic accidents can result in government sanctions. For example, in 2016 China's Internet regulator ordered a public WeChat account shut down because it posted an article with a headline that failed to make it clear that it was sheep, and not people, who died in a traffic accident. That same year a man was jailed for posting that seven people died in a car accident, when in fact only three people had died. See, https://blog.feichangdao.com/2016/02/government-shuts-down-wechat-account.html and http://blog.feichangdao.com/2014/07/internet-user-jailed-five-days-for.html.
Finally, China's news media, search engines, and social media websites censor information about protests, labor unrest, and other public incidents. For example:
- Sina Weibo Censors Searches for Yangzhuang Coal Mine Strike in Feicheng, Shandong - http://blog.feichangdao.com/2014/03/sina-weibo-censors-searches-for.html
- Baidu And Tencent Begin Censoring Searches for "Maoming PX" - http://blog.feichangdao.com/2014/04/baidu-and-tencent-begin-censoring.html
- State Media Says Reports of Tanks Bound for Maoming False, Baidu Censors "Maoming Tanks" - http://blog.feichangdao.com/2014/04/state-media-says-reports-of-tanks-bound.html
- China’s Weibos and News Sites Censor Information About Shoe Factory Strike in Dongguan - http://blog.feichangdao.com/2014/04/chinas-weibos-and-news-sites-censor.html