Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. Cheryl Hsin-Ju Yu provided research assistance for this commentary.
China is gearing up for one of the most important meetings on its political calendar. Next month thousands of delegates from around the country will convene in Beijing for the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The meeting will culminate in the announcement of the new members of the country’s most important decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee — including a possible candidate to replace party leader Xi Jinping in 2022. Already China-watchers are speculating about the possibility that no one will be named — a signal that Xi is prepared to break with precedent and move toward a third term in office.
Any gathering of top Chinese officials inevitably triggers a crackdown on information. This time around, though, government officials and security forces are rolling out a whole new level of restrictions. And that is set to make life even more difficult for millions of netizens.
For the past several months, government websites have noted the importance of the congress, referring to it as a top priority for the security apparatus this year. Security officials and Internet monitors have been meeting regularly since July to prepare for the event and ensure “a secure and stable social environment.”
And though the congress will take place in Beijing, the information police are working nationwide, both online and off. They’re closely monitoring Internet communications, petitioners, members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group and other potential sources of political dissent or human rights activism as far afield as Xinjiang, Jilin, Guizhou, and Sichuan.
The authorities have forced the removal of virtual private networks (VPNs) from online mobile application stores to limit access to uncensored content. They’ve investigated social media platforms whose efforts to censor undesirable comments fell short, and have renewed efforts to impose real-name registration for Internet users by Oct. 1. These initiatives alone increase surveillance and censorship for tens of millions of Chinese Internet users.
On Aug. 3, the Ministry of Public Security presided over a nationwide drill by Internet data centers and cloud services that was meant to “step up online security” for the congress. Data centers practiced rapidly shutting down websites that carried “harmful information” and reporting their owners to the police. Although the ministry didn’t make the drill public, several service providers notified their customers of potential disruptions. Media reports indicate that certain companies’ sites were temporarily shuttered.
Last week, the Cyber Administration of China published a new set of regulations for managing “Internet group information” that will take effect on Oct. 8. The rules emphasize the responsibility of group managers and service providers on platforms such as Tencent’s popular WeChat to enforce official content restrictions and report violators to “the relevant authorities.” Those who fail to comply with the regulations risk punishment themselves.
The crackdown isn’t restricted to cyberspace. Activists, lawyers and others who typically face restrictions around high-profile political events are already feeling the pressure. Several activists have reported difficulties traveling to Hong Kong, including a prominent feminist who was scheduled to begin a master’s degree program at Hong Kong University this month. More disconcerting is the Aug. 13 detention of human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng, who has been severely tortured during past arrests.
As the congress approaches, dissenting voices are also likely to be “sent on holiday” outside Beijing. Democracy activist Zha Jianguo told Radio Free Asia in late August that Beijing state security agents had already begun “asking me where I want to go on vacation during the 19th Party Congress.” Those recently tried on politically motivated charges, such as blogger Wu Gan and attorney Jiang Tianyong, may have their prison sentences announced before the congress begins.
Because of all these measures, Chinese netizens find themselves facing a heightened risk of censorship, arrest and criminal prosecution. The legal, technological and administrative tools at the party’s disposal in 2017 are significantly more powerful than in 2012, the year of the last leadership rotation. These tools will survive long after the event has ended.
Moreover, Chinese authorities have demonstrated their willingness to use the new methods to detect and punish even innocuous comments by average citizens who would have escaped notice a few years ago. In mid-August, security agents in Yunnan jailed a man for five days for posting a comment on WeChat mocking Xi Jinping. In July, 10 Kazakh women were detained in Xinjiang for discussing immigration to Kazakhstan in a WeChat group soon after installing a mandatory monitoring app.
The Chinese authorities’ extreme efforts to ensure a well-choreographed leadership shuffle attest to the regime’s long-standing insecurities and the isolation of its authoritarian leadership. But this year, as the country undergoes one of the most significant political events in its recent history, the vast majority of Chinese citizens are not only being shut out of the conversation. They are also at greater risk than before of being severely punished should they even try to take part from afar.