A Chinese security officer holds the media rope as U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, background left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, are seated for photographers at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 25, 2016. Xi's increasing intolerance of negative coverage has approached a kind of lèse-majesté. (AP/How Hwee Young)
A Chinese security officer holds the media rope as U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, background left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, are seated for photographers at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 25, 2016. Xi's increasing intolerance of negative coverage has approached a kind of lèse-majesté. (AP/How Hwee Young)

China shuts down internet reporting as Xi’s sensitivity begins to resemble lèse-majesté

On July 1, popular internet portal Tencent, in its original news reporting section, published an article on a speech that President Xi Jinping gave the same day at a conference celebrating the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. One line of the article read, “Xi Jinping outburst an important speech.” To any reader who speaks Chinese, the sentence clearly included a typo and its meaning was, “Xi Jinping delivered an important speech.”

Yet the Chinese government, apparently unable to tolerate the word “outburst” next to the president’s name, launched an investigation into Tencent. Propaganda authorities soon ordered the company to halt its original news operations and threatened to ban the portal’s mobile app unless it removed certain descriptions of former political leaders, South China Morning Post reported on July 21.

Shortly thereafter, on July 24, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China’s internet regulator, ordered a sweeping ban on other major Internet portals’ original news operations. As of Monday, many popular news programs on portals such as Sina and Sohu have been taken down.

Yesterday, the CAC and two other government agencies held a press conference announcing the Chinese government will strengthen regulations on all internet platforms that “provide news information services.”

The moves to tighten control follow quickly on the appointment of Xu Lin as director of the CAC a month ago. They also follow a gradual process by which Xi has ditched the model of collective leadership established under leader Deng Xiaoping, while taking direct control of economic policy and the military, giving him unprecedented institutional power within the Chinese political system. As he has tightened control, the Chinese government’s increasing intolerance of negative coverage of Xi has approached a kind of lèse-majesté.

Lèse-majesté is the crime of offending the dignity of a ruler. In China, there is no specific law about offending the president or political leaders, but under Xi, laws dealing with libel, maintaining social order, and state security have been frequently used against Xi’s critics. Even posting an unflattering picture of Xi online can spell trouble: On July 22, 20-year-old college student Wang Wei was put under 10-day administrative detention by the police for “humiliating others” for posting a doctored photo of Xi on his Weibo account, according to news reports. Pictures ridiculing past presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were strictly censored, but there were few reports of their creators or disseminators being arrested.

“As a journalism topic ‘Xi Jinping’ is the kiss of death,” said Zhao Sile, a freelance journalist who is known for hard-hitting reporting on human rights abuses. This year, Zhao won two Hong Kong Human Rights Press Awards for a story on China’s crackdown on NGOs and a profile of an activist and documentary producer. Zhao, who would not hesitate to write about sensitive topics like persecuted human rights lawyers and jailed dissident writers, told CPJ that she doesn’t have the interest or the sources to report on Xi. She added: “But I can’t say I have not drawn a line in my heart at all. I know how sensitive the topic is.”

Over the course of early 2016, CPJ documented how an open letter on Wujie News criticizing Xi for concentrating power in his own hands and calling on him to resign resulted in over a dozen people being arrested and nearly 150 people being placed under travel ban. Foreign news websites have not been spared for speaking ill of Xi. In April, Chinese authorities blocked the websites of Time and the Economist after the two news outlets ran cover stories critical of Xi Jinping’s increasing power.

Murong Xuecun, a Beijing-based opinion writer contributing to The International New York Times, told CPJ that he has received warnings for his critical writing on Xi Jinping. “Last year, a professor relayed a message to me, ‘it’s best that you don’t mention the president’s name in your articles. It could easily back both of you into a corner.’ This sounds pretty scary. But to write commentaries about China, it is hard to avoid this name.” Besides the numerous mentions of Xi Jinping in his articles, Murong has published two articles in The New York Times focusing on Xi: “The Art of Xi Jinping” in 2014 and “Xi’s Selective Punishment” in 2015.

Murong told CPJ that he has learned to live with the looming terror of imprisonment over the years. “I have learned to manage fear and make sure that it does not interfere with my work. My way of doing it is to act like everything is normal: I live in a normal free country. I am not a prisoner. I can say whatever I want. In the past several years, I have often envisioned such a scene: a group of police officers broke into my home, handcuffed me and take me from home. After living under the shadow of such a scenario for years, now I feel I can handle it.”

Murong vowed to not shy away from criticizing the president and said he is prepared for the consequences: “I will not give up on my writing. I will not self-censor. I think I am ready for whatever is going to happen to me.”

Chinese political cartoonist Wang Liming, known as Rebel Pepper, is widely recognized for his bold, satirical portraits of Xi Jinping. CPJ last year reported on Chinese authorities’ harassment of Wang. In October 2013, Wang was detained overnight on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” He and his wife now live in Japan after fleeing China in August 2014, but the Chinese government apparently has not forgotten him. Wang told CPJ that police in his wife’s home town refused to issue necessary documents for him and his wife to apply for visas to come to the U.S. The police told Wang’s friend who tried to help them get the documents in China, “This person draws anti-Communist Party cartoons, we therefore cannot issue any documents,” according to Wang. Wang declined to provide details about the police bureau to CPJ for fear of repercussion to his mother-in-law, who lives in the area. Wang also told CPJ that some of his friends had been warned by China’s intelligence service not to contact him. CPJ could not independently verify his account.

“When I was in China I had always lived in fear. After I arrived in Japan, I no longer self-censor. The space for me to be creative has never been so wide before, but fear looms. When I first came to Tokyo, every time I walked down a dark alleyway at night, I would get a slight feeling that maybe someone was following me. As time goes by, such paranoia has waned, but I can’t say it has disappeared,” Wang told CPJ.

Wang’s fellow political cartoonist Jiang Yefei was repatriated from Thailand and arrested by Chinese police in November 2015. Jiang’s wife told CPJ last year that she believes Jiang was targeted because of his cartoons ridiculing Xi. A month after his arrest, Jiang appeared on China’s state television CCTV. Seen in a prison vest, looking tired and speaking slowly as he said: “I feel my behavior is wrong. Now I feel very remorseful. I must plead for leniency.” In May, Jiang’s family received a notice from the police saying Jiang had been formally arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power.