Criticism and jokes off limits ahead of G20 summit in Hangzhou, China

By Yaqiu Wang/CPJ Northeast Asia Correspondent on August 31, 2016 5:02 PM ET

The city of Yuyao, in China's Zhejiang province, is 70 miles away from Hangzhou, where leaders of the world's 20 leading economies will gather September 4 and 5 for the annual G20 summit. Nonetheless, on August 26, democracy activist You Jingyou and his wife were subject to extra security checks at the train station in Yuyao, where they went to board a train to their home of Fuzhou, in Fujian province--a train that would not even pass by Hangzhou.

You--a bridge engineer who was imprisoned for a year in 2009 on defamation charges, for posting information and videos about a girl who allegedly died after being gang-raped by thugs linked to the police--told CPJ that he was subject to a long period of security personnel checking a computer and discussing him before being permitted to board the train. Meanwhile, his wife, Chen Yuhong, was ordered to have a sip of the water in the bottle she carried with her--a new security protocol in the area in the run-up to the summit--to ensure that it was water as Chen claimed, not liquid that contained explosives. You told CPJ that he saw a fellow passenger ordered to register the hair mousse she carried with her before boarding the train.

But Chinese citizens are unlikely to find such stories in their newspapers. The government has gone all out in its preparation for the meeting, in an effort to showcase China's modernity and its prominent role in the world economy, and journalists told CPJ that they have been ordered not to report negatively on the event. Some say they have been warned to keep quiet altogether, given their history of criticizing the government when they write.

The restrictions are only the most recent tightening of screws in an already oppressive media environment. President Xi Jinping has put areas once safe for comment and controversy, such as economic policy, off limits, and criticism of the president can result in censorship, detention, and travel bans. Recently, such measures have taken on a severe and sometimes ridiculous aspect, with the government taking aim at the Chinese people's well-honed sense of irony.

Authorities ordered journalists not to "hype stories about G20 disturbing local residents' lives," one journalist for a local newspaper in Hangzhou told CPJ. Another journalist for a national news website shared with CPJ a censorship directive she received in a WeChat group on August 29, ordering the media to increase censorship and monitoring. "From this day to September 7, strengthen active monitoring, ensure relevant staff are on duty at any given time and can be reached immediately. Increase the number of content censors... Do not publish vulgar, pornographic, violent, or other negative and harmful information," the directive reads. The journalist said it is unclear which government agency issued the order. Both journalists asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Meanwhile, the government has ordered some independent journalists to be quiet and keep away. Political commentator and Hangzhou resident Wang Yongzhi, known by his pen name Wang Wusi, told CPJ that the Hangzhou police had warned him not to write about the summit and urged him to leave Hangzhou around the time of the meeting. Wu Wei, known by his pen name Ye Du, is a writer and editor of the website Independent Chinese PEN Center, which documents human rights issues in China. Ye told CPJ that the police have prohibited him from leaving Guangzhou, a city in southern Guangdong province where he lives, from September 1 to 6. "I expect I will be under house arrest during these days," Ye said. During national events and holidays, police often put writers and human rights activists under house arrest or take them away from the cities where the events are held.

A police officer at the Hangzhou Public Security Bureau told CPJ via phone that the bureau is unaware of the case of Wang Yongzhi. CPJ's phone call to the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau did not go through.

Prominent journalist Gao Yu, who lives in Beijing, has been under round-the-clock surveillance since she was released from prison in November last year. Gao was arrested in April 2014 and spent 19 months in jail on charges of "illegally providing state secrets abroad" for allegedly sending an internal Communist Party document warning of the danger of human rights and democracy to an overseas website. (Gao denies the charge.) Gao told CPJ on Monday that the police recently have not allowed her to meet with friends and ordered her to keep mum about the summit. "Of course, I'm ordered not to talk about the South China Sea, Yanhuang Chunqiu [a high-profile history journal that has recently been muzzled], let alone G20," she said. "The police harassed me and thwarted me from joining a dinner on [August] 17. So we avoided using phone or WeChat to communicate and yesterday were able to get together. But after we had to use a phone to call a friend, the police, in two cars, immediately came to the restaurant and videotaped our gathering."

A police officer at the Beijing Public Security Bureau Chaoyang Division told CPJ via phone that she did not have information about Gao's situation.

None of these measures have stopped citizens from complaining on social media about the inconveniences brought by the summit. It is unclear the extent to which people have to have a sip of the drink they carry when being checked by security personnel, but jokes making fun of the heightened security level in Hangzhou and beyond have been widely spread on social media. A popular one reads, "A delivery guy encountered a patrolling officer on his way to deliver the food you ordered. The officer ordered him to have a sip of your soup, then the delivery guy brought the food to you." Another reads, "A police officer ordered me to have a sip of each bottle in the case of wine in my car trunk. After I had the sips and started my car, the police then accused me of drunk driving."

Apparently, authorities have no tolerance for such humor at this crucial moment for demonstrating China's cultural and economic achievements on a global stage. The Zhejiang government on its official WeChat account has deemed the aforementioned jokes and many others "rumors" and stated, "The public security organ...hopes everyone does not readily believe or share information that obviously runs counter to common sense, or parodies and spoofs. The public security organ will pursue legal actions against those who create and spread rumors in accordance with the law."

In 2013, China's top court and prosecutor ruled that people who posted libelous information viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times can be charged with defamation and jailed for up to three years. Sharing false information deemed to cause "serious social disorder" can result in a maximum five-year jail term. CPJ research shows that accusing journalists of spreading rumors has been used frequently by authorities as punishment for criticism of the Chinese government.

When leaders of the world's most powerful nations arrive this weekend in Hangzhou, the capital city of southern Zhejiang province, they will see the beautiful West Lake in the heart of the city, clean roads and orderly traffic, state-of-the-art buildings and facilities, and the friendly faces of summit workers and volunteers who are ready to help at any moment. Beneath all the grandeur and niceties, however, lies a society where journalists cannot criticize, and citizens cannot joke.

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