It is easy for people around the world to fall under the impression that China speaks with one authoritarian voice. The content promoted by state media to foreign and domestic audiences is dominated by glowing coverage of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the Chinese internet is fraught with xenophobic chatter and bullying by nationalistic netizens. But this impression is essentially fabricated – a result of the regime’s efforts to silence the many voices and perspectives that conflict with its narrative and support universal values such as human rights, free speech, and the rule of law.
Indeed, a review of detentions and prosecutions from the past year that involve freedom of expression reveals a very different picture of the Chinese people, including their aspirations, sacrifices, diversity, and courage. It also exposes an extremely insecure regime that constantly struggles on multiple fronts to suppress even the most modest forms of grassroots dissent.
Given the country’s size and the CCP’s many efforts to hide the unsavory aspects of its rule, it is difficult to collect comprehensive data on political and religious imprisonment in China. This difficulty has intensified since previously published verdicts began disappearing from judicial databases last summer. Nevertheless, Freedom House’s monthly China Media Bulletin attempts to document key cases of people in China who face legal reprisals for sharing information or expressing their views on political, social, or religious topics. The dozens of cases covered over the past year, although only a small proportion of overall political prisoners in China, offer a number of meaningful insights.
The diversity of people being punished for speech that is disfavored by the CCP is striking. Sorted by profession, they include artists, teachers, farmers, monks, students, factory workers, journalists, and lawyers. There is also a growing contingent of entrepreneurs, billionaires, and former regime insiders such as Shen Liangqing, a former prosecutor sentenced to three years in prison in November for social media posts and other writings on abuses in the CCP disciplinary system.
Other aspects of the prisoners’ identities also speak to their diversity. There are Han Chinese, Uyghurs, and Tibetans; men and women; Maoists and democracy advocates; Christians and Falun Gong believers. Some are long-standing activists who have already served politically motivated prison terms, while others find themselves on the receiving end of state repression for the first time.
Notable too is the geographic diversity of the cases. The scale of political imprisonment is larger and the punishments particularly harsh and disproportionate in remote western regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. But police stations and courts in major coastal cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai are the sites of persecution for activity such as archiving censored news about the pandemic, commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, criticizing China’s leaders, or blogging about how to access uncensored information. The full list of locations also includes the heartland provinces of Guangxi, Anhui, Hunan, Henan, and Hubei, among others.
Harsh Penalties for Mundane Communication
Despite this diversity, there are common themes in the legal provisions that are invoked to jail people for their online and offline comments. Most charges implicitly acknowledge that the defendants did not engage in any form of violence, but rather are being punished for what they said or believe. For example, authorities frequently level charges of “inciting subversion,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” “insulting martyrs,” and “using a heterodox religion to undermine implementation of the law.”
The punishments meted out for these nonviolent offenses are harsh and can reach up to life imprisonment. Many of the penalized comments would be considered mundane in more open societies – a complaint about COVID-19 protocols, an observation on the prevalence of coronavirus cases in one’s neighborhood, a meme mocking police, or a social media post offering an alternative perspective on a historical event.
Some of those taken into custody are placed in administrative detention for up to 15 days, an increasingly common punishment for speaking irreverently about police during the pandemic, according to cases tracked by the @FreeSpeechCN Twitter account based on notices from local government websites. But many others are kept in pretrial detention for years at a time; denied access to family, lawyers, and medical care; subjected to sham trials; and sentenced to years more in prison.
Prominent rights defenders and members of ethnic minorities or banned religious groups tend to receive the longest sentences, often exceeding 10 years, recently joined by several high-profile entrepreneurs. In July 2021, Sun Dawu, a pig farmer turned billionaire who ran one the largest agricultural businesses in China, received an 18-year prison sentence after he lamented the lack of political reform in China and expressed support for detained activist Xu Zhiyong. In September, a Tianjin court sentenced a family of three Falun Gong believers to prison terms of 7 to 12 years, apparently in connection with the printing and distribution of information about the banned spiritual practice. Also that month, four Tibetan monks were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison after police discovered a phone containing records of communication with fellow monks in Nepal and donations for earthquake relief. These are harsher punishments than a defendant might receive for violent crimes like sexual assault or manslaughter in some countries.
The motives and aspirations of the jailed individuals in many cases are apparent in their actions: trying to support employees who were cheated out of pensions, possessing an image of a revered spiritual leader, countering propaganda that slanders one’s faith, reporting child labor at a factory, sharing updates on COVID-19 amid heavy censorship, or exposing torture and other abuses within the legal apparatus. These are ordinary citizens trying to help others, assert their rights, and build a more just and free society.
The price they pay is greater than simply the formal penalties they receive. When Huang Xueqin, a women’s rights activist and journalist, was detained, her plans to pursue a graduate degree in the United Kingdom were disrupted. Tang Mingfang, who exposed abuse at a Foxconn factory making Amazon devices, was separated from his 9-year-old son and unable to be by his father when he passed away. Veteran rights advocate Guo Feixiong was barred from seeing his dying wife. In several cases, prisoners have paid with their lives. Chinese activist Guo Hongwei died last April following surgery for a brain hemorrhage while serving a 13-year prison sentence in Jilin Province for lodging complaints about corruption and mistreatment in custody. In May, a report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project included accounts of at least 18 Uyghur religious figures, activists, or relatives who perished in detention or shortly after release since 2014.
The Snowball Effect and International Implications
When an individual is punished for challenging injustice, others often come to their aid. Yet those offering support can face punishment themselves, at times under more serious charges. Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist sentenced to four years in prison for reporting related to COVID-19, was detained while trying to locate another citizen journalist in Wuhan, Fang Bin, who had gained international attention for videos taken at hospitals in the first days of the pandemic. In December, Hunan Province officials involuntarily committed teacher Li Tiantian to a psychiatric facility after she expressed sympathy for another teacher who was fired for questioning official narratives on Sino-Japanese history. A lawyer who then tried to visit Li after her release – prominent attorney Xie Yang – was himself charged with “inciting subversion.” This snowball effect hints at the enormous scale of resources the regime must invest in silencing dissent.
The damage caused by such repression extends beyond the jailed individuals and their communities. It also undermines any effort to build rule of law in China, reduces the government’s ability to address grievances, and simultaneously papers over and exacerbates simmering public frustration with government policies.
Moreover, as with much else in China today, the scope, nature, and frequency of Beijing’s prosecution of free speech cases have implications for the wider world. Several of those charged or sentenced over the past year were punished for sending information abroad about COVID-19 or otherwise communicating with exiles, providing valuable information to Chinese and global news consumers. Others are themselves foreign nationals – including Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who faces questionable espionage charges, and Belizean national Lee Henley Hu Xiang, sentenced last April to 11 years in prison for providing financial and advocacy support to Hong Kong protesters.
Dozens of detainees have been jailed for comments or information posted to global social media platforms – especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – even if those companies have not turned over user data to Chinese authorities. The users are being punished at a time when Chinese officials and state media are investing significant resources to manipulate information flows on the same global platforms. Meanwhile, on Chinese platforms like Tencent’s WeChat, some users appear to have faced punishment for sharing content in private group communications, reflecting how company staff turned over data to authorities, a practice documented in past cases. Tencent is both a recipient of foreign investment and a major investor in tech firms abroad, raising questions about the de facto complicity of those partners.
Foreigners visiting China may even find themselves in physical proximity to these detentions. Last week, the Falun Dafa Information Center published a map showing the short distance between detention facilities in Beijing and venues for the Winter Olympics. Many of the detention centers within miles of Olympic venues are familiar sites of abuse for religious believers, rights lawyers, petitioners, and other grassroots activists.
Breaking the Silence
Unfortunately, nothing short of a significant political shift will free all of these prisoners or prevent another swath of citizens from being taken into custody for similar reasons. But international and local actors can still make a difference and save lives. Under public pressure to grant her a medical release, authorities reportedly improved conditions for Zhang Zhan. After two years of persistent efforts to locate Fang Bin, activists concluded this month that he was being held at a Wuhan detention center. And even as Foxconn whistleblower Tang Mingfang was jailed, his actions forced the company to stop using schoolchildren as workers.
More can be done to draw attention to the plight of China’s free expression activists. Foreign officials should raise relevant cases when visiting particular provinces or cities. Private-sector executives should use their leverage over supply chains to support whistleblowers, as rights groups have asked of Amazon in Tang’s case. Investors in tech firms should pose questions about their potential complicity in surveillance and prosecutions.
It is critical to remember the many voices that the CCP does not want the world or the Chinese public to hear. With their courage, nonviolence, and sacrifice for their fellow citizens, they offer hope for a better future in China and beyond.