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Yaxue Cao, December 5, 2018
If you have been with Twitter’s simplified Chinese community long enough, you know it’s nothing new that handles disappear and in some cases the persons behind them go to jail – it’s a freedom tunnel that the Chinese Communist regime is leery of.
But over the last few months, and still ongoing, we keep hearing mainland tweeps reporting that they have been summoned by police who ordered them to delete tweets or accounts altogether. AFP’s Eva Xiao and Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang reported on the trend early on. I myself reported one particular instance – the deletion of Wu Gan (吴淦)’s account.
As of today, I collected 42 tweets from users themselves tweeting about what had happened to them. Some are well-known journalists, dissidents and intellectuals. Others are average tweeps who may or may not be anonymous. Some have been on Twitter for several years, others are new to it. In a few cases, tweeps were given administrative detention of 10 or more days; in at least one case, a user in Chongqing has been criminally detained awaiting charges. Some faced the run-in with police with composure, and others with defiance; still others were scared and quit, or made to quit. Together they tell the unmediated story.
The tweets are arranged chronologically. A few are excerpted for brevity. Necessary explanatory information is provided in [brackets and italic]. A link to the original tweet in Chinese is embedded in the last two words of the translation. If the link is broken, it means, in most cases, that the police came back to the tweep pressuring him or her to delete it.
Today I was summoned to my neighborhood police station for retweeting political rumors. I was reprimanded, and made to write a statement of repentance and another statement guaranteeing that I wouldn’t do it again. They deleted my tweets. This handle is going to be abandoned. Goodbye friends. I love you all.
Just moments ago, a policeman from my hometown (Chengshuang Township police station, Dangshan county, Suzhou municipality, Anhui province) called me and said they are going to come to Shanghai to look for me again (they did during June 4th). I guess it’s about my Twitter. Now, since they are monitoring my posts, let me tell the internet police and the domestic security police right here and now: It’s impossible for me not to speak. Speech is my last line说话是我的底线. You can come to arrest me if you want to charge me for my expressions. It’s no use to come to talk to me. Why don’t you save the money and use it on keeping people safe.
Beijing tweep Quan Shixin (全世欣 @Sarah_chinaBJ) has been administratively detained for 10 days for “attacking leaders of the communist party and the state.” She was released around noon and returned home on September 21.
On October 1, 9 am, two guobao police summoned me to the neighborhood police workstation for a talk, which was transcribed and also video recorded. Their key points are: 1). Recently I posted too many original tweets and retweets on Twitter as well as WeChat, and the content is all negative; 2) Who called for the group trip to Tiananmen Square on Sept. 20? 3) They once again issued a warning and criticism.
[He Depu (何德普) is a veteran dissident and served an eight-year sentence during 2003-2011 on charges of inciting subversion.]
A police officer from my hometown called, asking me to delete tweets. He said the higher authorities investigating internet speech found my posts. I was somewhat puzzled because I had hardly said anything. The call was made to my father’s house, so my old father, who is in his 70s, was frightened once again. Feeling so bad about it, I called home to comfort him.
[Li Xuewen is a Hubei-based dissident writer. He was detained for taking part in the seaside commemoration of Liu Xiaobo in Guangdong in 2017. ]
On the afternoon of October 27, three police officers from the neighborhood police station made a surprise visit. The guests and the host quickly exchanged views about Twitter. The police asked me to “delete account” and stop using Twitter. I said that is unacceptable, but I voluntarily promised to self-censor what I say in order to reduce the waste of police resources and avoid upsetting loved ones so frequently. After communicating for an hour, the meeting ended in an awkward but still friendly atmosphere. For the record.
[Wen Tao (文涛) is a journalist who was disappeared for 83 days and subjected to torture in 2011 for his association with artist Ai Weiwei.]
Per appointment, I met with Shenzhen guobao this afternoon, and the subject was not to badmouth the Party and state leaders. We also exchanged views on international and domestic affairs. This must be a nationwide operation. Now, my question is: what move is this preparing for?
[This is one of the earliest Chinese Twitter users – since May 2009.]
October 21, 2018, lunar calendar Sept. 13, was my birthday. It was unforgettable! Goodbye, Twitter.
[Wang Yajun describes himself as a “renowned joke teller, independent commentator, Taobao store owner, and internet Big V verified by CAC.” He’s been an active presence in Beijing’s intellectual circles for years. He was detained in Keshan county, Heilongjiang province, from Oct. 20 to Oct. 30 for “provoking disturbances. A couple of days after he posted this tweet on Oct. 31, his account was deleted. ]
Liu Jichun (刘继春, @wugefy1) is formally arrested this morning after being detained for 30 days. Lao Liu ran a small, 40 square-meter eatery in Shapingba area in Chongqing. He was the chef and his wife the assistant. A lawyer has met him a couple of times, and found out that the charges against him have to do with him retweeting various news. Request for bail was denied by the public security bureau, and a request for dismissal was denied by the prosecutors. It’s pretty clear that his is speech crime.
How do you speak freely on Twitter from the evil Communist-ruled land without being summoned by the police for ‘drinking tea’?
I drank tea just two days ago.
[Zhan Lifan is an independent historian and commentator in Beijing.]
Hometown police called and said I cursed the leaders on Twitter. I only have a few posts and they were not posted on Twitter. I hereby state: I have not cursed them!
For the last year or so, I have posted nearly nothing on Twitter. Lately there have been tweeps I know who were summoned and forced to delete their Twitter, including quite a few of my friends. So I’m compelled to talk again. Throughout history, in China or elsewhere, the tyrants always think the day will not break if they kill all the roosters that crow at the dawn; everything will be fine if they could make people too afraid to speak. No matter how long the night, we will live to see the dawn.
[Ye Du is a dissident and writer living in Guangzhou.]
I was detained, and made to sit through the night in the cold. Goodbye, Twitter, be safe. Maybe I should just be one of those people who think life in China is peace and quiet.
[I spoke to @zwitterion2018. He lives in a central province. “I don’t know how they found me,” he said. “They came all of a sudden. They asked me questions, took me, and detained me for a night. Then they investigated me and found that I had no associations. So they let me go. At the same time they deleted my Twitter feed.” He said they threatened him that if he tweets again he’d be put in jail. They also explained that they were local police carrying out an order from the national security, and they themselves don’t want to detain him. “It was my first time,” he said, “I’m very afraid.” I asked why he was still on Twitter, he said the worst that could happen to him is jail.]
This was end-of-the-world maniac: I received a call from guobao who demanded that I pledge not to get on Twitter anymore. How is it possible for me not to get on Twitter? They may as well kill me.
[This is a new tweep joined in May, 2018. In another tweet, he said that, to avoid being harassed by the “Zhao family’s dogs”, he took out his sim card and uses only Wifi to surf internet.]
Officer Zhou, of Donghu police station in Chaoyang District, Beijing, do you call yourself the ‘people’s police’ when you prohibit people from speaking out about their thoughts, their grievances, their call for justice so that you can serve the Party you belong to and its leaders with all your heart and mind? When you shut people up, how are you different from the Nazis during 1937 – 1945?
Lately Chinese tweeps have encountered a widespread crackdown. No wonder they went to my former employer to look for me in early September. Thank goodness I have left.
[This tweep seems to be living in Florida now.]
Guobao had an appointment with me this evening. I was forced to pledge that I would not post any political expressions on any online platform anymore. The fact is I haven’t for the past year or so, but still there have been so many eyes staring at me. Huh, we all know it anyway. So I’ll just leave it now.
Friend said to me privately that the whole country is campaigning to extinguish Twitter. Guobao twice asked me to delete all my tweets. I promised I won’t retweet anymore and deleted retweets of the last two days. Guobao said I ought to pay attention to my own safety. I said, “Unless you physically cut off the internet or put me in jail, or I’m going to follow the teachings of Deng Xiaoping. That is, the horse will run as usual, the dance will go on, and the one-country- two-systems will be upheld.”
[Shen Liangqing is a former prosecutor and dissident living in Hefei, Anhui.]
I have written more than 4,000 commentaries of current affairs over the past 15 years using my real identity. But now, to live on, I have to give up writing and thus bid goodbye to hundreds of thousands of readers in China and beyond. I don’t know when I will be writing the most timely and accurate commentaries again. I hope it won’t be too long, won’t be too long; I hope the night will pass soon.
@419041838: “They deleted all my tweets. Several thousands of them. While deleting, they also videotaped the process. They had talked to me twice about it, and almost took me to jail.”
@419041838: Deleting all was not enough; they took it to the municipal government for their superiors to check in person.
@oubiaofeng: When? What were the reasons they gave?
@419041838: You guys still don’t get it: using Twitter is very dangerous, more dangerous than street demonstrations.
@419041838: Not me; they did the deletion. They took it away for a night. A few days ago. Several people came from higher level government.
Sun Desheng (孙德胜 @sds8964 )’s tweets were all deleted. The Party-state have never relaxed control of online expression, but recently it has become even more pronounced. Weibo was once a bustling platform but it’s no more. Deletion of post or account has become a commonplace on WeChat. Lately a lot of tweeps have been summoned by police. Some announced quitting Twitter, others were forced to delete their tweets, and still others went silent. There are more than a few who have been detained for tweeting!
[Sun Desheng is an activist who was jailed for 2.5 years from 2013 to 2016.]
According to the latest news, Xiamen tweep Pan Xidian (潘细佃 @congweiyonghu) has been given 15 days of detention for refusing to delete his account. He’s in Houxi Detention Center, and his account has been deleted.
Around noon, I drank four liang (两) liquor. In the evening I drank again. When I got to six liang (两), I heard knocking on the door. It was cold, so I opened it promptly. What should come would come – three police officers from Shuangjing police station, Beijing Chaoyang District, came for a talk. Officer Gao alone asked questions; another videotaped the entire visit, and the third one stood aside. I said I hadn’t attacked the Party and state leaders since March last year, nor had I defaced the image of the country. I forgot to say that I hadn’t even registered a Twitter account March last year. They didn’t beat me, nor threaten me. I was much relieved. After they left, I finished drinking the remained two liang (两). Now I can sleep in peace. [Edited for clarity. Links are here and here]
That was a fright. Next time I will remember to video record them and also ask to see and photograph their police ID and search warrant. (What about governing the country according to the law that you have been touting?)
[He Jiangbing is a Beijing-based economist who came to Twitter in July 2017 and has been commenting on the Chinese economy since then.]
The storm has come indeed. I was asked to delete a total 802 tweets.
[Ye Du told Deutsche Welle that, “Guobao showed me a form with 802 tweets of his that have been put together by internet police. They were categorized into ‘promoting western democracy,’ ‘concerning June 4th,’ ‘inciting social movement,’ and etc. Very detailed. They demanded that I delete these tweets. Ye Du said that he was not the only person who was asked to delete tweets.]
Ms. Wu Huaiyun from Huoshan County, Anhui Province was given 10 days of administrative detention on Nov. 1. The Public Security Bureau’s written decision on the punishment said, “Since May 2018, Wu Huaiyun used her mobile phone and computer to publish statements defaming our Party and major national leaders on the overseas social platform ‘Twitter’ via her account, @xybaiyun2018. The remarks are serious.” The following is Wu Haiyun’s own account of the event, which she published on Twitter after her release.
On October 31, 2018, the Ministry of Public Security and the Anhui Provincial Public Security Department issued an order, and twenty or thirty domestic security police officers (guobao) from Liu’an city came to my home and duped me into handing over my mobile phone. Then several of them forcibly put handcuffs on me and took me away; they also beat me in the police car. Then I was taken to the Liu’an detention facility, where I was detained for 10 days. The police also searched my home, took my computer’s hard drive, pried open my suitcase, and even the mattress on the bed was turned upside down. I hereby request help from international human rights organizations and caring people!
They also found the password for my Twitter account on my computer hard drive, and deleted all the content from my Twitter. After I was detained, they only notified my family by phone, no written notice of detention was given. My family members asked the police for the detention notice, but they refused to provide it. I obtained this written punishment decision by insistence. If they’re reasonable and lawful, then why were they unwilling to give a written detention notice and written punishment decision? And detain me without trial? I never mentioned the names of national leaders on Twitter, how could I have defamed anyone? If I disappear again, it’s them–– it’s what they do.
I said that my Twitter content was basically all retweets, and that I just had a few original tweets, which did not involve the content they claimed. They said that reposting is also illegal, especially when retweeting Guo Wengui’s posts–– that was even more unlawful. I asked them, doesn’t the law stipulate that false information must be retweeted at least 500 times before the security punishment regulations apply? Not one of my retweets reached the “500 times” threshold. They actually said that mine were different.
During the interrogations, they assumed I used Twitter on my computer. The written punishment decision also stated that I used Twitter on my computer. When I said that I used Twitter on my mobile phone only, and not on the computer (my computer could not scale the Great Firewall), they all seemed a little surprised! This shows that they found me (on Twitter) by monitoring my mobile phone; the whole thing was a fucking trick!
A few days ago, I received a threatening text message from someone claiming to be the police, demanding that I delete my Twitter account.
The day before yesterday [on Nov. 17], both Chairman Hua @wxhch64 and I were summoned for a “chat” by authorities in Wuxi and Henan for our use of Twitter. I think this big Twitter cleanup is nationwide, not specifically targeting us, so I didn’t say anything. [“Chairman Hua” is Wang Yi’s husband.]
Recently, there’s less and less information on Twitter, mainland Twitter users have either left Twitter, or they’ve been silenced. I was also required to delete more than 500 tweets, and now I dare not post any new tweets. We don’t know the scale, and at every turn the police want to meet; we still have to work, no?
A few days ago, the domestic security and Internet police came and asked me to delete the relevant posts from Twitter, saying that I couldn’t target national leaders. They were really proactive about this; the Internet police held a screenshot and had me delete tweets from the designated date.
Recently I caused a lot of trouble for my friends and family because of my use of Twitter; therefore, I probably will not be on Twitter again for a long time. To my friends who have consistently shown me their concern and care, here I can only offer my apologies. Goodbye, friends.
Lately a number of tweeps have been visited by police who demanded them to delete tweets or not post or retweet anymore. In Hunan, I know there are tweeps in Zhuzhou, Changsha, Shaoyang and other cities who have been summoned by police. Most of them kept quiet afterwards.
I thought only Big Vs were qualified to be summoned for interrogation, but finally it was my turn. I thought this would just be a little intimidation before [Guo Wengui] ‘s press conference and that would be all, because last night the police summoned me but then I was able to return home after only one hour, which didn’t interfere in my watching the live broadcast of Guo’s live broadcast. However, I just now received a phone call from a police officer in the district, who said that the higher ups were not satisfied with our discussion yesterday and that the bureau would send people to have another talk with me. They were somewhat polite, and we agreed to meet at 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. It won’t interfere with drinking, so it’s OK.
[Later, reply to self] Just came back, it was nothing. It had nothing to do with Mr. Guo. It involved political commentary. The domestic security officers’ attitude was good. During the interrogation, there was a moment when we clashed, but we circled back. They had a stack of printed and bound tweets, and the evidence was undeniable. I wrote a letter of guarantee that I would delete sensitive posts on my own. Done. It’s time to feed the stray cats…
The domestic security police stopped by today, mainly because of what I said on Twitter. What is certain is that Twitter is no longer a place where you can freely express your thoughts. I don’t know what other communication tools are available abroad to replace Twitter? Which are more private and safer? It has been several years since [human rights lawyer] Pu Zhiqiang was convicted for his Tweets. Twitter has never been a safe harbor for speech, and we are now in an era of total repression.
[Tweep @asn_213 gave a friend the following account in DM, and the later published it.]
I’m back. Yesterday it was the Guobao who summoned me via neighborhood police. They printed all the stuff from 5-6 years ago regarding the same-city meal gatherings [part of the New Citizens Movement], and they also printed all of my tweets and retweets. They said these were evidence of my criminal activities. At 10 pm, their political officer interrogated me again, giving me a notice for 15-day administrative detention. It describes me as defaming the national leaders and attacking the current political system on Twitter. They asked me to sign it. I wrote my dissent on it: I have never used my Twitter handle to defame anyone; expressing views on events and people is a citizen’s most basic freedom of speech, and it’s ridiculous that this is even happening in the 21st century. Then I signed it. …… He talked a lot more, finally he tried to use my daughter as a leverage. He said, “Look, at our age, who is going to do what we like to do that make our own daughters suffer. Now I’m going to give you a way out. As long as you stop tweeting or retweeting and delete your Twitter account, we will withdraw this penalty.” I said okay. So he let me go home. I might not be able to keep this account anymore.
I just found out that the Twitter account of 陈年老酒 @old_wine has been deleted. He was taken away by police on November 7, and it probably had to do with Twitter. I don’t know how many more tweeps have simply disappeared without a peep. We don’t even notice when @old_wine, a sage on Twitter, took leave.
This month I have been coerced to delete about 1,250 tweets. The darkest moment has come before the dawn breaks. No need to say more.
In Shandong, Jinan, Hui poet An Ran (安然) was taken to Dongguan police station by five policemen (two of which were Guobao) on November 27, 2018. He was interrogated for his Twitter expressions. He was ordered to delete his Twitter account, but he refused to do so, stating that his Twitter feed is personal property and it is sacred. (Read his tweets here and here.)
He also posted Page 2 of the three pages of interrogation transcript that concerns the part about his Twitter:
Q: How do you get on Twitter?
A: It’s my privacy; I don’t want to reveal.
Q: Do you often post on Twitter?
A: Almost everyday.
Q: What do you post there?
A: A lot of different things – my own takes on current affairs, photo and video sharing, and etc.
Q: Have you posted lately on Twitter?
A: There are a lot. I can’t remember each one of them.
Q: In what language have you been posting/
Q: You posted that “Religion and traditional culture have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), then the morality disintegrated. Now the Chinese Communist Party began to strike down on religion again.” You also posted that “China’s suppression of Hui Muslims is worsening.” Correct?
A: I posted these this year (can’t remember the exact time) in English.
Q: Why were you posting these?
A: I saw in the news that a new Mosque in Weizhou Township, Tongxin County, Ningxia was ordered to be demolished. It was a grand Mosque built by local believers who had raised 100 million yuan. The government ordered its demolition because it said the dome did not meet the Sinicization requirement. The Mosque was saved only because local people protested in large scale.
Q: What’s the purpose and motivation of posting these two tweets?
A: I wanted to stop the local government from demolish the Mosque, because it was built with believers’ contributions, and it’s such a new, magnificent Mosque…..
Today my parents in Xinjiang called, and fearfully they asked me to shut up in the U. S. “If you talk anymore,” they said, “the higher-ups will make sure that you will never be able to speak to your parents again.” CCP bastards, come to get me, leave my parents alone! Stop threatening my family! I hate to shut up, but they have turned my loved ones into hostages. For their safety, I decide not to get publicly involved in politics anymore for the time being.
The Shenzhen-based dissident and businessman 陈年老酒 @old_wine, whose name is Xu Lequn (许乐群), posted an account of his encournter with police on another platform on December 1:
At 10 am, Nov. 7, I was taken from home by policemen in Shenzhen to a police station where they photographed me, took my finger prints, and tested my urine. From 3-4 pm, they interrogated me about my expressions about Xinjiang on Twitter, and they demanded that I delete my Twitter account. I was released at 10 am, Nov. 8, after sitting on a metal bench for the night.
At 5 pm, Nov. 10, I was again taken from home to the police station. At 6:30 pm I was interrogated. They chastised me for still using Twitter the past few days. I again was made to sit on the metal bench for a night. At 9:30 am, they released me saying they’d gotten the wrong person.
On Nov. 26, they called and said their surveillance found that my Twitter account was still alive, that my name is still on the list they’d received from the higher-ups, and that I must get rid of my account immediately. I didn’t know how to delete my account; so I deactivated it.
[Note: His account appears to be active though there have been no new tweets since Nov. 7.]
This morning I was summoned to the neighborhood police station. I was asked to delete two retweets, one of which is about Guo Wengui. I refused to write a repentance statement.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao and China Change @ChinaChange_org
A Month Or So In The House Of Twitter, Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012.
Matthew Robertson, October 11, 2018
China’s rapidly expanding interest in researching and applying artificial intelligence has been widely noted. Last year, the Chinese government published a plan to become a world leader in the field by the end of the next decade; billions of dollars are being funnelled into AI startups; and China is competing head-to-head with industry in the United States on the cutting edge of the field.
What makes AI developments in China so different from those in the United States, however, is that as with any technology, if it can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power or further its panoptistate, it will.
This is almost a truism, of course, and military adoption of new technologies applies just as well to the U.S.
The real difference is that in China, exploitation of new technologies is almost always attendant with human rights abuses. The area of AI may end up becoming a particularly grim demonstration of this principle, if current trajectories continue.
And researchers from the West may have already given China a significant helping hand. Witness the case of the French research institute Inria’s (French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and in particular its assistance in developing the technology underpinning one of China’s AI ‘unicorns,’ Cambricon (寒武纪).
Cambricon, the company featured in Science’s February 2018 profile of the burgeoning AI sector in China, was supported and spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology (中科院计算所). Their flagship AI chip, the Cambricon-1A, hit the market last year and has been incorporated into Huawei smartphones, among other products.
It was one of Inria’s researchers, Olivier Temam, who was instrumental in helping to lay the technical foundations of Cambricon’s breakthroughs.
“Cambricon’s founding team came from academia, and I myself was a professor and doctoral tutor at the Computing Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences,” writes Chen Tianshi (陈天石), Cambricon’s co-founder and CEO. He goes on to thank Inria and and long-time academic collaborators Chen Yunji (陈云霁) and Olivier Temam.
Temam’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a senior research scientist at Inria from September 2004 to May 2014.
The three — Chen Tianshi, Chen Yunji, and Olivier Temam — have collaborated on a dozen journal and conference papers, including many that won best paper awards. With names like “DianNao: A Small-Footprint High-Throughput Accelerator for Ubiquitous Machine-Learning” and “ShiDianNao: Shifting Vision Processing Closer to the Sensor.”
It is papers like this that underlie innovations in AI chip development that Cambrion built its company on.
The chip architecture has another highly useful feature for China’s security authorities: use in image recognition systems for filtering and processing the bucketloads of data collected by the Communist Party’s pervasive surveillance apparatus.
VOA quoted a Cambricon employee in June 2018 commenting on a provider of surveillance cameras to the Party, Hikvision:
“A staff member at Cambricon, another Chinese company that provides the government technical support for security needs, told VOA that major video surveillance companies in the Chinese market are working with the government and that government authorities can access the information from any company at any time.”
The engineer remarked that surveillance technology, in attempting to identify ethnic minorities, might “consider beards, facial, and head accessories.”
There is as yet, at least as far as China Change could discover, no public evidence that Cambricon’s chips have been used to drive surveillance technologies.
Its chips, however, have been listed as among those that Hikvision could make easy recourse to.
When the subject is reported in the Chinese media, surveillance technology is just another one of the potentially lucrative uses that Cambricon can exploit, alongside self-driving cars and cloud computing.
Along with Inria, MIT has also begun collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company whose AI technologies are being deployed by the security apparatus.
“Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an October 2017 report.
HRW shows clearly how iFlytek has marketed the security uses of its technology, including deep relationships with official entities that have helped the authorities build the Golden Shield Project, one of the key components of China’s surveillance apparatus.
The MIT relationship with iFlytek was announced in June 2018.
Olivier Temam did not respond to an email requesting comment. Since July 2018 he has worked at Google — a somewhat ironic move given the context.
Under the guidance of Google’s former AI chief, Fei-Fei Li (李飞飞), the company opened an AI lab in China. Aside from meeting Google’s own research needs, the institution will without doubt also help fertilize China’s own AI ambitions and talent.
Li, born in Beijing in 1976, immigrated to the United States at 16 and went on to gain a BS from Princeton and a PhD from Caltech. She was appointed as AI leader and Chief Scientist at Google while on sabbatical from Stanford where she was a full professor, and while there became among the most outspoken opponents of Google cooperating with the Pentagon.
“Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI — if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Li wrote in an internal email seen by The New York Times.
But Silicon Valley, for one reason or another, does not seem to be as intent on opposing all forms of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and its appurtenances.
Google recently discontinued its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, saying that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles,” but it has shown no qualms developing the Dragonfly search engine, in cooperation with the Chinese government, which would aid the official internet censorship regime. Meanwhile, Google has been recommending security keys manufactured by a Chinese company that has deep ties with the PLA and government.
Matthew Robertson is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He was previously a translator and editor with China Change.
Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’, Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018.
Video: Six Policemen Came to the Home of a Young Woman at Night and Seized Her for Interrogation [Subtitled]
China Change, August 28, 2018
This 3-minute video has gone viral on Twitter the last couple of days. It’s not a movie; it’s an everyday reality in China that’s seldom captured on record. We, as many people do, know it’s a commonality, but the video somehow sends chills down the spine.
The video emerged on Twitter on August 26. The event supposedly occurred late night on August 23 in Shenzhen, and the police came from Shajing police station (沙井派出所) for this young woman named Chen Guixiang. She’s an average Chinese, not an activist or a dissident. She posted or said something online, and the police arrived to take her to the station for an interrogation.
It appears that she knew they were coming — it’s likely that she had already resisted prior orders from the police. She set up a hidden cellphone and recorded the scene.
On Monday, a reporter from Voice of America’s Chinese service called Shajing police station in Shenzhen. A woman officer who answered the phone said she didn’t know about the incident, and a male officer huffed at the reporter, telling him that it was “ridiculous” to call the police station.
China Change has uploaded the video and provided English-language subtitles. Below is a transcription in English:
[Woman] What’s going on??
[Police] Take your ID out.
[Police] We’re coming in to look around a bit.
[Woman] I don’t have my ID here.
[Police] What’s your name?
[Police] What is your identification number?
[Woman says her name; inaudible]
[Police] You’re the one we’re looking for.
[Woman] Why are you coming to my home this late? What’s going on?
[Police] You come with us and we’ll discuss it.
[Woman] Why should I?
[Police] Because we’re the police.
[Woman] So just like that you can take people away for no reason?
[Police] Yeah — so what?
[Woman] Do you have any identification?
[Police] What ID do you want?
[Woman] Or an arrest warrant??
[Police] We’re not arresting you now, we just want to have a chat, OK?
[Police] We want you to come to the station with us.
[Woman] On what basis?
[Police] On what basis? We’ll tell you in the station.
[Woman] I need the reason now.
[Police] I don’t have to tell you now.
[Woman] So why would I go with you?
[Police] So do you think the three of us can’t take you away?
[Woman] You’re illegally entering a citizen’s residence!
[Police] This isn’t illegal.
[Woman] Then show me proof of this, I’ll take a look.
[Police] What kind of evidence do we need?
[Police, largely inaudible] We’ll take you to the police station and show you, no problem.
[Woman] Why do you want to interrogate me? I haven’t broken any law.
[Police] So what were you up to online?
[Woman] What I was doing online??
[Police] What did you post online?
[Woman] What did I post? I didn’t post anything.
[Police] You didn’t publish anything? Then come with us.
[Woman] Why should I?
[Police] How dare you!? [and says her name, which is inaudible]
[Police mumbling, shouting]: ‘Cooperate, cooperate!’
[Woman] How can you just come in like that?
[Police shouts] Are you gonna cooperate or not?
[Police inaudible; demands she cooperate; says they’re going to take her away.]
[Police shouts] Either you come with us or we’ll force you!
[Woman] What is going on here?
[Police crosstalk] Just cooperate. We’re doing an investigation.
[Woman] I didn’t break the law!
[Police interrupts] You’re not the one who decides whether you broke the law!
[Police] What nonsense did you write online?
[Woman] So many of you breaking into my home…
[Police] Take her away!
[Police] Don’t reason with her!
[Police directs his colleague to drag her out]
[Woman] All of you breaking into the house of a woman, what’s going on here?
[Police] Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
[Woman] What are you doing?!
[Woman] What is this? How can you do this?
[Woman] I have absolutely no sense of safety.
[Woman] You’re breaking the law!
[Woman] This is against the law.
[Police] We’re enforcing the law, not breaking the law.
[Police] I hope you’ll cooperate with our investigation.
Support Our Work
At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.
Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’
Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018
“Our goal is to make sure that any user facing an increased risk of online attacks enrolls in the Advanced Protection Program.” — Dario Salice, Advanced Protection Product Manager at Google.
Journalists and dissidents involved in Chinese affairs are accustomed to every so often receiving a pop-up banner on their Gmail from Google informing them that “state-sponsored attackers” may have been attempting to gain access to their accounts. To guard against such intrusions, Google suggests signing up for its Advanced Protection Program.
The Advanced Protection Program involves using a pair of security keys that can be purchased on Amazon. The problem? Google recommends a product — the Feitian MultiPass FIDO Security Key — manufactured in China, by a Chinese company that is part of an “IT-Military Alliance” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Its chief of research and development of over 16 years is a former member of the PLA. And it does the vast majority of its business selling security hardware to Chinese state banks.
Google unveiled its Advanced Protection Program in October 2017 as reported by The New York Times. But the report did not explore the extensive relationships between the Chinese supplier, Beijing Feitian Chengxin Technology Co., Ltd., and the Chinese government.
Security keys like the Feitian MultiPass are an implementation of public key cryptography — the most well known version of which is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) — in hardware form. They are a form of two-factor authentication that allow an individual with the key and the password to access an account; if either is missing, access is denied. The introduction of hardware to the security equation makes access safe from phishing, social engineering, and even attacks on cell phones that intercept temporary security keys sent via SMS.
It is unclear how feasible it may be for Chinese intelligence and military actors to install a backdoor in or otherwise compromise the hardware. But if the hardware manufacturer is mobbed up with one of the most sophisticated offensive cyber actors in the world, the “world’s worst abuser of internet freedom” according to Freedom House, and a country where a private company can never say no to government demand, the question arises: Can it be safe?
China Change examined security filings, advertisements, periodicals, and media reports to build a mosaic of the interlocking relationships between Chinese state organs and Feitian Chengxin (飞天诚信股份有限公司). The image that emerges does not appear encouraging for the computer security of Chinese dissidents and others who may be using the product.
Feitian was set up by four friends, three of whom were 1992 computer science graduates of Northern Jiaotong University (now Beijing Jiaotong University 北京交通大学): among them Huang Yu (黄煜), the current chairman, Li Wei (李伟), the general manager, and Lu Zhou (陆舟) their chief engineer. Han Xuefeng (韩雪峰), a middle-school friend of Huang Yu, was recruited from a computer job in the Ministry of Railways to form the company with them. The four continue to own the majority of the company’s shares.
The company was founded in 1998 at the beginning of a technology and internet boom in China. It has since become “the No.1 supplier of user authentication and transaction security for China Online Banking,” according to its website, employing 850 staff and serving thousands of businesses in 100 countries.
As Feitian grew, so too did its ties to official China. By 2015, the conference room in its main Beijing campus had a wall full of awards and certifications from Chinese government departments.
Dominance in the state bank market
The foundation of Feitian’s business in China has been in providing security fobs to state banks.
Lucrative contracts with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (the country’s largest) and China Merchants Bank were its first major orders in 2003, though it sat lower down in the food chain at that point, only able to operate as the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for another brand.
By 2014, 85% of the company’s revenue was coming from state banks, and Feitian was among the top three such vendors by revenue in the country.
State information security a ‘precious business opportunity’
In 2003 the company joined the “IT-Military Alliance” (计算机世界科技拥军联盟) upon its founding. The event was hosted by the Network Infrastructure Department of the PLA’s General Armaments Department, along with other official organizations.
Only 12 companies formed the IT-Military Alliance. The founding ceremony was marketed as an opportunity for industry to present tribute to the PLA in celebration of the 76th year since its founding. Feitian notes on its website that “the head of the General Armaments Department expressed a deep interest in Feitian’s products,” and that “Feitian will inevitably provide earnest service to the giant military market under the grand strategy of ‘civil-military integration,’ and thus do our bit to help the construction of the nation’s informatized defensive infrastructure!”
Though it is unclear when in 2003 Feitian won its first contract with ICBC, it is difficult not to imagine that its involvement with the PLA — irresistible though it may have been — helped in forging such relationships. Its approval and verification by the State Cryptography Administration in 2004 was also flagged as a “key milestone.”
Already successful with banks in 2003, Feitian’s chief of research and development told the media in 2003 that the next areas of growth would be military and departments and offices for classified information (机要部门).
The logic was obvious to Feitian executives: “As government procurement strengthens and priority is given to domestic products, our country’s state information security will be pushed forward considerably, and this is a precious business opportunity for the vast field of security companies.”
It is difficult to find public information on the extent of that line of business. The company’s technology has however been certified as “military-use information security products.”
In 2006, the company was awarded over one million yuan from a fund for new technology set up by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “This is the country’s strong affirmation of Feitian Co., and a thorough recognition of its technological prowess, project management capacity, and reputation,” said an announcement in the scientific press at the time. Later in the year the company’s tech was declared “A New Important National Product” (国家重点新产品) by a number of government departments.
From 2007 onwards, Feitian was selected to provide a smart card identity recognition system (智能网络身份认证系统) as part of the Torch Program, China’s national plan to develop its high-technology industrial base.
The company is part of a Smartcard Intellectual Property Alliance, a kind of government-industry group associated with the Beijing Municipal Intellectual Property Rights Bureau. A member of the Bureau’s Party Group (党组) presided over the alliance’s founding ceremony, on the basis that “the smartcard security industry concerns national information security and is an area of high-technology strongly supported by Beijing.”
Since 2009 Feitian has been listed in numerous databases maintained by the Ministry of Public Security among the accepted providers of identity recognition systems. The list contains only Chinese companies trusted by the state, among them Huawei.
The company has also be the recipient of praise from former vice minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陈智敏) and other public and information security cadres, who are said to have expressed “excellent regard” for the company’s security management, and identification security.
Perhaps most notably, since 2002 its research and development chief has been Yu Huazhang (于华章), a graduate of the PLA’s Information Engineering University and for the first seven years of his career an assistant researcher in the PLA’s General Staff Department. In April 2010, he became a 1% shareholder in the company. He is also a vice general manager.
The company and its key engineers won third prize (among many others) in the 2014 Beijing Municipal Technology Awards for “Application and operating system research and development for a chip in a visible-button smart security card” (可视按键型智能密码钥匙片内操作系统研发与应用) which sounds similar to the product being vended for Google’s enhanced security.
Then there are the numerous exhibitions of official fealty on Feitian’s website, each not particularly significant taken on its own, but as a collection making clear that the company knows which way the wind blows. As a matter of routine, Feitian engages in activities like the following:
- Hosting workshops for Chinese academicians to explicate the “spirit” of a series of Xi Jinping’s important speeches in order to “implement and carry out” the political directives resultant from the 18th Party Congress;
- Hosting tours of officials studying at the Party School;
- Advertising its award for “important contributions” to information security given by the Party-Government Password Science & Technology Progress Award Assessment Committee (yes).
The company has been relatively profitable. Within its first year or so it had booked five million yuan in revenue, at gross profit of nearly 50%; by 2014 when it went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange its revenues were just over one billion yuan, 250 million yuan profit. (Its stock has been cut nearly in half since April 2018, however, due to “an inexplicable explosion in all manner of costs.”) In 2003 it occupied around 50% of the market for USB security keys, a dominance that it has likely grown since.
The company has sought to expand overseas for at least a decade, in 2007 noting on its website that “Feitian’s ePass identification authentication products have been adopted by governments, banks, and others around the world. We have won a strong reputation as an independent Chinese company with our own intellectual property striding onto the world stage in information security.”
It is difficult to gather data on the extent of those expansion efforts — though the recommendation by Google speaks well to at least a partial success.
But does this compromise user security?
It goes without saying that almost everything we have documented above is simply part and parcel of Chinese companies doing business in China — in particular in a sensitive sector like information and network security, and especially when doing large business with state banks. When the PLA invites your company to join in the “earnest celebration” of its anniversary, present gifts, and join its industrial “alliance,” you don’t respectfully decline.
The same would obtain if the company were ever approached by military or civilian intelligence and instructed to install backdoors in its security fobs, according to Tom Uren, a visiting fellow in the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Companies in China aren’t able to refuse to engage in intelligence activities. This is laid out very clearly in Article 7 of China’s new 2017 National Intelligence Law,” Uren wrote in an email.
The law states: “All organizations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of. The state will protect individuals and organizations that support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.”
A Chinese information security business has no choice in the matter. The question then becomes how feasible it is for the security device to be weakened or tampered with. At the very least, there is an obvious opportunity at the level of firmware — the software layer coded into a device that controls its hardware — for an adversary to create mischief.
“The firmware matters a lot, and that looks like why Google is planning to replace the firmware on their whitelabeled Feitian keys,” says Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, a New York-based computer security firm.
This refers to Google’s ‘Titan’ security keys, which appear to be Feitian hardware with Google’s own firmware. On its Advanced Protection Program page, however, Google links users directly to Feitian’s own website, not to the Titan keys with Google’s own firmware.
"Google builds its own hardware security keys."
You mean "Google sells Feitian security keys under its own brand name"? pic.twitter.com/V2RgoEkPiV
— Luc Van Braekel (@lvb) July 25, 2018
“Attackers will tend to use the easiest method to achieve their goals,” says Tom Uren. “Is compromising the Feitian security key supply chain the easiest way? Maybe. Phishing is certainly the easiest/cheapest way to hack data currently and security keys significantly reduce its effectiveness. It will certainly be an avenue that Chinese intelligence would have to consider if security keys are widely used by people of interest to them.”
The means by which attackers could gain unauthorized access through the keys are potentially numerous, including complex methods of introducing flaws in the cryptography or its implementation. Markus Vervier, a computer security researcher, has documented vulnerabilities in some implementations of U2F (universal two factor authentication). His work was not in reference to Feitian.
Yubico, a Swedish-founded company and Google’s other suggested vendor of U2F products, seems to have previously made a veiled suggestion as to the potential vulnerability of its competitor. CEO Stina Ehrensvard wrote on the company’s blog: “Yubico strongly believes there are security and privacy benefits for our customers by manufacturing and programming our products in the USA and Sweden.” The company declined to comment for this article.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. The FIDO Alliance, an organization that certifies hardware (and which has certified Feitian) for implementing the security protocols used in U2F products, did not respond to a request for comment. Feitian did not respond to a request for comment.
One security researcher refused to comment because it’s “obvious” that backdoors could be put into hardware at the manufacturing stage, and his team didn’t want to single out any particular country.
Perhaps the simplest test of the security of the Feitian keys is a gut check: would security experts themselves use them?
“No,” wrote Tom Uren. “I use Yubico keys.”
 亲历者说：“小乌鸡”如何变成“金凤凰” 中关村股权交易服务集团有限公司组织编写. 创客时代 亲历者讲创业. 2016
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 2007: http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn/2/c100933/201402/72b304fcfb264910977d831759d23d9e.shtml; 2009: http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn/2/dddtt/200908/63f169a86da8411d804c555cb53767d9.shtml; 2011: http://www.most.gov.cn/tztg/201110/W020111013381125627477.pdf; 2016: http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn/2/c100924/201611/f2e7a55aef2847b8a3d578d6ec19c6ec.shtml
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Google Advanced Protection Program: How to lock down your account (Google takes aim at “targeted” online attacks. Here’s everything you need to know about the new security option — including whether you should use it), CNet, October 17, 2017.
GOOGLE STAFF TELL BOSSES CHINA CENSORSHIP IS “MORAL AND ETHICAL” CRISIS, The Intercept, August 16, 2018.
GOOGLE EXECUTIVES MISLED STAFF IN MEETING ON CHINA CENSORSHIP. HERE ARE 13 QUESTIONS THEY MUST ANSWER. The Intercept, August 17, 2018.
New Gmail feature could open more users to phishing risks: Government officials, ABC News, July 17, 2018.
Support Our Work
At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.
Yaxue Cao, April 17, 2018
On April 10, China’s State Administration of Radio and Television ordered the permanent closure of the Neihan Duanzi (translated roughly as ‘quirky skits’) app and website. In its announcement, the authorities denounced the app and its public WeChat account as having an “improper orientation and vulgar style” that supposedly “evoked the great disgust of netizens.” Though the Chinese government has closed numerous popular entertainment websites over the last couple of years, the targeting of Neihan Duanzi triggered a storm of discontent, and observers said that the authorities had “stirred up a hornet’s nest.” The episode has brought to wider attention a large, little-known group in society, and observers are trying to grapple with its social and political significance.
Neihan Duanzi is primarily a mobile app on which users share inside jokes and absurdist videos. The platform first appeared on the website ‘Today’s Headlines’ (今日头条), also known in its pinyin form ‘Jinri Toutiao’ or Toutiao, in May 2012. The parent company that created both the app and the website, Bytedance, writes on its homepage that “We are building the future of content discovery and creation.” Neihan Duanzi was in fact the first product of Toutiao, predates the latter by three months, and quickly recruited the app’s first group of users. By 2017, Bytedance, established just five years prior, had leapt to number 41 on the official list of China’s Top 100 Internet Companies.
Neihan Duanzi encompasses a variety of short video sketches (funny, moving, musical, playful, and cute videos), genius retorts or responses (脑洞神评论, highlighted comments on Neihan Duanzi), hilarious images, and humorous sketches of all taste and manner.
The joke culture in China is a huge market. According to Bigdata Research’s 2nd quarter 2017 China joke app market research report, as of the end of June there were over 28 million users of these apps, a year on year growth rate of 5.7%. Bigdata Research notes that in July 2017 Neihan Duanzi was the most popular in this universe of apps, with 21.7 million users. Searching for ‘Neihan Duanzi’ in QQ groups, another popular Chinese social media platform, shows hundreds of chat groups dedicated to it.
Toutiao boasts a market value of over $20 billion. With its combination of data mining and AI algorithms that draw on user profiles and interests, its apps make targeted recommendations for news, music, movies, and games, and attract a massive inflow of users. Toutiao currently reports having 600 million active users, with 120 million daily actives.
Protests by ‘Skit Friends’
Neihan Duanzi’s enormous user base skews young. They call themselves ‘skit friends’ (段友), and organize ‘skit gatherings’ (段友会) in many cities, big and small, in China. They have formed their own online and offline communities, and have their own coded language. Many of them have Neihan Duanzi-inspired bumper stickers, sold by numerous merchants on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Ebay.
Videos shot by Neihan Duanzi users show the amusement they derive from greeting one another with coded messages in public: beeping, opening car trunks, and citing their codes back and forth. Some of the best known phrases include the likes of: “When skit friends go to battle, the grass ceases to grow” (段友出征，寸草不生); “Beer and crayfish, skit friends are one family” (啤酒小龙虾，段友是一家); or “Heaven king conquers earth tiger, chicken stews with mushrooms” (天王盖地虎，小鸡炖蘑菇).
Clearly, these interactions are a source of tremendous enjoyment and entertainment for the participants.
After Neihan Duanzi was closed, videos of previous gatherings of skit friends began to be shared widely online. Several of them show the remarkable scene of dozens of cars arrayed in formation late at night, together sounding out the calling card of the community: ‘Beep. Beep beep.’
According to Radio Free Asia, protests against the closure of the platform have taken place in Nantong (南通), Changsha (长沙), Yingkou (营口), Wuxi (无锡), Beijing (北京), and elsewhere. Protesters use the ‘beep, beep beep’ signal to initiate communication, which is met with response beeps and double blinking of car lights. Footage of the public events is often shot with drones and uploaded (here, here, and here.)
During a skit friend assembly of unclear date in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, about 200 people formed a circle and, like the students of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, held their cellphones aloft as torches and sang. The chosen piece of the night was popular singer Wang Jianfang’s ‘On Earth’ (王建房《在人间》):
Maybe I can’t win over Heaven and Earth.
Maybe I’ll hang my head and weep.
Maybe a June snowfall will enter my heart.
There’ll be a Berlin Wall I can’t get over.
Suffering will neighbor me all my days.
What has the grand era already snatched from you?
Who lives on earth as though it’s not a prison?
I won’t cry. I’ve no more dignity to abandon.
When the day comes that those dreams drown in the crowds
Don’t be sad, let them go, and sing this song at the funeral.
‘On Earth’ has come to be known as the theme song of Neihan Duanzi, and renditions of it have been widely spread on the platform (here, for example).
The CEO’s Apology
On April 11, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) issued “Apologies and Reflections.” “Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its ‘Neihan Duanzi’ app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].”
His confession confirms that the real reason for shutting down the app is political — what young people are consuming and how they are entertain themselves are not to the liking of the Party. “We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.”
The young CEO with an engineering background promised to “[strengthen] the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the ‘four consciousnesses,’ socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.”
He also promise to strengthen content review by humans, raising the current number of review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons. That is, for each person hired for content production, almost two are hired for review and sales, according to one report.
Last week, Xinhua published an editorial criticizing the online viral video as an entertainment form, saying: “In a society where it’s easier and easier to get clicks, at the same time that internet videos give the public novel experiences, because some of the content has no bottom line, some of these clicks spread poison and harm the public, especially young people.”
The same editorial cited an unnamed ‘expert’ who said: “These internet video websites get hundreds of millions of viewers, allowing ‘demons and goblins’ to warp the value system of adolescents, turning it into a trend to imitate and copy.”
An April 13 (unverified) work instruction from the Changsha Municipal Public Security Bureau Intelligence Command Center was circulated online, saying that four gatherings of ‘skit friends’ took place on April 11 in the city, and that the provincial public security bureau demands “public security organs in every locale engage in a thorough search for an evidentiary trail and online detection work, prevent assemblies that would lead to hype and unstable factors.”
As for skit friends gathering on the streets or in public spaces, the Zhejiang Haimen Public Security Bureau said in an April 8 announcement: “Any citizens convening crowd-style assembly activities must act strictly according to legal provisions,” or else “public security organs will pursue legal responsibility against the responsible parties.” The notice invoked “Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations” (《中华人民共和国集会游行示威法》) the “Road Traffic Safety Law” (《中华人民共和国道路交通安全法》), and the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” (《中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法》).
Chinese young people generally pay scant attention to politics and they have been criticized for ‘amusing themselves to death.’ But entertainment has, it appears, come to give the Communist Party a severe headache. Using the phraseology of Xinhua, the jokers are seen as ‘demons and goblins’; their whimsical, irreverent attitude is seen as a strong rejection of autocratic authority and control. Perhaps, inside the ruling party, this movement has given rise to a strong sense of unease — not to mention that the style of humor itself is at times imbued with the implicit wish for freedom and dignity. We could even say that these young people are a ‘new form’ of Chinese person, the first generation to have been born and come of age entirely in the era of reform and opening up. They are the digital generation. They seem to take a great deal of pride in their own idiosyncratic way of life.
The news outlet Duowei, whose political allegiances have always been ambiguous, cited unidentified ‘voices’ who explained that the fundamental reason the Communist Party shut down Neihan Duanzi is because the app’s user base had begun to look like an embryonic political movement. Users are spread across China’s provinces, in small-, large-, and medium-sized cities; they come from all walks of life; they have formed their own community, with attendant slogans, signals, and an initial form of behavioral standards (such as the ‘three don’t laughs’: no laughing at natural disasters, no laughing at man-made disasters, and no laughing at illness). Between them, skit friends have a strong sense of cohesion, identity, belonging, and group honor. One of their slogans is ‘skit friends are one big family,’ and ‘if you’re in trouble, find a skit friend.’ The Party is afraid of all of this.
Searching on Baidu for + (城市+段友会) brings up related organizations almost anywhere. On rear windshields and car bumpers in cities around the country, Neihan Duanzi slogans can be seen. Photographs and videos from their meetings indicate that skit friends often have their own vehicles, and sometimes camera-equipped drones. In some cities they even have clubhouses.
It’s being pointed out that these skit friends grew up on shoot-em-up video games. Now that they have a chance for real conflict, they think it’s exciting. Shutting down Neihan Duanzi shows these young people the pain of having their freedom stripped away — it’s that simple.
The Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡) gave an example of shooting oneself in the foot on Twitter: “Before the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak lost power, the Egyptian government at one point cut off the internet, leading to countless people who were happy to be at home playing video games to take to the streets… everyone knows what happened next.”
Dissident writer Hu Ping (胡平) noted that “Xi Jinping doesn’t like ‘vulgarity’ among the masses, and wants to force men, young and old, to all be ideologically acceptable to the Party. This is a peculiarity of totalitarianism. Vulgarity is an important part of life, and if the regular people in society still have the space to enjoy humor, it means that the power of the state has not yet infiltrated everything and everywhere.”
Another dissident and author Li Xuewen (黎学文) believes that, “simply in the context of China’s new totalitarianism, the slogans and activities of Neihan Duanzi users set a worthy example for all who oppose the regime. Relying on internet culture to create a set of mobilization slogans is highly novel; and with a few horn beeps crowds can be gathered, as the symbols of an online community are shared and used as codes for mobilization — these qualities have not been seen in any mainland resistance movement to date.”
An Twitter user in Changsha said that on Tuesday when he was out walking in the evening, he spotted two cars near his home with ‘Neihan Duanzi’ and ‘Douyin’ (抖音, another app by Toutiao) stickers.
Another Chinese Twitter user, location unknown, posted on Friday: “Today I personally heard skit friends beeping at each other. One can feel the undercurrent. Maybe a big era has begun just like that.”
Beep. Beep beep.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
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