China's Annual Parliament Ends Amid 'Tightest Internet Controls Yet'

2017-03-15
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Young Chinese netizens play online games at an internet cafe in Qingdao, eastern China's Shandong province, June 1, 2016.
Young Chinese netizens play online games at an internet cafe in Qingdao, eastern China's Shandong province, June 1, 2016.
ImagineChina

China's annual parliament, which closed on Wednesday, was marked by stricter-than-usual controls on what the country's 720 million internet users can see or post online, activists have told RFA.

Many of the more outspoken members of the popular chat network QQ had their accounts shut down at the start of March, with fresh accounts also deleted soon after they were set up, Guangzhou-based writer Xu Lin said.

"My QQ has been shut down twice in recent days," Xu said. "The first time, they shut down three QQ accounts of mine at the same time, all of which had been in continuous use."

"I applied for another ... but that was deleted a couple of days ago after I wrote a song and posted it on [QQ's] Shuoshuo space."

A social media account holder who gave only her surname Huang said she had been unable to send out a long post via her Twitter-like social media account.

"I tried to send it using the headline function but it just resulted in a white screen as soon as I pushed the button," Huang said. "The draft was gone, too."

"They used to save the draft at least before if it didn't let you send something," she said. "After that, there was a lot of deletion of posts on our circle of friends [on the smartphone messaging app WeChat]."

Some netizens complained that the internet was basically under lock down during the National People's Congress (NPC) annual session in Beijing, which ran from March 5-15.

"They delete my account. I set up a new account, and so it goes on. Resistance is futile," one user quipped on Sina Weibo.

Suzhou-based rights activist Pan Lu said reports had emerged that several million social media accounts had been shut down during the NPC session.

"As soon as the parliamentary sessions started, there was a social media crackdown on anything to do with human rights, democracy or constitutional politics," Pan said.

"Large numbers of accounts and groups on QQ and WeChat were shut down, in a mass cleansing of the system through deletion. I heard that several million accounts were closed."

Pan said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is unable to tolerate any form of power other than itself.

"They don't even allow civil society to debate [their policies and actions] ... This parliament had nothing at all to do with democracy or constitutional government, and even less to do with ordinary Chinese people," Pan said.

Chengdu-based rights activist Huang Xiaomin said internet access in the southwestern province of Sichuan had been similar to a total shutdown in recent days.

"Local officials are under huge pressure from Beijing and they really go to town on the controls on the internet," Huang Xiaomin said. "They are very, very nervous, and super-sensitive."

"They take offense at the tiniest things. It's as if they no longer have any confidence in their ability to run the country."

Parliamentarians respond

Even China's normally tame parliamentarians have complained about the government's stranglehold grip on its netizens via the system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.

The vice-chairman of the NPC's advisory body Luo Fuhe called on March 1 for easier access to non-political overseas web content, but was met with a rapid response from the party's propaganda ministry.

His call was rapidly censored in a directive to media editors, although it merely echoed repeated complaints from academics and scientists in recent months.

"All websites, please find and delete reports and posts on Luo Fuhe’s 'Proposal to Improve and Increase Speed of Access to Foreign Websites' as soon as possible," the March 4 directive, leaked to the U.S.-based China Digital Times website, ordered.

More than 99 percent of NPC deputies on Wednesday approved Premier Li Keqiang's work report, in a political environment where approval votes for the work of government ministers are almost always about 90 percent.

NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang also reiterated the parliament's support for President Xi Jinping at the "core" of party leadership, an accolade which analysts say shows the president is continuing to concentrate power in his own hands.

But rights activist Chen Defu of the Guizhou Human Rights Forum said the NPC's votes are meaningless.

"NPC votes are basically meaningless, because the central government doesn't permit the existence of any political opposition," Chen said.

"This vote was just for show, to go through the motions; the high percentage doesn't in any way reflect public opinion," he said.

Typo punished

And as the parliament ended, two senior editors and a journalist at the Puyang Daily News in the central province of Henan were punished after a character was omitted from Premier Li's name in a headline.

Sub-editor Yang Dengfeng was fined 200 yuan (U.S. $29), while his team leader received a fine of 1,000 yuan (U.S. $145) and was forced to write a self-criticism after the "qiang" character, which means "strong", was omitted from Li's name.

Reports said editor in chief Zhang Guang and editorial board president Meng Jin had been suspended or dismissed.

An employee who answered the phone at the Puyang Daily News editorial department on Wednesday appeared to confirm the incident.

"He's not been at work for the past couple of days," the employee said, when asked for one of the sanctioned editors, Wu Yuzhong.

Asked if Wu had been suspended, the employee said: "They are being dealt with by the higher-ups, at the municipal level at least, that's for sure."

Pressed for further details, the employee said: "I don't know, no comment."

A veteran journalist who declined to be named said that the typo should be a minor incident, but in today's political climate, such things are being blown out of all proportion.

"In today's climate, you'd be lucky not to get bumped off for this sort of thing," the journalist said. "It shows that local officials are ... being very quick to report things like this to higher levels of government."

Reported by Yang Fan and Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Lee Lai for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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