As the British government encourages trade with China, much is being written in the Western media about the widespread corruption of state officials. Less is known about the courageous writers, journalists and bloggers in China who attempt to expose that corruption and are increasingly prosecuted and imprisoned for their outspokenness.
According to Human Rights Watch, between late March and late May, 15 anti-corruption activists in Beijing and Jiangxi province were detained after organising demonstrations calling for government officials to publicly disclose their assets. Since 7 May, ten of them have been formally arrested. The charges against them include ‘illegal assembly’, ‘inciting subversion of state power’, ‘disturbing social order’ and ‘extortion’. The crime of inciting subversion carries up to 15 years in prison, while the other crimes have a penalty of 5 years or more. ‘When President Xi Jinping calls for a tough response to corruption it’s hailed as innovative policy, but when ordinary people say the same in public, his government regards it as subversion,’ reports Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director.
Despite its promises to combat corruption, the Chinese government continues to persecute writers and journalists who attempt to expose bribery, fraud and patronage. The Communist Party launched an anti-rumour campaign in the summer that was clearly aimed at limiting freedom of information and expression. Now, under Article 246 of the criminal code, any ‘defamatory’ or ‘rumour-spreading’ online content that is viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times could result in a sentence of up to 3 years in prison for the person who originally posted it. Any online messages or content that lead to ‘demonstrations, ethnic or religious clashes, deterioration in the country’s image or negative international consequences’ are also to be treated as crimes.
One prominent victim of the recent crackdown is investigative journalist and blogger Liu Hu. Liu writes for the Guangzhou-based daily Xin Kuai Bao (‘Modern Express’). On 30 September, Liu was charged with ‘fabricating and spreading rumours’ after posting comments about alleged corruption on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
On 29 July, Liu had posted a note on his account about Ma Zhengqi, deputy director of state administration for industry and commerce, accusing him of neglecting his duties while party secretary in Chongqing and being involved in corruption. Liu claimed Ma had refused to conduct an investigation into the privatisation of two state-owned companies and that this had resulted in considerable losses for the state. Liu also levelled accusations against Shaanxi province’s police chief. He was arrested on 24 August and his Weibo account was closed. Police searched his home and confiscated computer hard drives and laptops. Liu is currently being held in Beijing. His lawyer has only been able to meet him in the presence of police officers and insists that Liu has evidence to support his allegations.
Another silenced voice is businessman and microblogger Dong Rubin, who uses the pseudonym bianmin (‘frontiersman’). He runs an internet consulting company and has over 50,000 online followers. Since 2009, Dong has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese authorities. He famously challenged them after they claimed that a man who died in police custody was killed while playing a game of hide-and-seek with other inmates. Dong participated in a campaign contesting the official explanation, which led to an inquiry and the conviction of two policemen. He has continued to highlight other controversial issues in China by writing about them. In May, he supported hundreds of Kunming residents who challenged their mayor, Li Wenrong, in a rare public protest against the construction of a petrochemical plant.
In September, Dong was arrested for exaggerating the amount of capital available to his company. He had admitted this in a blog post and claimed that he expected to be detained after his company offices were raided without any warrant and an employee was taken away for questioning. Many believe that his detention is part of the recent crackdown on bloggers critical of the authorities.
Wu Dong, a Shanghai-based lawyer, told the state-owned Global Times:
It is common for private enterprises to exaggerate their registered capital to imply that they are powerful and credible … Owners of such companies can be charged with a crime only if they cause financial damages of more than 100,000 yuan to others or carry on illicit activities.
Over the past decade, I have written repeatedly in these pages about Chinese bloggers and writers who have been given lengthy prison terms, often on trumped-up charges, for exercising their right to peaceful free expression. If anything, the climate for free expression appears to be worsening. Reporters Without Borders claim that the anti-rumour campaign will cause a rise in self-censorship in China and that it is meant ‘to deter journalists and netizens from investigating embezzlement and other illegal practices by officials protected by the party’.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Liu Hu, Dong Rubin and all the anti-corruption activists currently detained in China in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory, and Article 35 of its own constitution.
Appeals should be addressed to:
His Excellency Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981
Please request that your letter be forwarded to the authorities in China.