Overseas Chinese critics learned a harsh lesson this weekend: it’s not safe to criticize China anywhere, even if you live in a Western democracy. Cao Yaxue, founder and editor of ChinaChang.org, alerted Twitter through a thread that this is now happening:
#Developing A large number of Chinese @Twitter accounts are being suspended today. They “happen” to be accounts critical of China, both inside and outside China. @TwitterSupport @TwitterForGood pic.twitter.com/GHYRkofK9v
— #六四不吃饭 (@YaxueCao) May 31, 2019
The number of accounts affected are in the thousands and those account owners outside China spread from the United States to Europe. Some netizens call this suspension a social media massacre. It even caught the attention of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), who tweeted:
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) June 1, 2019
Twitter later explained that the suspension was part of their routine effort to shut down “spam, inauthentic behavior and ban evasion.” Twitter admits “sometimes our routine actions catch false positives or we make errors. We apologize.” It insists the inclusion of China critics’ accounts was not demanded by Chinese authorities. Yet many Chinese dissidents and China watchers don’t buy it.
Something Doesn’t Add Up
For one, the timing of such suspensions is suspicious. It seems to be a coordinated effort by China’s cyber censors to shut down critics leading up to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese government brutally cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, resulting in a death toll of hundreds to thousands (exact figures remain unknown).
Since then, the Chinese government has ruthlessly suppressed any mention of the event online and offline, and any public commemorative activities inside China. It also has constantly harassed and intimidated activists and sympathizers into silence. This strategy is so successful that new generations of Chinese growing up have zero knowledge of what truly happened at Tiananmen.
Thirty years later, China is a much more repressive authoritarian state than it was in 1989. A small number of Chinese activists inside China have used virtual private networks (VPNs) or special software to get over China’s internet firewall so they can access sites like Twitter. Chinese censors know who they are.
Anyone who posts any message critical of China on these foreign social media platforms is subject to interrogation or even detention. Chinese censors also are known to intensify internet crackdowns during especially sensitive times, such as the anniversary of Tiananmen. So the suspension of those users inside China is something to be expected.
But the last weekend’s massive account suspension affected many Chinese dissidents living outside of China. They suspect Chinese censors tracked them down, posing as Twitter users, then filed complaints against them. Twitter usually suspends an account if it receives a sufficient number of complaints. It seems China is no longer satisfied that it has 1.4 billion people—a quarter of the world population—firmly under its control. It wants to police what’s said outside of China too.
Glenn Tiffert, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute, explains that China under President Xi Jinping, “Isn’t just trying to bury a set of inconvenient truths and facts, but is trying to construct a new narrative” to ensure the Communist Party’s legitimacy. That overarching goal explains why we see Chinese censors extend their long arm overseas and attempt, in many cases, successfully, to impose a similar level of control on foreigners and overseas Chinese people. This is only the latest example of a long string of such attempts to control the narrative by suppressing free speech and silencing critics outside China.
China-Prompted Disinvitations and Harassment
In 2017, the United Kingdom’s Durham University students’ union invited Anastasia Lin, a former Miss World Canada and human rights activist, to speak at a debate on whether China was a threat to the West. A Chinese embassy official repeatedly called the union’s president Tom Harwood to ask him to disinvite Lin. The official even hinted that if “this debate went ahead, the U.K. might get less favorable trade terms after Brexit.”
In 2018, New Zealand professor Anne-Marie Brady, who wrote about China’s foreign influence, had to seek government security after suffering a yearlong harassment campaign by Chinese agents. More than 160 scholars and China watchers from around the world signed an open letter, urging the New Zealand government to protect Brady and condemning China’s “unprecedented attacks on foreign scholars.”
No one suffers more from China’s long arm than Chinese people who live overseas. In 2017, Yang Shuping, a Chinese student at the University of Maryland, gave a commencement address in which she praised America’s democracy and freedom, in contrast to oppression in China. The video of her speech went viral in China and immediately caused a backlash. The Chinese Students and Scholars’ Association (CSSA) at UM quickly put out a “proud of China” video campaign to discredit Yang. Later, an official from the D.C.-based Chinese Embassy praised UM CSSA’s response and encouraged other CSSAs at American universities to follow suit.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of Chinese immigrants in Canada. Many dared not to criticize the Chinese government openly, fearing “their job prospects, business opportunities and chances of going back to China would be affected or that their family members who remain in China would be in danger.” The fear of retribution is shared by Chinese people living overseas, from New York to Sydney.
Part of the reason the Chinese government’s fear campaign is effective is because Western companies, not wanting to lose access to China’s massive consumer market, have become willing accomplices, doing Chinese censors’ dirty work. Roy Jones of Omaha, Nebraska, a former customer service agent of Marriott, was fired by the company in January 2018 because he used an official company account to like a tweet from a Tibetan group. The tweet praised Marriott for listing Tibet as a country, not part of China, in a survey.
A month later, German automaker Mercedes-Benz had to apologize for “hurting the feelings” of the people of China for quoting the Dalai Lama on Instagram as saying “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” Since Chinese authorities view the Nobel Peace Prize winner as a separatist, they see any public recognition of him as a violation of China’s sovereignty. That is why British band Placebo got a “lifetime ban by the Ministry of Culture in China” after they posted a photo of the Dalai Lama on their Instagram account.
It’s worth noting that both Twitter and Instagram are banned in China, so ordinary Chinese citizens’ feelings are well protected since they have no access to these postings. These incidents show that Chinese censors are actively monitoring foreign media platforms and seeking to exert influence on what foreign companies can say on foreign soil. The fact that these companies quickly kowtow to such censorship is really disturbing. Their capitulation only emboldens Chinese censors to be more aggressive in their efforts to shut down any speech they don’t like abroad.
Here’s a time-tested truth: The more you give in to a bully, the more you will be bullied. The threat of Chinese censors outside China is real. No one should be left alone to fend for themselves because China is so powerful that it can easily intimidate businesses, institutions, and outspoken individuals outside China into conformity and silence.
Therefore, the only way to stop China from regulating our free speech on our own soil is that all of us, especially our politicians at all levels, need to take such threats seriously, stand up for businesses and individuals who are targeted, and respond to each incident forcefully by adhering to values we cherish.