Japan Detains Movement Leader to Silence Struggle Against US Military Bases

Originally published on 14 March 2017 at Waging Nonviolence. Here.

On October 17, Hiroji Yamashiro was arrested for cutting a wire fence at a protest against a U.S. military base in Okinawa. He has been held in detention ever since. Yamashiro, the chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, has been a fixture of the nonviolent opposition to military base expansion on the island for years.

The 64-year-old Yamashiro had undergone cancer treatment in 2015, and medical tests two months into his detention revealed a decline in his health. Nevertheless, since his arrest almost five months ago, he has been held in pre-trial detention — mostly in solitary confinement, denied bail and any contact with his family. Three days after his arrest, the authorities added additional charges of obstruction and assault. A third charge of obstruction was added a month later, for an incident that allegedly took place almost a year earlier.

The two others arrested with Yamashiro also remain in detention.

“Prosecutors have repeatedly gone through pre-trial procedures that are usually not required for petty offenses such as the ones Mr. Yamashiro is accused of, and every time they do that, the date of the first hearing has been pushed back,” explained one of Yamashiro’s lawyers, Shunji Miyake. “I think the prosecutors’ intention is clearly to prolong Mr. Yamashiro’s detention.”

Retired judge Isamu Nakasone agreed, saying, “It’s clear that the purpose of detaining him is to stop the anti-base protests … He took a central role in opposing the military base. His detention is a warning to others, just as construction enters a key phase.”

This January, Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign for his release, noting, “the arrest of Hiroji Yamashiro, a symbolic opposition figure, has had a chilling effect on others who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Some activists now hesitate to join the protest for fear of reprisals.”

At a press conference on February 18, six prefectural parliamentarians released a statement reiterating calls for Yamashiro’s immediate release. Their statement read, in part: “This is a political crackdown on the struggle in Henoko and Takae and nonviolent resistance by Uchinanchu [Okinawan people] who are seeking peace and the restoration of their dignity.”

Despite coordinated advocacy, the Japanese Supreme Court rejected an appeal last month for Yamashiro’s release, pending trial. The opening hearing is scheduled for March 17.

A history of resistance

Today, Okinawa hosts some 30 separate American military installations, some in densely populated areas, that are not popular with the local population.

Yamashiro was leading resistance against the relocation of a U.S. airbase from Futenma to Henoko Bay, which is particularly unpopular. According to one survey, 84 percent of Okinawans are in opposition.

In Okinawa resistance to the U.S. military presence has a long and complex history.

In 1952, Japan and the United States signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which ended post-war U.S. occupation of Japan but allowed for the retention of military control over Okinawa. By the time the United States returned overall administrative authority for Okinawa to Tokyo in 1972, 27 years of military occupation and impunity had left a deep impact and also a culture of civil resistance.

In 1955, amid widespread forced demolition and eviction at the hands of U.S. troops, Shoko Ahagon — who lived from 1901-2002 — began organizing Okinawans in resistance. Remembered by some today as the “Gandhi of Okinawa,” Ahagon, a Christian, was inspired by Gandhi’s struggle against British rule in India. In July 1955, Ahagon organized a seven-month march around the main island of Okinawa to raise awareness of mistreatment at the hands of U.S. forces. It was dubbed the “Beggars’ March” in local, U.S.-controlled media. Ahagon also drew up nonviolent principles for resisting the U.S. military that continued to influence the movement even after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, including Yamashiro, who adheres to them.

Some argue that Okinawa’s objection to U.S. military base construction is about more than uncompleted post-colonial independence.

Taisuke Komatsu, U.N. Advocacy Coordinator for the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, argues that the issue of U.S. military occupation is more about the structural discrimination Okinawans have suffered for decades. He described the situation as a slap in the face to a people who have been neglected by Tokyo for so long.

The delegitimization of Okinawan lives has been further exacerbated by a history of impunity for sexual violence perpetrated against the local population by U.S. military personnel, beginning in the 1950s when six-year-old Yumiko Nagayama was raped and murdered. Several high-profile cases in the intervening decades remain central tenants of anti-U.S. base grievances from Okinawans.

Looking at Tokyo’s present disregard for local civil and political opposition to further base construction reinforces Komatsu’s claims of second-class treatment by the central government.

In January 2013, all of Okinawa’s 41 municipal governors and members of its parliament submitted a petition to Tokyo to block the transfer of the U.S. airbase to Henoko Bay. The next year, rather than ceding to organized local opposition, Tokyo announced it would move forward with its plans.

Following the announcement, protests swelled to several thousand in September and October in 2014, although some had already been occupying the space since 1996, when the proposed relocation was first discussed. Activists swarmed the bay in kayaks. Others marched to nearby U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab. Campaigners organized speeches in which Okinawan legislators and others denounced the re-militarization of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ongoing discrimination of Okinawans. The authorities responded with disproportionate force.

In November 2014, Takeshi Onaga’s election as governor of Okinawa was seen as a victory for the peace movement. Onaga had campaigned on strict opposition to military base construction, unlike incumbent Gov. Nakaima who was sympathetic to base expansion. Before the election, a high-level cabinet secretary said the results of the election wouldn’t impact Tokyo’s plans, and in January 2015, Tokyo kept its promise, announcing that the airbase relocation would still continue.

Since then, demonstrators have maintained a 24-hour sit-in, swarmed the bay in kayaks and organized large-scale demonstrations in Okinawa’s capital. In June 2016, a few weeks after an American working at another U.S. airbase was arrested for raping and murdering a Japanese woman, an estimated 65,000 people demonstrated in the Okinawan capital against U.S. military base expansion.

The Okinawa Peace Movement Center, Hiroji Yamashiro’s organization, has been active in leading nonviolent resistance against the Henoko relocation. His apparent politically-motivated and lengthy detention marks a concerning escalation in Tokyo’s abusive treatment of nonviolent Okinawan activists, which must be countered by an escalation in resistance tactics.

An uncertain future

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently cited the security concerns of an unpredictable North Korea and increasingly aggressive China as justification for what many have argued is a policy of re-militarization. This influences his administration’s unflinching support for military base expansion in Okinawa regardless of local civil and political opposition.

Japan is clearly entitled to ensure its national security, but international standards are clear that human rights are fundamental to peace and security. It is a shame that Japan seems willing to embrace authoritarian tactics to suppress nonviolent activism in the name of security. Japan’s human rights obligations toward Okinawans resisting further base construction will surely be tested by the new relationship between Abe and the United States under President Trump.

Unfortunately, with the wave of state-level Republican-backed anti-protest bills sweeping the United States and Trump’s own embrace of the criminalizing or delegitimizing of nonviolent activists, Japan is unlikely to find itself rebuked for its repressive handling of Okinawan dissidents unless alternative channels of pressure are strengthened.

In early March, several supporters gathered in New York outside the Japanese consulate, holding banners calling for Yamashiro’s release. A week later, on March 10, Akira Maeda of the Japanese Workers’ Committee for Human Rights criticized Japan before the Human Rights Council in Geneva over its treatment of Yamashiro. Such gestures are an important scaling up of tactics in civil and political resistance to Japan’s persecution of nonviolent activists, aimed at attracting broader international attention.

When local channels of resistance stall, such tactics are often capable of generating new allies and coalitions to pressure domestic governments. What is needed is not only the growth of solidarity networks but also the expanding of resistance efforts that target Tokyo’s international pillars of support. Utilizing U.N. human rights mechanisms — such as the Human Rights Council or the Special Rapporteurs on the freedom of expression, assembly or human rights defenders — are worthwhile moves from Japanese civil society.

Activists in the United States are in a position to pressure the U.S. government — either through letters to Congress regarding U.S.-Japan relations or by including such demands in active efforts against broader U.S. military expansion.

A strong showing of international support for Yamashiro — especially through actions like the Amnesty International letter campaign to Prime Minister Abe, along with a general campaign for an end to Tokyo’s persecution of nonviolent Okinawan activists — may contribute to holding Tokyo accountable. Ultimately, this is not only about Yamashiro’s release but also a guarantee from Tokyo that it will respect the rights of everyone engaged in nonviolence resistance.

Exposing falsehoods in Chinese law: Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk is no separatist

Originally published at Hong Kong Free Press on 27 January 2017. Here.

A year ago today, Tashi Wangchuk disappeared. He was recently indicted and is now awaiting trial, facing a 15-year sentence for the baseless charge of inciting separatism.

His crime: advocating Tibetan language rights in an interview with the New York Times – hardly a threat to national security.

tashi wangchuk

On 27 January 2015, two cars filled with men not wearing uniforms or presenting identification arrived at Tashi’s home, claiming he needed to go with them to handle some business registration. Two hours later, he was in police custody at the Yushu Public Security Bureau, locked into a tiger chair where he was kept until the following evening, continuously interrogated. They threatened him and his family. They demanded if he was in touch with Tibetan separatists abroad. A few days later, in a different detention center, he was subjected to a week of constant interrogation, during which he was repeatedly beaten by two Tibetan police officers. His family wasn’t notified of his detention until 24 March, 57 days later, when they were told that he was being charged with inciting separatism.

The charge arises from a distorted investigation into the New York Times video carried out in February by the Tibet research branch of the Ministry of Public Security, well before Tashi’s first meeting with his lawyers in June. According to the February investigation, in the video Tashi had intentionally acted to incite separatism, break Tibetan social stability, and discredit China internationally.

Tashi has also been active on Weibo and his last post before being detained is illustrative of the type of vocabulary in the video that the government claims discredits China and incites separatism. As reported by the New York Times, on 24 January, Tashi reposted a comment urging Chinese legislators to enhance bilingual education and hire more bilingual civil servants – hardly the rhetoric of an insurrectionist. The charge against Tashi is absurd.

Tashi does not advocate separatism. He only sought to promote Tibetan language education, guaranteed under Chinese and international law, and to use Chinese law to pressure officials to faithfully implement Tibetan language rights.

International standards are quite clear. Advocating Tibetan language rights is not a crime. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed, holds that minorities shall not be denied the right, among others, to use their own language. The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which provides further guidance on international standards, also calls on states to take positive measures to create favorable conditions for minorities to develop their language.

In 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues Rita Izsák voiced concern that defending minority language rights has been associated with separatist movements by some countries where the unity of the state is largely influenced by the political narrative of a “single national language as a means of reinforcing sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity.” In such countries, assimilationist narratives often extend to every aspect of minority culture, from language to religion, subsuming it under the oppressive myth of national unity through the forced adoption of majority culture. Minority language, as with folklore or custom, are downplayed to the level of tourist attraction for majority amusement. This is widespread in China.

Rather than treating efforts to reclaim rights for minority language and culture as acts of separation, Izsák explains, protecting the language rights of minorities is not only a human rights obligation but also essential to good governance, conflict prevention, and social stability.

That Chinese law supposedly guarantees minority language rights only makes the charges against Tashi all the more ludicrous. The constitution provides that all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own written and spoken language. This is also protected in the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, which goes on to note educational organizations with mostly ethnic minority students should strive to rely on textbooks and instruction in their own language. The national plan on education reform places similar emphasis on linguistic minority rights. It states that no effort shall be spared to advance bilingual teaching and that minority rights to education in their native language shall be ensured.

Despite such protections, China has incrementally repressed Tibetan language rights with the same increasing ferocity with which it has assaulted virtually every other aspects of Tibetan culture.

Tashi told the New York Times that his passion for language rights campaigning, in part, began with his desire to find a place for his two nieces to study Tibetan after local officials closed a small school where monks had offered Tibetan language classes. Public schools throughout Tibet have largely abandoned bilingual education, approaching Tibetan the same way it would a foreign language, says the International Campaign for Tibet.

Regulations in 2010, that severely limited the use of Tibetan language in schools sparked major protests in Qinghai and lead to an urgent appeal before the Human Rights Council. In 2015, regulations on bilingual education instructed officials to “unswervingly implement the national common language [Mandarin]…to ensure that minority students master and use the basic national common language.” Such policies give rise to the accusations that advocacy for minority language is a separatist attack on politically crafted national unity. This is wrong.

On 10 December, international human rights day, U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus asked, “China’s constitution states that ‘all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.’  So I ask why Tashi Wangchuk, a Chinese citizen who is deeply interested in education, remains in jail for his peaceful advocacy of Tibetan language education.”

Now, more than a month later, with the stakes for Tashi highly increased, the answer to Ambassador Baucus remains the same, because in China the law only matters as far as it suits the interests of the state.

Indicting Tashi for insisting on nothing more than for the government to uphold its own laws on language rights is as much an indictment against China’s claims to be a laws-based society. Tashi should be released immediately. Instead, the state now seems likely to condemn him to prison to cover its own falsehoods.

In Myanmar, students test the sincerity of democratic transition

Originally published at openDemocracy on 10 June 2015. Also available here.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

In Myanmar, as university students around the world begin to exalt their summer freedom, a national student movement continues to demand greater political freedom. At the end of May 2015 Myanmar’s parliament was still discussing proposed amendments to a National Education Law put forth by a coalition of student groups. The students have expressed their concern over the lack of academic freedom and the centralized control inherent in the law, which was passed in September 2014. Since its adoption, students and other activists have been campaigning around the country. In many ways, the struggle around education reform can be seen as a prism through which to assess the sincerity of democratic transition in Myanmar today.

It began in March 2014 with the release of the draft law. Later, a national coalition of student groups issued an 11 point manifesto. They demanded, among other things, student representation in enacting education legislation, teaching that ensures the freedom of thought, multilingual education for ethnic minorities, inclusion of children with disabilities, and the expansion of compulsory education from primary school to middle school. In November 2014, students in Yangon, the capital, issued a statement explaining that if the government failed to negotiate within 60 days there would be nationwide mobilization.

With little progress toward their demands, on January 20, 2015, they held true to their word. Several hundred students from Mandalay and elsewhere began marching the some 400 miles to the capital to demand negotiation. Less than a week later the government agreed to hold four-party talks. As a show of faith several of the groups marching on Yangon agreed to halt their processions. However, after only a few days the talks stalled. More than 250 civil society organizations pressed for their resumption and several protests were staged around the capital in solidarity with the marching students.

Sustained pressure appeared successful in mid-February when government negotiators surprisingly agreed to the students’ demands. A few days later a new version of the law was sent to parliament for discussion.

Throughout the months of demonstrations students overwhelmingly maintained nonviolent discipline with one noting: “we don’t have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”

A tradition of student activism

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

These students are following a long tradition of student-led nonviolent civil resistance dating back to pre-independence Myanmar. Not long after General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup, students at Yangon University began demonstrating against the military dictatorship and the sudden loss of academic freedom. In early July that year, the military cracked down savagely, massacring between 100 and 1000 students and dynamiting the student union building, the epicentre of student activism since the colonial period. There would be no student unions again until 2010.

In 1974, following the death of U Thant, the United Nations Secretary General from 1961 to 1971, the regime denied him a burial with honours. Thousands of students and monks seized his body and marched to Yangon University, where they buried him close to where the student union stood. The armed forces soon drove tanks onto the university campus and exhumed his body. Upwards of 4,500 students were arrested in the ensuing melee, and some 100 were killed.

Student mobilization was salient in the better-known 1988 pro-democracy movement from March to August. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock calls this period the “Rangoon Spring” — Rangoon is the former name for Yangon — in reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that ended with military intervention. Amnesty International even established a short-lived office in Yangon at this time. But by September the state responded with pure brutality. The military assumed control under General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). More than 3,000 were killed by the end of the month. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, has called the ongoing impunity for these mass killings an unaddressed wound challenging the rhetoric of reform.

The inspiration and guidance of what became known as the 88 Generation would inspire incremental episodes of resistance and repression that followed. And in 2007, scattered demonstrations that began in April spread around the country reaching around 100,000 demonstrators in Yangon on September 24. This episode is known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the overwhelming presence of bright orange and red-clad Buddhist monks among the demonstrators. The spread of images, made possible by social media, of police and military savagely beating monks contributed to the international outcry and condemnation of the regime. In addition to monks, students made up sizeable numbers, as new student organizations such as Generation Wave, inspired by the 88 generation, began to organize and innovate strategies of resistance.

The government loses patience

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Despite a long tradition of student-organized civil resistance, those who began in November 2014 exhibited a stark difference with their predecessors. They were engaging in collective action in an ostensibly democratizing Myanmar.

In November 2010 Myanmar held its first general election since 1990, although they took place amid concerns of intimidation and corruption, as well as laws that strongly favored the military. International election monitors and foreign journalists were banned. Anyone serving a prison sentence was barred from party membership, a questionable regulation in light of the more than 2,000 political prisoners. In April, Lieutenant General Thein Sein resigned from the military and formed the ‘civilian’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), absorbing several military organizations. USDP won vast Parliamentary representation. A week later Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, although she is still banned from running in the 2015 election. In the years following, Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and has presided over certain welcome legislative reforms. In response, the United States and European Union have restored diplomatic relations and lifted decades of economic sanctions.

In light of this narrative of political liberalization, one would have hoped that the negotiation of a National Education Law would comport with Thein Sein’s attempts to maintain legitimacy by appearing more sympathetic to political reform. Unfortunately, after the student’s preliminary successes at convincing the Parliament to review their demands, the trajectory began to take a familiar arc.

In February 2015, even as positive negotiations were under way in the capital, several hundred security personnel were being deployed along the route of those marching south from Mandalay. Kyaw Thet, a student from Pathein, about 60 miles from Yangon, told The Irrawaddy: “if they shoot, we will be hit… We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If the government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Despite the agreement at the four-party talk, it soon became clear that the Parliament would not welcome student representatives. A few days later the government warned that action would be taken and Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko cautioned the organizers that demonstrators would be considered a threat to national stability. On February 16 two foreign freelance journalists were expelled from the country for documenting protests. In early March, police in Letpadan, about 85 miles from Yangon, surrounded the students marching from Mandalay. A tense standoff ensued with students demanding to continue, and the police, who outnumbered them 5 to 1, refusing to abandon their blockade. In Yangon, police assaulted a small group of activists on March 5 who had gathered in solidarity with those at Letpadan. Then, despite the authorities and students appearing to have reached a consensus in Letpadan, violence erupted on March 10.

In a move that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments, police and hired thugs, armed with truncheons and riot gear, mercilessly beat back the some 200 assembled students. Some passed out and others were badly cut from barbed wire or suffered broken bones, some were dragged into trucks, chased into the fields, or later snatched from their homes at night. The police also chased away journalists from documenting the abuse but evidence quickly spread through traditional and social media, such as the “We Support Myanmar Students” Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has generated more than 25,000 likes. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Information claimed to have arrested 127 people.

By truncheon or by gavel, the law as a repressive tool

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The police violence at Letpadan, although thankfully low in casualties, bears a striking similarity to the state-sponsored violence of previous military governments. It is a disturbing return to past tactics of repression, says Human Rights Watch. But what seems equally, if not more troubling, is the instrumentalization of domestic law as a repressive tactic. This is part of what Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink call a tactical concession. Repressive regimes will make certain concessions such as signing international treaties, passing new legislation, or releasing a few political prisoners. They do so to attempt to gain a little standing in the international community, to get human rights organizations off their backs, while not necessarily fully implementing such reforms. What this often means is that repressive regimes favour political crimes and show trials over mass killings or disappearances. It is a midpoint between traditional state repression and rule-consistent behaviour.

Of the 127 people arrested over Letpadan some 70 were later charged, such as Po Po, who had evaded initial detention but was rounded up in the weeks following. After the crackdown, the 20-year-old history student Po Po had gone home, where she was arrested on April 8 and brought to the infamous Insein Prison, while many others were held at Tharrawaddy Prison. Most of them have been charged with violations of the Penal Code and Peaceful Assembly Law, some facing the possibility of 10 years in prison. Enraged by the audacity of the state, activists and students in 11 cities around the country carried out protests in solidarity with the detained, prompting further arrests and charges of violating the outdated Penal Code.

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for the abolition or amendment of the antiquated Penal Code, in many ways identical to when it was first enacted in 1860, to ensure that it complies with international human rights standards if there is to be a transition to democracy. Assessing Myanmar’s transition should be based on far more than the upcoming election. As we move closer to the November election we should remain cognizant of the growing numbers of activists behind bars who have done nothing more than engage in nonviolent civil resistance.

In testimony to premature talk of transition, the number of political prisoners since Thein Sein’s much touted amnesty at the end of 2013 has actually increased by nearly 600 percent, according to some figures – the vast majority of whom have been placed behind bars for their parts in various nonviolent campaigns, for violations of the Penal Code and the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law. This law requires, in Article 18, that organizers obtain permission from township police chiefs five days prior to any demonstration and for any slogans or signs they intend to display. Each violation is prosecutable based on township, which means the students marching from Mandalay could theoretically be charged with a violation for each township they passed through without prior permission. As an indicator of scale, there are 33 townships in Yangon alone. A coalition of more than 50 activists and civil society organizations have been campaigning for years to amend Article 18. The group includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Generation Wave.

“I would say that Article 18 is related to everything, every issue. Because when people are repressed, while people’s rights are violated, they must have the right to express themselves.” Over an avocado smoothie at a roadside café in Yangon I speak with Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, one of the more active student movements that came out of the Saffron Revolution, about the detrimental impact of the Peaceful Assembly Law. “My worry about Article 18 is the first rank. It is the most important thing because it is the freedom of expression.”

The freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 20 also recognizes the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Reform must come from below

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Students have been mobilizing around the country, seizing the right of free, peaceful expression and assembly by protesting, marching, sending open letters, engaging through social media, and negotiating with the state. Those who have been beaten and detained are engaged in active civil resistance to renegotiate the meaning of political participation in a changing Myanmar. In many ways, it is about more than just the National Education Law. In their expression of resentment toward the state, and in the level of national coordination unachieved in decades, the opportunity for civil society to influence social or political policy in Myanmar is great, even in the face of Thein Sein’s demonstrably thin commitment to democratization.

While much of the international attention regarding democracy in Myanmar remains focused on whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate in the elections in 2015 or who will be the next president, the real hope for transition in Myanmar arguably rests with the burgeoning civil society seizing every political opening to demand accountability. The movement around the National Education Law has managed to do what few in Myanmar have achieved since independence: to create a lasting national, cohesive social movement united around a core set of grievances and demands. Students, monks, and other civil resisters will continue to face repression from the state. But Myanmar’s desire to reconnect to the world after more than two decades of isolation also guarantees that the state will be forced to make increasing tactical concessions, leaving further openings for civil resistance.

The Securitization of Social Media in China

The crackdown on ‘human flesh searches’ and including cybersecurity within the jurisdiction of the recently created National Security Committee, are the most recent episodes in a series that outlines the Communist Party’s concern and intent regarding social media. Xi Jinping’s administration is concerned that social media represents an innovative mechanism for petitioning and collective action that has proven at times capable of achieving concrete results in lieu of a tightly regulated environment for civil society mobilization. The intent is a comprehensive campaign against social media in order to circumscribe its perceived threat to one-party rule.

In an April 13 article originally published in Red Flag Journal, Ren Xianliang, deputy director of the CCP Shaanxi Provincial Propaganda Department and vice-chairman of the All-China Journalists Association, revealed the official position on social media. Ren called for the government to ‘occupy new battlefields in public opinion.’ He noted that since the advent of Sina Weibo and other microblogs as platforms for ‘online political questioning and supervision’ the Party’s task of controlling public discourse and information had become more difficult. He pointed to online agitators that manipulated public opinion, fabricated rumors and attacked the image of the Party and government, calling on the Party and traditional media to combat these threats (Xinhua, April 13).

By the end of April the Party had begun internally circulating the Minutes of the 2013 National Conference of Propaganda Chiefs. The Minutes, better known as Document No. 9, outlined the now well-discussed seven subversive topics including constitutionalism, civil society, and press freedoms. What is less mentioned about Document No. 9, however, is the inclusion of countermeasures: the consolidation and spreading of the Party’s voice; education on socialism with Chinese characteristics; and the strengthening of Party control over media (China Change, May 16). At a later national gathering of propaganda chiefs in August, Xi Jinping, echoing Ren Xiangliang’s rhetoric, ushered in the securitization of social media, calling on the propaganda department to build ‘a strong army’ and to ‘seize the ground of new media’ (South China Morning Post, September 4). Already underway, the crackdown on social media intensified for the remainder of 2013.

Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Internet Information Office, declared ‘human flesh searches’ (renrou suosou), the independent online investigation into the personal details of a suspected wrongdoer, the final social media target of 2013 and called for its abolishment. On December 17 Liu described the ‘human flesh search’ as a network of violence and emphasized that cyberspace would not be a lawless place (Xinhua, December 18). Liu cited the recent suicide of a girl in Guangdong after being wrongly accused through a local ‘flesh search’ as yet another example of the practice’s violent consequences. Conversely, the practice has also been hailed for its ability to empower ordinary citizens to hold the government more accountable.

Proponents of ‘flesh searches’ as a means of public engagement in a system without a functioning rule of law highlight such cases as Yang Dacai and Li Qiming. In October 2010 a black Volkswagen sped along the streets of Baoding, near Hebei University. The car collided with two girls, killing one and severely injuring the other. The driver sped on and only stopped after being surrounded by a crowd, to emerge arrogantly and taunt them with the now famous, “My father is Li Gang!” Soon news of the incident spread online revealing the driver’s identity as Li Qiming, the son of the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau. The father was dismissed and the son convicted after viral images of the family’s luxury properties well in excess of their salary were revealed through ‘flesh searches.’ Liu Zhengrong’s sympathy for the girl in Guangdong might have been more believable had his attack on ‘flesh searches’ not followed so closely behind a similar crackdown against ‘online rumors.

The policy on spreading rumors came less than a month after Xi Jinping effectively declared war on independent social media in August. The now infamous policy states that Weibo and other microblog users who are accused of posting ‘rumors’ viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times will be held criminally liable and face a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Supported by a judicial interpretation issued by the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate the policy expands existing crimes such as creating a disturbance or picking quarrels to apply to online activities (People’s Daily Online, September 9). Hundreds of bloggers and active Internet users were detained or arrested following policy implementation. Yang Zhong was one of the first arrests, a 16 year old from Gansu he had posted challenges online to the official narrative of a local death in custody, but was released following considerable online defense.

Admittedly some individuals have posted knowingly false or poorly fact checked information leading to serious instability. In late February 2010, in the middle of the night, tens of thousands of residents in multiple cities across Shanxi fled their homes in panic. The cause of this sudden movement was a rumor spread through chatrooms and text messages that a destructive earthquake was imminent. Similarly in 2011, rumors that an already accident prone chemical plant in Xiangshui, Jiangsu was about to explode caused a stampede as tens of thousands of residents fled to escape. Four people died in the rush. Recently, Qin Huohuo and Lierchaisi were arrested in August 2013 for, among other things, fabricating a story about a 30 million euro compensation of an Italian citizen who died in the 2011 Wenzhou train crash. The Party cites cases such as these to legitimize tighter restrictions of online content to provide ‘accurate’ information to promote public security.

While some users online have admitted to fabricating their postings, the story of the deadly Wenzhou train crash itself was first broke by a Weibo user because the Propaganda Department had originally directed official media not to report on the incident. Four months after the crash the General Administration of Press and Publications officially banned domestic journalists from reporting on information from Weibo. And it was this type of citizen journalism that Zhu Huaxin, secretary of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, attacked in an article following the announcement of the policy in 2012. His position in the article revealed a fear at the perceived loss of Party power to independent online actors (People’s Daily Online, October 11) but was nothing new. Zhu, writing as far back as 2009, has been steady in his calls for the Propaganda Department to establish its cyber supremacy (China Youth Daily, July 24) in order to constrain sensitive online activity.

In these cases we see Party efforts to not only censor independent accounts and persecute active Internet users, but to maneuver the Party to the forefront of narrative formation, on the one hand, and to frame its varied online crackdowns in paternalistic terms to legitimize censorship in the interests of public security on the other. Such efforts to regain lost control online beyond crackdowns on content have included the rise of government websites promoted as the legitimate forums for previously diffuse online activities. The two most striking examples are the establishment of a corruption monitoring and reporting website by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, with the implicit intent of discouraging independent investigation and reporting on corruption, and an online complaints system set up by the Bureau of Letters and Visits.

Between January and October of 2013 the Bureau of Letters and Visits, the office responsible for accepting complaints at and above the county level, received more than six million petitions, averaging 20,000 per day (Global Times, November 28). Many petitioners, in addition to hand delivering these documents, or staging demonstrations and sit-ins, post their petitions on forums or Weibo. There they are often commented on and reposted. Official objectives stated elsewhere reveal a real concern for the degree of instability produced by unaddressed petitions but also point to an intention with the website to curb the unregulated dissemination of petitions and limit conversation between activists online. Petitions on Weibo can generate national attention and earn the support of accomplished rights lawyers, trends the government no doubt hopes to limit with the promotion of ‘streamlined’ websites.

Lawyers also Tweet

Circumscribing online activity and shaping the content of digital information dissemination has not been confined to policies and announcements targeted at general civil society. Central Party efforts have also included attempts to specifically rein in online information dissemination by lawyers and directives to Chinese courts regarding the influence of online activity.

In 2012 the Supreme Court proposed that lawyers could be disbarred for blogging any trial information without court preapproval (Duihua, September 26). Many courts have started to liveblog proceedings, as a countermeasure to activist lawyers or independent observers. Promoted as an attempt to correct false reporting on high-profile cases such measures are also designed to secure Party domination of sensitive legal narratives. That many of China’s rights lawyers are active on Weibo, constraining their ability to disseminate information about their cases effectively serves to limit access to potential information for online activists.

Courts already have the ability to temporarily detain lawyers administratively through judicial detention but the proposal to disbar them for up to a year for engaging in social media that threatens the interests of the court sent a clear signal. The proposed measure would likely have been exploited as a deterrent in the same way as the yearly lawyers license renewal has been used to harass more activist minded lawyers in recent years.

As it is, the Supreme Court does not have the power to suspend licenses. This authority is vested with the Ministry of Justice but judicial interpretations and general announcements issued by the Supreme Court can carry considerable influence on local level courts.

In August the Central Political and Legislative Commission (CPLC) issued a 15-point announcement aimed at addressing certain failures of the legal system. Provision 8 notes that courts and police are to disregard ‘public-opinion hype’ and ‘petitioning by parties to the case’ (Duihua, October 22). Following the CPLC announcement, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (Xinhua, September 6) and the Supreme People’s Court (China Court Online, November 21) issued their implementation opinions in September and November. All of these documents are concerned with public opinion, which depending on implementation could discourage online activism surrounding sensitive cases.

Such announcements are in direct response to the impact of public opinion, spread easily through social media, on influencing or forcing action in certain cases. When Li Tianyi, the son of well-known PLA singers Li Shuangjianga and Meng Ge, was first accused of leading the gang rape of a woman in a Beijing nightclub in 2013, many Chinese Internet users speculated that because of his status he would be afforded special treatment. After Li Tianyi was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, Zhejinag University law professor Lan Rongjie speculated that had the case not involved the scion of high ranking officials and generated such intense online attention, the 17 year old would likely have received a lesser sentence (Guardian, September 26). The court, Lan speculated, was reacting to protect its image, which had been challenged by online activism and thus handed out the maximum sentence. Online activism and public opinion has also had national achievements on court decisions and policy changes.

Sun Zhigang, from Wuhan, had been working in Guangzhou for two years, when on March 17, 2003 the local police detained him for not carrying his local identification, based on an administrative procedure known as Custody and Repatriation. Three days later his parents were informed that he had died in custody. The parents ordered an autopsy, which revealed that the 27 year old had been beaten to death but there was no official investigation. Over the ensuing days, as the family posted information to online forums and gathered public support, the case became a symbol of the highly abusive system. Addressing the mounting public pressure, both on and offline, then Premier Wen Jiabao announced on June 20, 2003 that the system would be abolished. In such cases critical online responses, coupled with public criticism, ongoing legal challenges, and traditional collective action have had a concrete impact on forcing government action.

Conclusion

The series of announcements and regulations regarding online activity and social media in the latter half of 2013 illustrate efforts to circumscribe online civil society in much the same way as the government hopes to forestall threats to Party stability posed by traditional collective action. A National Security Committee was established in November during the Third Plenum (China Brief, November 12) and one of its stated targets unequivocally reveals this securitization of social media. In early January 2014 it was made public that among extremist forces and Western ideological challenges the newly formed security organization would prioritize cybersecurity, including online calls for collective action against the government (South China Morning Post, January 14). This focus conflates security with political stability, moving well beyond promoting ‘accuracy’ for social stability. And with Xi Jinping at the helm of the nebulously powerful National Security Committee, we see the policy consolidation of the previously declared war on social media.

This essay was originally published in a slightly altered version at Jamestown Foundation China Brief (Volume: 14 Issue: 3) on February 7, 2014. It is available here.

Foreign Journalist Reprisals in Beijing

Yesterday ChinaFile published a short collection of responses from journalists, academics, and politicians expressing their analysis and illustrating what they see as the correct path forward regarding the non-renewal of journalist’s visas in a piece called:

Will China Shut Out the Foreign Press

Here is my immediate reaction:

I think Bill Bishop‘s remarks are the most sensible, while the gut reaction of visa reprisals seems like a strong move it could inadvertently produce negative externalities, thus escalating the situation. However, if the government does follow through and other tactics from abroad do not succeed at either forestalling or, in the short term, reversing this decision, I feel that more punitive measures could be in order.

It is also largely about framing. Because of how the Chinese government has framed, or refused to frame, this chain of visa procrastination qua denials, it speaks clearly to its true intentions, as Paul Mooney notes. Equally, if other tactics fail and in several months there is no movement toward reinstating visas then a well framed punitive response from the Like Minded Countries could produce a better effect. After all, this should not be treated as solely an issue of reprisals of US media but as part of a much larger trend, as Andrew Nathan points out.

I do disagree with him a little on the idea that China is influencing this fear-enforced conformity to the West, just look at what the US and UK are doing to AP or the Guardian when issues of “terrorism” are raised. Rather than treat this as part of a broader China approach, or perhaps in addition to that, I think this really needs to be honestly examined within the context of what Jeremy Scahill and like minded have rightly pointed out as a war on journalist, a war on the freedom of expression, being waged the world over. While it is no doubt an authoritarian model, the Chinese are not solely responsible for exporting it abroad; just look at the case of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye and President Obama’s intrusion to his early release and countless other examples. But I tend to be a universalist or cosmopolitan, in the way Anthany Appiah uses it.

I hope the zero hour works and everyone stays put but if it doesn’t, seriously, a firebomb campaign of China Daily newspaper boxes across the US. This is the gut reaction to repay force with force but at the end of the day it is an unsustainable solution. By following through with Bishop’s suggestion it should encourage the deeper integration of not only the freedom of expression but human rights in general into trade agreements other international negotiations. This would, ideally, have positive multiplier effects far beyond a tit for tat visa arms race.

Some more background:

China’s Crackdown on Foreign Media: How to Respond? From China Digital Times

The Meaning of China’s Crackdown on Foreign Press From The New Yorker

The Thorny Challenges of Covering China From the New York Times

China’s Treatment of Foreign Journalists From the Congressional Executive Commission on China Roundtable, 11 December.

Deleted Twitter posts suggest Bloomberg may be targeting wife of dismissed China reporter From Shanghaiist

Bloomberg News is Said to Curb Articles That Might Anger China From the New York Times

New York Times and Bloomberg facing expulsion from China From The Telegraph

China Pressures US Journalists, Prompting Warning From Biden From the New York Times

Another American Reporter Banned From Beijing From China Law and Policy, part I in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone From China Law and Policy, part II in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship From China Law and Policy, part III in a series on journalist’s difficulties