A Spreadsheet of China’s Censorship Exhibits the Human Toll

In China, don’t ask the heroes.

At least seven people were threatened, detained or arrested in the past week for expressing doubts about the government’s account of the deaths of Chinese soldiers in a clash with Indian troops last year. Three of them are held for between seven and 15 days. The other four are being prosecuted, including a man who lives outside of China.

“The Internet is not a lawless place,” the police said in their cases. “Blasphemies from heroes and martyrs will not be tolerated.”

Her punishment might have gone unnoticed had it not been for an online database of language crimes in China. A simple google spreadsheet that everyone can see. She lists nearly 2,000 times when people were fined by the government for their online and offline statements.

The list, which is directly linked to public judgments, police notices, and official news reports from the past eight years, is far from complete. Most of the punishment takes place behind closed doors.

Still, the list paints a grim picture of a government punishing its citizens for the slightest hint of criticism. It shows how random and merciless China’s legal system can be when it punishes its citizens for what they say despite freedom of expression being enshrined in the Chinese constitution.

The list describes dissidents who have been sentenced to long prison terms for attacking the government. It is about petitioners who appeal directly to the government to correct the injustice against them, are locked up for shouting too loudly. It includes nearly 600 people fined for testifying about Covid-19 and too many others cursing the police, often after receiving parking tickets.

The person behind the list is a bit of a mystery. In an interview, he described himself as a young man with the surname Wang. Of course, if the government found out more about him, he could end up in jail.

Mr. Wang said he decided to compile the list after reading about people punished for allegedly insulting the country during the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in October 2019. Although he is young, he told me he remembers having more freedom of expression before Xi Jinping became the top leader of the Communist Party in late 2012.

“I knew there was language crime in China, but I never thought it was that bad,” wrote Mr. Wang on his Twitter account in August, writing in both English and Chinese. He wrote that after more than 1,000 judgments, he became depressed.

“Big Brother is watching you,” he wrote. “I tried to look for Big Brother’s eyes and found them everywhere.”

The list, bluntly titled “An Inventory of Language Crimes in China in Recent Years,” contained details of the events that challenged Beijing’s official report of the clash between Chinese and Indian forces at its controversial Himalayan border in June. The Indian government said at the time that 20 of its soldiers had died. Last week, the Chinese government finally said four of its troops had died.

State media in China called them heroes, but some people had questions. One, a former journalist, asked if more had died, a matter of great interest both inside and outside the country. According to the clue to which the chart is linked, the former journalist has been accused of engaging in disputes and provoking trouble – a common accusation by authorities against those who speak up – and faces a prison sentence of up to five years.


Apr. 26, 2021, 1:26 p.m. ET

Reading the list, it becomes clear how well Mr. Xi and his government have tamed the Chinese Internet. People once thought the internet was uncontrollable, even in China. But Mr. Xi has long seen the Internet both as a threat and as a tool to control public opinion.

“The Internet is the biggest variant we face,” he said in a 2018 speech. “Whether we can win the war over the Internet will have a direct impact on national political security.”

Liberal voices and media were among the first to be silenced. Then the internet platforms themselves – including the Chinese versions of Twitter and YouTube – were punished for what they allowed.

Now, Chinese internet companies are bragging about their ability to control content. Nationalist online users report speeches that they find offensive. Of the seven people who were accused of insulting the heroes and martyrs, six were reported by other users, according to police. In a way, the Chinese internet is self-monitoring.

China’s police force, disliked for their extensive powers to indefinitely detain people, is a big beneficiary. According to the table, people were arrested for calling the police “dogs”, “bandits” and “bastards”. Most are only locked up for a few days, but one man is there Liaoning Province was sentenced to 10 months in prison for posting five offensive posts on its WeChat timeline.

Petitioners are among those who suffer the most. In one case in the table, a woman in Sichuan Province whose son died suddenly in school and whose husband committed suicide was sentenced to three years in prison for disseminating false information. The ruling listed the headlines of 10 articles she posted and the pageviews they had garnered. Most of them have 1,615 page views, the least only 18.

Perhaps the most depressing things are about people who have been punished for what they said about the Covid-19 pandemic. At the top of the list is Dr. Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded on January 1, 2020, along with seven others who have tried to warn the country about the coronavirus. He died of the virus in early February last year and is now known as a whistleblower who tried to warn the world about the coronavirus outbreak. However, 587 other cases are listed in the table.

Even cheesy skits by aspiring online influencers can be viewed as obnoxious. Two men in northwest Shaanxi Province streamed a funeral they held for a sheep. In the video, one man cried over a photo of the sheep while the other was digging the grave. They were detained for 10 days for violating social norms.

But the table also shows inspiring cases in which people spoke out to challenge authority.

In 2018, a 19-year-old man in the northwestern city of Yinchuan decided to test the newly passed law prohibiting questioning and criticizing heroes and martyrs. He wrote on Weibo that two famous martyrs died meaningless deaths and that he wanted to see if he would be arrested, indicating a lack of freedom of speech in China. He was detained for 10 days and fined $ 70.

A man, Feng Zhouguan, criticized Mr. Xi and was charged with disputes by the local police in Xiamen City. He was detained for five days, but after his release he appealed and alleged that the police had illegally interfered in possible defamation cases between two people. The local police, he argued, were “not the military bodyguards or family militias of the national leader”. The court upheld the verdict.

Still, many people pay a steeper price.

Huang Genbao, 45, was a senior engineer with a state-owned company in the eastern city of Xuzhou. He was arrested two years ago and sentenced to 16 months in prison for insulting the national leader and damaging the national image on platforms such as Twitter. He shared a cell with more than 20 people and had to follow a strict routine, including toilet breaks. He and his wife have lost their jobs and he is now delivering meals to support his family.

“My life in the detention center reminded me of the book ‘1984’,” he said in an interview. “Many of the experiences are likely worse than the storylines in the book.”

Comments are closed.