New Generation of Online Activists Targeted in China

March 23, 2011

Hua Chunhui was detained after tweeting about the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ © Amnesty International

Jasmine Revolution.  Those two words simply uttered online elicit enough fear in Chinese leaders’ hearts to throw the writer in jail.

Online activists have long been at risk in China but the recent spate of arrests — following online calls for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China — has gotten out of hand.  Chinese authorities are not only detaining seasoned dissidents; they are trying to silence a whole new generation of online activists.

More than 100 activists, many of them active on Twitter and blogging networks, have been detained, subjected to monitoring and intimidation by the security forces, or have gone missing since late February. The sweep is the worst since 2009 when thousands were detained following deadly riots in Urumqi.

The call for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in February consisted of online instructions to ‘stroll’ through designated public places on Sunday afternoons. Faced with a large state security presence, no significant gatherings took place.

That didn’t stop Chinese authorities from detaining 24 activists on security charges such as ‘subverting state power’, some for as little as mentioning the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ on Twitter.  They included ‘netizens’ who have never been detained before and have only been active online. Many young Chinese bloggers and tweeters refer to themselves as ‘netizens’, ie. active citizens on the internet, rather than  ‘activists’.

One young ‘netizen’ is in detention for ‘illegal assembly’ after tweeting about police detaining people ‘strolling’ through Beijing’s shopping district Wangfujing in February.  22 more people are currently detained without charge, including prominent human rights lawyers active on blogging platforms and Twitter, such as Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong and Feng Zhenghu.

At least 69 further activists and netizens were detained briefly, subjected to police surveillance and controls, or have disappeared.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific Catherine Baber says:

“The fear is palpable across many provinces. Some of these people have only been tweeting and blogging, but they have been arrested and accused of China’s most serious political charges.”

Twitter-user Hua Chunhui was detained in February in Jiangsu province on charges of ‘endangering state security’, after being accused by police of tweeting messages mentioning the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ from his Twitter account @wxhch64.

His fiancée Cheng Jianping had previously been sentenced to a year of Re-education Through Labour in November 2010 for retweeting a single satirical tweet by Hua about anti-Japanese protests.

Liang Haiyi, a female internet activist nicknamed ‘Miaoxiao’, has been detained in Harbin, Heilongjiang province and charged with ‘subversion of state power’ for posting information about the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ on Chinese social networking platform QQ.

Charges like this have regularly resulted in hefty prison terms for peaceful activists.

This massive clampdown shows that the Chinese government is rattled by the example of people’s movements abroad using the internet to fight for their freedoms.  Instead of being afraid of unrest, the Chinese authorities should encourage more participation and uphold people’s right to express diverse views, in order to tackle the country’s problems with social justice, corruption and inequality.

The Chinese authorities must end their repression of calls for peaceful political reform and instead listen to voices demanding change.

Speak out for online freedoms in China.  Call on Yahoo! to commit to protecting free speech in China and the US to support the Online Freedom Act.