Chinese authorities clamp down on Twitter activity

HANDS-ON METHODS::Rather than closing loopholes allowing access to the global Internet, authorities have been arresting users, forcing them to remove their tweets

AFP, BEIJING

Mon, Nov 19, 2018 - Page 4

Despite being blocked in China, Twitter and other overseas social media Web sites have long been used freely by advocates and government critics to address subjects that are censored on domestic forums — until now.

As Beijing presses a campaign to throttle any remaining voices that stray from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) narrative, it is extending its reach to foreign Web sites outside of its “Great Firewall” of Internet censorship.

People in China can use virtual private network (VPN) software to circumvent Beijing’s controls and access blocked foreign Web sites, but fearful that the platforms could be used to coordinate political activity, the authorities have launched a stealth crackdown over the past year.

Chinese advocates and other Twitter users have said that they have been pressured by police to delete sensitive tweets.

It is a “silent slaughter,” said Yaxue Cao (曹雅學), founder of human rights Web site China Change.

In some cases, authorities may be getting access to and deleting accounts themselves.

On Nov. 9, Cao reported that the Twitter account of Wu Gan (吳淦), an advocate sentenced to eight years in prison for subversion in December last year, had been suddenly deleted — erasing more than 30,000 posts representing years of political critique and commentary.

A Chinese Twitter user who requested anonymity said that he was taken in by police over tweets critical of the CCP.

After being held at a police station overnight, the user was made to hand over login information and watch police delete the tweets, they said.

“You don’t know what kind of crime they’ll sentence you with. There’s no due process, so you feel scared,” said the Twitter user, who was forced to write a letter of repentance and warned against further tweeting. “Once they threaten you, you’ll do what they say.”

Twitter declined to comment when contacted by reporters.

Authorities have not yet launched a full crackdown on VPNs because both Chinese and foreign companies need them to do business.

On Monday last week, the Cyberspace Administration of China said that it had “cleaned up” 9,800 accounts on Chinese social media platforms like messaging app WeChat and Sina Weibo that it accused of spreading “politically harmful” information and rumors.

It also chastised the Web sites for negligence and “irresponsibility.”

Chinese Twitter users have been targeted before — one was arrested in 2012 for joking about a building collapsing on a political meeting, but the recent police activity indicates a more concerted clampdown, triggered by an exodus of users from censored platforms that has resulted in a stronger Chinese Twitter presence, writer and activist Li Xuewen (黎學文) said.

“It’s the latest trend,” said Li, who was last year detained over an online memorial to Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the writer, rights campaigner and Nobel Peace laureate who died of liver cancer in police custody last year. “Naturally, Twitter would become the target of the next round of attacks.”

Last month, Li received a call from police at his parents’ home in China’s Hubei Province.

They said that “higher-ups” had sent orders to find him and ask him to delete tweets.

Wen Tao (文濤), a friend of artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), said that he was last month also approached by police over his tweets and had heard of many similar stories.

Some Twitter users are let off with a warning, while others are told to delete tweets, but the police pressure could have a ripple effect as hollowed-out accounts or farewell tweets posted by advocates under duress could cause others to self-censor.

“It is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society,” Cao wrote on China Change, describing Twitter as an “open diary” for Chinese dissidents.

Li said he plans to cut back his Twitter activity.

“Speaking out these days is useless anyway,” he said.