China: U of T researchers uncover extent of China’s censorship on 709 crackdown

April 13, 2017

A paramilitary police officer salutes at a security check point as a car with officials drive past ahead of the CPPCC Closing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2017. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as it was arresting, torturing and imprisoning human-rights lawyers, the Chinese government blocked discussion of its actions on local social media, including images distributed by those drawing attention to what had taken place.

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab discovered that WeChat, China’s digital-communication lifeblood, has censored 42 combinations of terms related to the “709 crackdown,” so called because it began on July 9, 2015.

The research underscores how Chinese authorities assert broad control over information inside the country, eliminating unfavourable information.

Related: Under Xi Jinping, China is increasingly silencing sources of dissent

Nearly 250 lawyers and activists have been questioned, detained and arrested since 2015. Several have provided what foreign governments, including Canada, have called credible details of torture. Twelve of their names are included among the blocked terms.

The digital redactions illuminate how Chinese censorship is “reactive to news events. And compared with other events or categories of censored keywords, the 709 crackdown is one of those censored on a higher frequency,” said Lotus Ruan, a research fellow at Citizen Lab.

Inside China, information on the lawyers “has been sanitized or harmonized, so a lot of information is officially-approved information.”

And in what the researchers called a new revelation, China’s sophisticated censorship tools have expanded to include the ability to peer at digital photographs and delete those deemed sensitive. The blocking even extends to altered images.


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