Chinese Communist Party officials appear to be increasing their harassment and punishment of Chinese internet users who publish on foreign social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
China's government firewall blocks access to those sites, but users can use VPNs and other technology to circumvent it.
A growing number of these Chinese "netizens" have been warned against visiting and posting on the social media platforms and have been forced to delete posts unfavorable to the government. Some have also been sentenced to jail terms.
Gao Yu, a veteran independent journalist and dissident, has been harassed by police repeatedly for visiting and posting on Twitter.
During the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre this year, the national security police warned her to not post anything at that politically sensitive time.
"I was forced to go on a trip with them," she said.
Although she cooperated, she said police in Beijing still had her son fired from his job in June just to punish her.
"The law gives the police 19 responsibilities. Which one of them is having someone fired from their job?" she asked.
The police also warned her friends not to contact her, saying she "is not a journalist, but an enemy" and threatening them with arrest if they visit her.
China's government communicates through official accounts on Twitter and other social media networks that are blocked within its borders, which some netizens take issue with.
"Hua Chunying, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, along with some other officials, is on Twitter. Why can't we, the ordinary people?" she said.
In severe cases, some dissidents who post on foreign social media ended up with jail time.
A Twitter account collected 418 verdicts over the past year of those who have been sentenced for exercising freedom of speech. These cases are related to online activities dating back to 2013, including retweeting and liking others' posts.
Last year, Chinese authorities arrested Shen Liangqing, a former Anhui provincial prosecutor and human rights activist, mainly for his comments on Twitter and Facebook.
According to the indictment, during his arrest between 2017 and May 2019, Shen used foreign social media platforms, attracting more than 20,000 followers.
The indictment also alleges that some of Shen's posts were "distorting" historical events, socially sensitive topics and other content. Shen was also accused of disseminating "false information" to attack and disrupt the normal social order. The indictment says 42 such messages were posted on Twitter, which accumulated more than 470,000 hits, and 13 on Facebook with 130 likes.
Wu Bin, a well-known netizen and rights activist, was detained in March 2020, a day after he tweeted that he would stop posting for 10 days in order to avoid harassment and losing freedom in "this abnormal country."
After he was detained, more than 100,000 entries on his Twitter account were deleted and his account was eventually closed by local police in Hunan.
"100,000 followers, 10 years of tweets, all gone," Wu said on his new Twitter account.
He turned down VOA's interview request in fear of getting in trouble.
Punished while overseas
Even those who have used the platforms while overseas couldn't go without being punished.
After a Chinese international student in the U.S. supported calling coronavirus "the China virus" on his Twitter with only four followers, his mother was taken to the police station and forced to write a letter of guaranty. He said he does not understand how the Chinese police could locate him as he didn't use his real name on Twitter.
VOA Mandarin reported another incident earlier this year that a Chinese student in Melbourne, Australia, mocked Chinese authorities on Twitter. Police harassed her family and forced her to hand over the password to her Twitter account.
China’s government is expanding its censorship controls by targeting its citizens overseas who criticize Beijing on social media. The pressure tactic, “zhulian,” means “guilt by association.” It usually involves police threatening family members in China.https://t.co/GmoNRis1bt pic.twitter.com/uWFRxUzNVz— The Voice of America (@VOANews) July 9, 2020
While many Chinese people use VPNs and other technology to circumvent the firewall, doing so is against the law. Since 1997, government regulations have required people who want to access foreign websites to do so through channels provided by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications' national public telecommunications network.
Violators can be issued a warning and fined more than $2,000 (15,000 RMB).
The regulations were not enforced until recently when Chinese authorities started to crack down on VPNs.
On May 19, the Public Security Bureau in Shanxi province reportedly issued an administrative warning to a man for using VPNs to access foreign sites and fined him $75 (500 RMB).
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.