Crackdown on communications in areas of Tibet amidst coronavirus crisis

Person in custody in front of the Mangra detention centre.
Person in custody in front of the Mangra detention centre.
Person in custody in front of the Mangra detention centre.
19th March 2020

Online communications in two Townships have been searched with 75 chat groups shut down.​

In eastern Tibet, Free Tibet’s research partner Tibet Watch confirmed that at least two townships have been subjected to crackdowns amidst the coronavirus outbreak, with citizens who use the Chinese messaging app WeChat targeted.

Police officers and grid workers were mobilised on 4 and 5 March to digitally search WeChat groups in around 16 villages and five monasteries within Tharshul and Sumdo Townships, Mangra County, Tsolho Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, which is governed as part of Qinghai Province.

Authorities shut down 75 WeChat groups across the two townships. Meanwhile 298 groups were registered by authorities and 223 were forced to submit letters pledging they would be properly administered and would not spread ‘rumours,’ Tibet Watch said. 

The news of the crackdown comes in the midst of  the global Covid-19 outbreak and criticism by some of the Chinese  population directed at the CCP over the way it has handled the crisis. However,it is not known if online discussion of Covid-19  was the reason for the crackdown.

“What constitutes the highly obscure and blanket term "rumours" in China is information that expresses views or ideas that are critical of the CCP leadership, ideology and governance,” Tibet Watch said.

Online chat group owners told how to use WeChat in line with Chinese law.
Online chat group owners told how to use WeChat in line with Chinese law.

On 5 March, local authorities told WeChat group owners they would be held responsible for anything that is said or forwarded in their groups.

Authorities have in some cases told online chat group owners to study regulations governing groups. "Countering the Epidemic - improper speech posted on the Internet,” and “Public Security Administration Punishment Law of the People's Republic of China” are among the names of the regulations, Tibet Watch said.

The government asked group leaders to enhance political consciousness by listening to the CCP and feeling gratitude for the Party while urging them to help build healthy and safe cyberspace.

Groups were asked to follow the ‘ten rules’ of WeChat which include prohibition of sharing sensitive political information, spreading rumours, or sharing information related to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau before it is officially reported. 

China has acted firmly since the opening phases of the Covid-19 outbreak to control “rumours” and manage public anger at the government’s handling of the crisis. 

Li Wenliang, a Wuhun doctor who tried to tell colleagues about the spread of the virus in an online chat group while the disease was in its early stages was visited by the police and forced to sign a confession for spreading rumours, The New York Times reported.

The Chinese government censors, which have been called the “internet police” are emerging as a “bulwark” against a swell of anger over governance breakdowns after some in China consider the CCP to have handled the disease outbreak badly, the report added.

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