China pulls plug on social media accounts of people who just got out of jail

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China has shut down the social media accounts of hundreds of people recently released from prison in a bid to deny an online platform to "illegal and unethical" people, the country’s audiovisual regulator said.

The move targets "illegal content" produced by people who "fail to correct their political stances" after completing a prison term, according to an opinion article published on the state-run China News Service.

It will likely have a profound impact on political prisoners, who are often prevented from working and placed under ongoing surveillance even after serving their time.

By Jan. 21, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television's online content arm had shut down 222 accounts and "cleaned up" thousands of items of content "depicting the prison experience [and] questioning the national judicial system," the report said.

The aim of the clampdown is to block off former prisoners' ability to "attract online traffic" or sell products online, it said, without specifying what kind of sentences such prisoners had served.

Online platforms Douyin, Kuaishou, Weibo, Bilibili, Xiaohongshu and Tencent had all cooperated in "investigation and reform" of their content, it said.

"All short videos released by the accounts of ex-prisoners were manually reviewed," the report said, adding that 83 keywords relating to release from prison had been blocked, making it hard for live streamers to attract viewers of such content.

Trying to survive

Dissident Xu Wanping, who has served a total of 20 years in prison, said many recently released prisoners have been sharing their experiences, or simply selling stuff online as a way to make a living on their release.

"They're trying to address their basic need to exist following their release from jail, and society should pay more attention to how they are supposed to do that," Xu told RFA. "They should get more help and support."

Stated-backed news site The Paper cited an industry regulator as saying that the authorities are trying to stop people from "flaunting their experiences of crime or prison" online, or transmitting insider information to the public.

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"[Legally], a citizen has the right to freedom of expression," says activist Gu Guoping, who has been detained by authorities in Shanghai after expressing public support for the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong. Credit: Gu Guoping

Former university lecturer Gu Guoping, who has been repeatedly detained by the Shanghai police, said those who get out of prison shouldn't be deprived of their rights.

"They are normal citizens and should therefore not be deprived of their right to speak," Guo said. "[Legally], a citizen has the right to freedom of expression."

Under surveillance

In practice, this is seldom the case for former political prisoners, who are held under surveillance at a location decided by the authorities, sometimes for years after their release, and frequently prevented from earning a living.

Prominent rights lawyer Tang Jitian was released after more than a year of police detention on Jan. 14, showing up in his birthplace in the northeastern province of Jilin, instead of his home in Beijing, a common practice for recently released political prisoners.

"I'll try to keep doing what I can keep doing, but ... I can't say any more right now," Tang told RFA, saying it was "inconvenient" to speak, a phrase often employed by people targeted for official surveillance.

Tang's friend and fellow rights activist Xiang Li said Tang had been sent back to his parental hometown of Dunhua, Jilin, on the morning of Jan. 14 by the state security police.

"I personally believe that ... the state security police drove him to someplace in Dunhua, and then asked his family to come pick him up," he said. 

Tang's license to practice as a lawyer was revoked in 2010 after he campaigned for direct elections within the state-run Lawyers' Association, and represented practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

His friend Zhao Zhongyuan said his "release" doesn't mean he has his freedom back.

"No, that won't happen, for sure," Zhao said. "Tang Jitian was already being monitored before he lost his freedom ... the authorities have been monitoring him for many years, and they won't let up."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.