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  • Human Rights Research Center

Chen Pinlin's Quest for Justice Amid China's Censorship Storm

Author: Shirley Lin

June 25, 2024



Resilience Amid Repression


As the world aimed to unmask in 2022, China did not follow; instead, it became more stringent with its “zero-Covid” policy. Citizens were locked within their apartment buildings while daily PCR tests were administered, all to promote the narrative that a Marxist-Leninist political system is more effective at handling the turbulent COVID-19 virus than Western democracies (Heanele, 2022). Families lived off food deliveries to comply with their government while watching much of the world through their T.V.s and windows. As months droned on in places such as Shanghai or Xinjiang, any discontent expressed on Chinese social media sources such as WeChat or Weibo quickly disappeared to create the image of complacency amongst all citizens; the image the government aimed to paint was one where all Chinese citizens were willing to sacrifice freedoms to ensure policies were unified and effective. However, Chinese citizens soon began to question how the rest of the world unmasked with little concern about COVID-19, as footage from the Qatar World Cup showed maskless crowds and no PCR testing stations. The World Cup itself would not spark protests of discontent with police officials and restriction of freedom in China. Still, it highlighted citizens growing discontent with the stringent quarantine measures. Instead, it was the barriers erected on roads and at community entrances to control the movement of COVID-19-infected groups that led to political unrest, as deadly apartment fires broke out and rescue operations were hindered by these barriers. In the northwestern city of Ürümqi, a devastating fire broke out. Still, officials were unable to get past the obstacles, resulting in the loss of 10 lives, according to the Chinese government. However, citizens from the region reported the death toll to be between 32 and 44.


Upon realizing that the sacrifices made by Chinese citizens in relinquishing their freedoms did not match the ability to move freely outside without masks, protesters resorted to staging demonstrations against the “zero-Covid'' policy. This involved displaying papers with all the words they wished to express but could not due to state censorship. Thus, the “White Paper Revolution'' emerged, also known as the “A4 Revolution,” symbolizing the typical paper size used in regular printing tasks. This ingenious method of expressing dissatisfaction with people being confined to their homes inspired Chen Pinlin, also known as Plato, to produce a documentary called “Ürümqi Middle Road” (乌鲁木齐中路). The documentary captures videos of police brutality, iron wires that trapped citizens in their homes during emergencies, and peaceful protests mourning those who died in the Ürümqi fires. These protests also demanded that government officials lift lockdowns, ensure fundamental freedoms like the right to move freely and access information, and treat citizens with dignity and humanity. As of January 5, 2024, Chen Pinlin has been arrested and detained at the Boashan Detention Centre in Shanghai “on charges of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Chen may face five years in prison if convicted” (Amnesty International, 2024, para. 1). This article aims to delve into how Chen’s arrest highlights issues of journalistic mistreatment and concerns about human rights violations, given China’s track record of inhumanely treating journalists who defy censorship. Furthermore, policy recommendations are put forward to demand accountability for the mistreatment of journalists aiming to champion freedom of speech and preserve historical records through their work.

 

China’s Historical Journalistic Abuses


Chen’s documentary may serve as a historical record, but concerns about his safety have surged due to China’s track record of media censorship and crackdowns on dissent. Reporters Sans Frontières’ (R.S.F.) World Press Freedom Index ranked China at 172 out of 180 countries in 2024, highlighting the limited journalistic freedom in the country. This non-profit and non-governmental organization dedicated to safeguarding the right to information has been able to show that “the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) is the world’s largest prison for journalists, and its regime conducts a campaign of repression against journalism and the right to information worldwide” (R.S.F., 2024). In other words, China’s history of suppressing journalism, as seen in the arrest of Chen Pinlin, is not a one-time occurrence. Instead, it reflects the country’s broader censorship policy, which includes concerns about torture and coerced confessions aimed at aligning with the political goals of suppressing journalism. Journalists within China face challenges when accessing global press freedom, highlighting broader implications for the need to defend journalistic integrity and freedom of expression. R.S.F. also highlights the importance of international organizations’ role in advocating for press freedom. In other words, accountability arises as Chen’s story is broadcasted worldwide, pushing the Chinese government to confront criticisms and pressures regarding its treatment of journalists and its broader stance on freedom of the press.


As Chen’s documentary highlights how the White Paper Movement emerged from the grief over the loss of around 32-44 people due to the fires in Ürümqi, one may wonder what the points of contention are and why the documentary is considered so blatantly controversial. The documentary evokes a strong call for human rights, specifically the freedom to go outside without constant PCR tests or the fear of detainment, while illustrating the lack of accountability the government held as people could not break out of their very own homes to save their lives. Citizens posted footage of iron wire encapsulating their door handles, preventing them from breaking the door down. Still, the government denied this as the Information Office of Ürümqi Municipal People's Government released statements attributing the “tragedy to the weak abilities of self-rescue of the residents” (白纸革命, 2023). The blame was placed on the victims, even citing their parking jobs as a reason why emergency responders could not diminish the fires within three hours. The abuse of power that officials held reminded citizens that they were not equals but instead looked down on. As citizens called for change, they were faced with assault from the Xinjiang Ürümqi Corps, which is a state-owned enterprise or paramilitary organization in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. To address the lack of accountability observed in the government’s actions, Chen took it upon himself to shed light on the discrepancies and shortcomings in the official narrative. As freedom of the press is not guaranteed within China, the international community holds much fear when awaiting the verdict of Chen’s case.



Journalistic Sacrifice and State Suppression


Much of the international concern arises as previous journalists reporting COVID-19 have faced harsh verdicts when creating transparency due to the government’s lack of accountability. For example, Zhang Zhan, an independent Chinese Journalist who was once a lawyer, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2020 after releasing statements announcing that COVID-19’s origins arose in Wuhan. Her work shed light on the dangers of exposing suffocating censorship within the tight media coverage controls. After Zhang’s trip to Wuhan to inform citizens of the realities of the COVID-19 virus, Chinese authorities detained her on claims of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” of which she was found guilty. In an attempt to protest her own detainment, she went on a hunger strike to show the nation that she would refuse to be silenced. By the time of her trial in December, she appeared emaciated and had to be wheeled into court. In disregard for her health, the government went ahead and sentenced Zhang to four years of prison, where authorities prohibited her from seeing her family (Amnesty International, 2021). The rationality behind her sentencing came from her reporting not being state-sanctioned, as citizen journalists often defy censorship. Zhang was not the only independent reporter detained and sentenced to years of prison during the outbreak of COVID-19; her case only represents one of many cases that underscores the broader struggle for press freedom and human rights in regions where dissent is harshly repressed. Amnesty International went on to express their deepest concerns for Zhang as they feared the Chinese government had “shackled and force-fed” her (Gan, 2024). Time and time again, the Chinese government’s desire to portray unified and efficient policies has weighed more than their own citizens. As Zhang’s story serves as a beacon of warning, fear for Chen prevails, as the desire to warn others of the truth is punished harshly.


Strategic Approaches for International Accountability


Several strategies can be used to create international accountability for China’s abuse of journalists, ranging from multilateral pressure to media exposure and legal advocacy. Creating a collective condemnation of China’s violations of journalism and human rights can begin with joint statements involving forums like R.S.F., Amnesty International, or even at higher levels, including the United Nations General Assembly or the Human Rights Council. Voicing concern through these forums gets the attention of Chinese officials and much of the world, creating a sense of collective responsibility and solidarity in upholding fundamental freedoms and challenging authoritarian practices. In tandem with multilateral pressure, media exposure helps to foster global media coverage and public awareness campaigns through documentaries, investigative journalism, and social media to amplify the voices and stories of those who have suffered at the hands of Chinese censorship. Public awareness also applies pressure on China, allowing the international community to express legal advocacy through legal initiatives and international tribunals, which aim to hold China accountable for its journalistic abuses and human rights violations. Legal advocacy can occur through human rights organizations, legal experts, and advocacy groups coming together to pursue legal avenues for justice and accountability.


Upholding Hope


Chen Pinlin’s story is not one of despair but rather one of hope. To face the fear of government retaliation to spread awareness of governmental abuse is bravery. While Chen’s verdict may be up to fate, the international community must gather virtually through the media to denounce both journalism and human rights abuses. By solidarity with individuals like Chen Pinlin, who bravely confront government oppression to shed light on abuses, we strengthen the fabric of democracy and human rights worldwide. We must continue to amplify these voices, share their stories, and demand accountability from governments that seek to silence dissent and control information. The hope is to foster a culture of accountability, transparency, and justice for all through collective action and unwavering determination.


 

Glossary


  • Authoritarian: Of, relating to, or favoring blind submission to authority.

  • Complacency: Marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers.

  • Emaciated: Very thin and feeble especially from lack of nutrition or illness.

  • Multilateral: Involving or participated in by more than two nations or parties.

  • Oppression: Unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.

  • Repression: The action or process of repressing/restraint; the state of being repressed/restrained.

  • Stringent: marked by strictness or severity especially with regard to rule or standard.

  • Suppression: To put down by authority or force; to keep from public knowledge.


 

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