Young Chinese Netizens Punished by Authorities for Surfing Banned Website

By Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.
October 30, 2019Updated: October 30, 2019

Chinese authorities recently punished about a dozen Chinese netizens for browsing the banned Esu, a platform that exposes bad behavior by notable or famous Chinese figures.

As of Oct. 30, and are no longer accessible. The website’s owners are Chinese, but the server is located overseas.

The punished netizens, who all visited Esu by bypassing the Chinese regime’s “Great Firewall,” were mostly youths in their teens and 20s, from provinces across the country. The police investigated and reprimanded them, but didn’t make formal arrests or bring charges.

The targeting of the netizens represents an intensification in the Chinese regime’s efforts to crack down on internet speech.

Days before the Esu case, police in Inner Mongolia detained a local farmer for eight days because he left an online comment saying that a particular brand of Chinese fertilizer wasn’t good enough. He had made the comment on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform.

The police charged the farmer with “disrupting public order.”

The Inner Mongolia government quoted police in its Oct. 22 press release about the case: “Anybody who arbitrarily publishes inappropriate comments, insults others, or vents their anger and personal resentments online will be punished severely by the law.”

Browsing the Web

Police in Liuzhou City of the Guangxi region announced on Oct. 29 that they punished a 17-year-old student surnamed Liu, saying he had registered an account on Esu and had viewed the website several times.

While Liu didn’t post anything on Esu, the police criticized him, saying that his case should be used as a model to educate the public.

On the same day, a 15-year-old boy named Li from Chengde City in Hebei Province was also criticized severely by local police and his school; his alleged offenses were the same as Liu’s.

On Oct. 25, Fujian provincial police posted that seven males were investigated for registering accounts on Esu and posting “inappropriate comments that damaged the country’s national image.” The netizens were from different areas of Fujian, with ages ranging from 14 to 25.

Police from Pingtan County in Fujian Province reprimanded a 21-year-old resident surnamed Shi on Oct. 17. In the announcement, police said that Shi registered an Esu account and posted information on the platform without checking whether the information was true.

On Oct. 24, police from Tangshan City in Hebei Province also released a notice that they issued warnings to a 20-year-old named Yao and a 19-year-old named Gu for registering on Esu and sharing other people’s personal information on the platform.

The police released them after they “confessed” their wrongdoing and deleted related accounts.

What’s Esu

Esu, which started in January 2014 with a server in China, describes itself as a platform for “revealing the truth” to the public about famous figures’ bad behavior. While most of the information posted on Esu was verified as true, the website has generated controversy for encouraging netizens to collect and publicize celebrities’ and their relatives’ personal information.

For example, under the name of Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, people can find his birthday, ID number, home address, educational background, a record of his bad behavior, and pseudonyms that he uses online.

In July 2017, Esu was shuttered by its then-operator, a Chinese man named Zhuang Haiyang. Local media reported that Zhuang deleted all the data on its server. The website was reinstated in September 2018, after a new administrator found a backup database.

Internet Surveillance

Internet censorship by the Chinese regime has escalated in recent months. Chinese nationals who post prohibited content while traveling outside China are also punished for violating the Chinese regime’s rules.

On July 28, police in Dalian City, Liaoning Province, said that they arrested and detained a 36-year-old man surnamed Lu, who was accused of colluding with a female partner named Zhang to post “anti-China” photos and words on overseas websites, while he was outside China. Zhang, 22, was arrested in Anhui Province in May 2018.

While police didn’t say what crimes Lu is accused of, they indicated that he would be prosecuted and sentenced. The Dalian court hasn’t released any information related to the case.

Many Chinese have been detained by police after posting about sensitive topics on foreign platforms such as Twitter, such as information about a Chinese vaccine scandal, water and air pollution, and other social issues in China. Chinese who use virtual private network (VPN) software to bypass the Great Firewall have been detained or fined by police as well.

Netizens were upset by the news of recent police action.

“A 15-year-old was punished for bypassing the Great Firewall. Furthermore, police posted his case online, which is like parading a criminal on the streets. What a shame!” Sima Nan wrote on Oct. 29 on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform.

Sima added that many people circumvent the firewall; it would be nearly impossible for police to catch everyone who does it.

Other netizens replied to Sima, saying that authorities’ tactics were similar to the Cultural Revolution era, when people were sentenced to prison if they listened to foreign radio stations.