China censors ‘Beijing’ on Weibo, torture in Izium, and Russia is jailing its elites

Natalia Antelava

 

Today, we start in China, where the censors are working overtime. Following last week’s protest on a Beijing bridge by a man later shown being bundled into a police car after hanging banners describing Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “traitorous dictator,” the government has been busy removing evidence of the protest from the internet. “We want food, not PCR tests,” read a banner. “Elections, not leaders.” The extraordinary protest, just days before the ongoing 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party began, has inspired copycat protests against Xi Jinping around the world. The Chinese authorities, already wary of any dissent marring what is widely expected to be a celebration of Xi Jinping’s reign en route to him being handed a third term as president, have clamped down on keywords that might lead people to the protest on the bridge. Restricted terms include “Sitong Bridge” and “brave man.” And extends, reports Bloomberg, to words such as “bridge” and “courage.” On Weibo, arguably China’s largest social media platform, even the word “Beijing” was enough to trigger restrictions and monitoring.

As Iranian kamikaze drones fell on Kyiv this week, Russia stopped pretending that it was going after military installations. The drones are being aimed at residential areas, killing civilians and destroying vital infrastructure. According to Volodymyr Zelensky, a third of Ukraine’s power stations have been destroyed over the past week. 

Meanwhile, Russian-appointed officials in the occupied city of Mariupol have removed a monument to Holodomor, a man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. “We are not removing a monument, we are removing a symbol of political disinformation,” says a young woman in this video, a simple marble block dedicated to “victims of famine and political terror” visible in the background. As a historian friend recently put it, “the war in Ukraine is really a war about history and the legacy of the Soviet Union, whether the whole Soviet experiment was a good or bad thing.” 

Electric shocks, waterboarding, rape — these are just a few among many findings of torture inflicted by Russian troops on Ukrainian detainees in Izium, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. In Izium, a town in Kharkiv retaken by Ukrainian forces in September, Human Rights Watch researchers shed light on the horrors perpetrated during the months of Russian occupation. Survivors identified at least seven locations in Izium, including two schools, where they said Russian soldiers had detained and abused them. One woman who was held and repeatedly raped carved her name into the wall of the room in which she was held. She also carved words and phrases into the wall: “electricity, undressed or raped,” “murdered,” “very painful,” and “help.” She considered trying to kill herself in detention. Others did, with two men reported to have hung themselves a few days after their release from detention.

Russia doesn’t export much beyond oil and gas, but one success story has been its “foreign agent law” that has been embraced by authoritarian regimes from Egypt to Belarus. This week, a version of this law claimed more victims all the way across the world in Nicaragua. The country’s interior minister dissolved 100 domestic and international non-profit organizations for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” Daniel Ortega, the authoritarian leader of Nicaragua, borrowed the law from the Kremlin’s playbook back in 2020, and has since used it to strip more than 2,000 non-profit organizations of their legal status, essentially obliterating the country’s civil society. Ortega is not the only one. Here’s Coda’s 2021 piece on how Moscow’s legal toolkit has been implemented around the world.  

RUSSIAN SCIENTISTS FACE STARK CHOICE: JAIL OR EXILE

In hindsight, the passing of the foreign agents law in Russia in 2012 was a pivotal moment in the slow-burn extermination of Russian civil society.  The process reached its climax when Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, banned Russians from calling it a war and used “national security” as an excuse to launch an unprecedented crackdown on dissent using the legal tools that the Kremlin had been sharpening for decades. Russia’s entire liberal intelligentsia, including journalists and civil society activists, are now either in exile, in jail, or dead. And still, the government finds new targets. 

Just last week, the Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza had a high treason charge added to charges he faces over spreading disinformation about the Russian army while speaking to lawmakers in the U.S. Earlier, this month Kara-Murza was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Now he could face 20 years in a Russian prison for treason.  He was initially detained in April for disobeying police and jailed for 15 days. Last month, Ivan Safronov, a former journalist, was sentenced to 22 years in prison on what were widely regarded as trumped-up charges of treason.

And just this week the head of Russia’s security council Oleg Khramov gave an interview to a pro-Kremlin media outlet in which he said that he has information that “the United States and its allies are preparing to apply new approaches in “subversive work to decompose Russian society.” Of course, he added, that America’s hostile actions will not go unanswered.

It’s not clear what the Russian state plans to do against this new Western “plot,” but part of its response might include the further repression of Russian scientists. They are already under attack for their collaborations with foreign colleagues. Until recently, the Russian state had encouraged its scientists to cooperate with fellow researchers from around the world. Since July, though, we’ve noticed that these foreign connections were often cited when scientists were arrested and charged with treason. 

In early September, we reported on the arrest of prominent Russian scientist Alexander Shiplyuk, after he spoke out in support of a colleague he said had been arbitrarily arrested. And in July, a scientist suspected of passing information to China was arrested from a clinic where he was receiving treatment for late-stage cancer. He died after three days in pre-trial detention.

“A couple more years and there will be no world-renowned scientists left in Russia at all,” one well known biochemist told my colleague Ivan Makridin. Those “who will not leave,” the scientist added, “will go to jail.”

WHAT WE ARE READING AND WATCHING: 

  • I haven’t been able to find my favorite type of salt in shops recently, and now I know why thanks to this fascinating, albeit sad Twitter thread about the fate of salt mines in the Easter Ukrainian city of Soledar

Since the February invasion of Ukraine, I have been surprised by how few Russian diplomats have resigned in protest. Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat in Geneva, is a very rare case and he has written an excellent piece for Foreign Affairs magazine. “The invasion of Ukraine made it impossible” he writes, “to deny just how brutal and repressive Russia had become.” Don’t miss this profoundly self-reflective essay.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.