Chinese Authorities Release Journalist and Democracy Advocate Shi Tao Early

October 28, 2013

In August 2013, Chinese authorities released journalist and democracy advocate Shi Tao ahead of his expected release date. International reports did not mention an explanation, although one report noted that Shi was feeling well, indicating he was not likely released for medical reasons.  International human rights organizations applauded Shi’s release, but some caution it does not signify a shift in freedom of expression in China or a change in the treatment of free speech defenders. Shi’s controversial case symbolizes the challenges rights advocates face and illustrates the lack of transparency within China's justice system.

In early September 2013, PEN International (PEN), an international organization of writers, reported that Chinese authorities released journalist and democracy advocate Shi Tao from prison on August 23, after he served less than 9 years of a 10-year prison sentence (New York Times (NYT), 7 September 13). While PEN did not explain why Shi was released early, the organization reported that Shi was staying with family and had said that he “felt generally well” (NYT, 7 September 13) (according to Shi Tao’s profile on the Human Rights in China (HRIC) Web site his expected release date was November 23, 2014). HRIC’s prisoner profile states that  Shi was originally arrested in 2004 for disclosing “state secrets,” and then later in 2005 was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in a controversial case. (For more information see Commission analysis here.) The New York Times and other news outlets cited reports that authorities sentenced Shi based on evidence provided to the Chinese government from the Internet company Yahoo! (CNN, 8 September 13; NYT, 8 September 05). The prosecution reportedly used as evidence an email Shi sent to a New York-based Web site, via Yahoo!, regarding media restrictions around the 15th anniversary of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (Radio Free Asia (RFA) in Chinese, 9 September 13; PEN, last visited 30 September 13). Human rights organizations and select U.S. legislators criticized Yahoo! for providing the Chinese government with information from Shi’s Yahoo! email account (Human Rights Watch (HRW), 11 August 06; Washington Post (WP), 4 August 07; CNN, 16 October 07); CNN, 8 September 13.

Reaction to Shi Tao’s Release

International human rights organizations applauded Shi Tao’s release, but some warned that it did not signify an easing of restrictions on free expression. The following examples illustrate some reactions:

  • Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, emphasized the current challenges confronting free expression, saying Shi’s release comes, “at a time when there seem to be increasingly long shadows over freedom of expression in China,” and added “Shi Tao’s arrest and imprisonment, because of the actions of Yahoo China, signaled a decade ago the challenges to freedom of expression of Internet surveillance and privacy that we are now dealing with…” (RFA in English, 9 September 13).
  • Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), discussed Shi’s case, stating, “We welcome Shi’s release 15 months before the end of his 10-year sentence, but each day he spent in prison was a grave injustice” (CPJ, 9 September 13).
  • Phelim Kine, senior researcher for HRW, advised a recent Chinese government-sponsored forum on human rights to explore the case in a September 11, 2013, HRW article: “If the official Beijing Forum on Human Rights wants a serious discussion this week about ‘ties between human rights and the rule of law,’ they should start with the dangers of China’s state secrets law and Shi Tao’s lost eight years in prison.”
  • Patrick Poon, executive secretary of PEN’s Hong Kong branch, commented that Shi’s early release is not a sign of loosening controls on media and expression. Poon stated, “Recently there are many cases of Internet crackdowns, and thus I am still pessimistic on the future of Internet freedom in China” (RFA in English, 9 September 13).

Yahoo! also released a statement welcoming Shi’s early release and stating “…no one, anywhere in the world, should ever be imprisoned for peacefully exercising the universal right to free expression” (RFA in English, 9 September 13).

Shi Tao’s Case, Sentence, and Controversy

According to the HRIC profile on Shi, he was detained in November 2004 and then formally arrested on December 14, 2004. On April 27, 2005, authorities found Shi guilty of “illegally providing state secrets overseas” (see article 111 of the PRC Criminal Law) and sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment based on details Yahoo! provided on Shi’s email account (Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), 7 September 13; CNN, 8 September 13). Guo Guoting, Shi’s attorney, was unable to defend Shi since Chinese authorities had “suspended” (diao xiao) Guo’s lawyers’ license prior to Shi’s March trial. Around the same time authorities placed Guo under “soft detention,” an extralegal form of home confinement (Voice of America, 6 March 05;  ICPC, 14 December 07; HRW, 29 April 08).

Yahoo!’s actions were widely criticized (CNN, 8 September 13), and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs invited Yahoo! to testify on Shi’s case in a February 2006 hearing (Wall Street Journal (WSJ), 6 November 07). According to the WSJ article, in November 2007, the Committee invited Yahoo! to return for a second hearing after an investigation determined the company had misinformed Congress about its knowledge of the nature of Chinese authorities’ intentions with Shi’s email account information. At the November hearing, Representative Chris Smith commented, “We have now learned there is much more to the story than Yahoo let on, and a Chinese government document that Yahoo had in their possession at the time of the hearing left little doubt of the government’s intentions,” and emphasized that “U.S. companies must hold the line and not work hand in glove with the secret police” (CNN, 16 October 07). Following the hearing, Yahoo! made a private out-of-court settlement with the families of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning in a human rights violation suit they filed against the company in April 2007 (Wang was also imprisoned by Chinese officials based on evidence supplied by Yahoo! regarding his account) (WP, 14 November 07; HRIC, China Rights Forum No. 1, 2008).

The PRC Law on Guarding State Secrets and other domestic legislation are broad and vague and authorities often use them to prosecute writers and journalists for exercising their right to free expression granted under the Chinese Constitution and international law. For examples of such legislation, see this Commission analysis.

For more information on specific cases of harassment and trends in free expression, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2013 Annual Report, pp. (57–66), and Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2012 Annual Report, pp. (49–58).