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Xi Jinping. Photo: Noel Celis - Pool/ Getty Images

Editor's note: After this article was published in January, the Chinese government removed the court case from their website. The document is available here.

A Chinese student at the University of Minnesota has been arrested in China and sentenced to six months in prison for tweets he posted while in the United States, according to a Chinese court document viewed by Axios. Some of the tweets contained images deemed to be unflattering portrayals of a "national leader."

Why it matters: The case represents a dramatic escalation of the Chinese government's attempts to shut down free speech abroad and a global expansion of a Chinese police campaign to track down Twitter users in China who posted content critical of the Chinese government.

What's happening: Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called on China to release the student. "This is what ruthless and paranoid totalitarianism looks like," said Sasse.

Details: According to an official court document dated Nov. 5, 2019, Chinese police detained 20-year-old Luo Daiqing in July 2019 in Wuhan, his hometown, where the liberal arts student had returned after the end of the spring semester.

  • The court document says that "in September and October 2018, while he was studying at the University of Minnesota," Luo "used his Twitter account to post more than 40 comments denigrating a national leader's image and indecent pictures," which "created a negative social impact."
  • After months of detention, Luo was sentenced in November 2019 to six months in prison for "provocation." (According to the court judgment, the time he spent in detention will count toward those six months).
  • A request for comment sent to Luo's university email account received no reply.
The images Luo allegedly posted.

Axios found that a Twitter account known to belong to Luo was opened in September 2018; the last tweet is from June 2019, one month before Luo was detained.

  • One tweet superimposed Chinese government slogans over images of Lawrence Limburger, a cartoon villain who bears a resemblance to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • The account also retweeted several images of Winnie the Pooh, a character currently censored in China after Chinese netizens made an unflattering comparison to Xi.

Between the lines: Chinese students in the United States know that they may be subject to surveillance. Many have become increasingly reluctant to publicly criticize the Chinese government or attend pro-democracy events.

The bottom line: Chinese police are tracking down and silencing Twitter users who post content critical of the Chinese government — even from abroad.

Go deeper: American speech puts spotlight on Chinese censorship

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Jan 11, 2021 - Economy & Business

Foreign investors doubled Chinese bond purchases in 2020

Reproduced from the Institute of International Finance; Chart: Axios Visuals

Despite the pandemic ravaging investor confidence early in 2020, U.S. and European investors flocked to Chinese debt, pushing the level of foreign investment in China's bonds to a record high and more than double its 2019 level, data from the Institute of International Finance show.

What happened: Chinese government and policy bank bonds were added to the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index beginning in April 2019 and in September JPMorgan announced that they would add China's government bonds to its highly followed EM global bond index.

Updated 44 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The first hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominations begin on Tuesday, with testimony from his picks to lead the departments of State, Homeland and Defense.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for incoming presidents. The first slate of nominees will appear on Tuesday before a Republican-controlled Senate, but that will change once the new Democratic senators-elect from Georgia are sworn in.