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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.

In photos: Scenes from some of the worst fires raging in the U.S.

A home explodes into flames as the Dixie Fire rips through the Indian Falls neighborhood of unincorporated Plumas County, California, on July 24. The blaze started near the origin of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire and has churned burned over 185,000 acres. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Out-of-state crews went to Montana to tackle a wildfire that wounded five firefighters as Australia sent a large air tanker to help Californian firefighting efforts, as 88 large blazes raged in the U.S. Saturday.

The big picture: Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) tweeted his thanks to Utah and California for sending crews over the weekend, as the two states battle their own blazes. The Australian tanker arrived in Calif., this week, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) proclaimed a state of emergency for four northern counties Friday.

Updated 3 hours ago - Sports

Swimmer Chase Kalisz first American to win Tokyo Olympics gold medal

Chase Kalisz of Team United States celebrates after winning the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Swimmer Chase Kalisz has become the first Team United States Olympian to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

The big picture: The Rio 2016 silver medalist's winning time in the men's 400 meters Individual Medley Final was 4 minutes 9.42 seconds. His teammate Jay Litherland took silver, .86 seconds behind him. Moments later, Kieran Smith grabbed a third medal for the U.S. when he won bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.