On the morning of Tuesday, September 17, 16-year-old junior high student Yang Hui was taken away by police from his classroom for an online post in which he questioned local police’s investigation of the death of a karaoke bar manager. The boy was later charged with “provoking troubles” and punished to a 7-day detention.
This middle school boy from a seldom-heard-of Zhangjiachuan Hui Autonomous County in the western province of Gansu is officially the first victim of China’s new anti-online rumor rule – Internet users who share false information that is defamatory or harms “national interests” can be sentenced to up to 3 years in jail if the post is viewed more than 5000 times or shared more than 500 times.
The rule is the newest fruit of China’s recent Internet crackdown. Before the boy, several high-profile online opinion leaders have been arrested for various reasons. The boy’s detention seems to be the last straw. Unlike the previously arrested who have millions of followers on social media, Yang Hui is just an ordinary netizen, like everybody else. The danger has never been so real.
So Chinese netizens decided to fight back, not by pushing for more freedom of speech, but by mobilizing bottom-up anti-corruption investigations.
Almost immediately after the boy’s detention, pictures of the palace-like local government building and its immense conference room started to circulate online. Netizens questioned why Zhangjiachuan, a poor county known nationally for its economic hardship, can afford such an extravagant government building. The answer, of course, is that the county’s top officials are corrupt.
The county’s top officials are not the only targets of netizens’ strike back. Someone one dug out a court record in which Bai Yongqiang, county police chief, was said to have given cash bribes worth RMB 50,000 yuan in total to his boss from 1995 to 2005. Apparently, the record didn’t impact his promotion to police chief in later years. But it’s too bad that a 16-year-old boy was detained for “spreading online rumors” under his watch.
Two pieces of news came out this Monday. One is that Yang Hui has been released. The other is that the police chief under question has been suspected from his post for further investigation. Is this another victory of social media activism in China, as many netizens claimed? Hardly so, because it is indeed in China’s law now that someone deemed to provoke social disorder by speaking out online can receive criminal charges. But the news did show that Chinese netizens are not going to quitely sit there, accepting what’s imposed on them.
In fact, retaliation started way before Yang Hui’s case. Ever since the beginning of the current wave of anti-online rumor campaign, Chinese netizens have spontaneously started to report what many called “official rumors (官谣)” from government agencies or mouthpiece media, as appose to rumors from netizens (民谣). It’s a tooth for a tooth.
Reports and new articles from state-owned media are now under careful scrutiny by netizens who are on the lookout for “official rumors.”
“The crackdown on online rumors should treat official rumors and rumors from the people equally, especially when officials rumors are way more harmful to the society.” One netizen 北京杨博 commented.