A 16-year-old boy in western China’s Gansu province has become the first person held under new rules against “rumor-mongering” after his tweet accusing local authorities of improper conduct was retweeted more than 500 times.
Chinese netizens launched a “Save the Child!” campaign to call for his release after official media reported that the middle-school student, identified only by his surname Yang, is being held for “spreading defamatory messages.”
"The 16-year-old is the first person to be punished under a national regulation announced just last week," the state-run China.org website reported Friday, adding that it was unclear how long the teenager would be detained for.
Amid a crackdown on China's usually outspoken social media sites, the Supreme People’s Court and state prosecution service last week issued guidelines warning that "rumor-mongering" is a crime punishable under law.
Anyone posting information online deemed by the authorities to be "spreading rumors" or "defaming" another person could be punished for a serious offense if the post is subsequently viewed at least 5,000 times or re-posted at least 500 times.
Authors of such posts could face jail terms of up to three years under Article 246 (1) of China's Criminal Law.
Accusing police of improper conduct
Yang was detained after posting a critical tweet on Saturday hitting out at police in his hometown in Gansu's Zhangjiachuan Hui Autonomous County.
Yang accused the police of improper conduct after a man jumped from the roof of a karaoke bar in Zhangjiachuan two days earlier, including beating up the man's relatives. In a later tweet, he pointed to alleged links between local judicial officials and the bar's owners.
Police had promised an autopsy after the man's relatives alleged he had been beaten up and thrown from the building, official media reported.
One of Yang’s posts was retweeted more than 500 times, in violation of anti-rumor rules which came into effect on Sept. 9, official reports quoted police sources as saying.
'Save the Child!'
Netizens responded angrily to Yang's detention, launching an online campaign for his release by retweeting a post bearing the slogan "Save the Child!" more than 10,000 times, adding thousands of comments.
"If you would only arrest the corrupt officials, you wouldn't need to expend all this energy [detaining netizens]," wrote user @TZARHIUandzexiao on the hugely popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
On Tencent's microblogging platform, user @boyilinquan002 commented: "The local police chief must be totally inhuman, to take action against a middle-school student."
However, tweets criticizing Yang's detention and hitting out at the "taping of Chinese netizens' mouths" were deleted from Sina Weibo and Tencent soon after they appeared.
"This goes to show that you can't call anything into question," wrote Sina Weibo user @huziweiping. "It's really dangerous!"
Some comments referred to a "white terror," while others just wrote "scary!" in response to Yang's detention, which comes after last week's detention of a number of prominent businessmen who had criticized the government online.
Wang Gongquan, a famous wealthy investor, was taken away by Beijing police at noon last Friday.
And in southern Yunnan province, prominent tweeter and businessman Dong Rubin, known by his online nickname "bianmin," was held three days earlier on charges linked to the administration of his business.
'War on rumor'
"The war on rumor has begun, with initial battle positions and territory occupied pretty much according to plan," former top ruling Chinese Communist Party official Bao Tong wrote in an essay broadcast this week on RFA's Mandarin Service.
Writing under house arrest at his Beijing home, the former aide to late disgraced premier Zhao Ziyang linked the "war on rumor" to a secret document issued by the Party last year, specifying which topics are considered taboo for public discussion.
"Their arrests, and any follow-up action, are subject to the requirements of Document No. 9 and its seven taboos," Bao said, referring to the banned topics of universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens' rights, the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party, the financial and political elite, and judicial independence.
"Who will be arrested next is part of the Party and government's strategy, and as such is unfathomable," he said.
Dissidents and social critics have dismissed the war on rumor as being a genuine attempt to "clean up" the wilder aspects of China's Internet, saying is to be part of a strategic clampdown on free speech.
"Rumors are always something that our leaders don't like to hear," Bao wrote. "But both rumors and non-rumors should be exempt from [government] inspection."
Chinese lawyers have warned that the authorities are misusing the law as they seek to press criminal charges against netizens detained for "spreading rumors online."
Many say that there is no clear definition on the statute books for what constitutes a rumor, and that the guidelines from the Supreme People's Court and Procuratorate lack the validity of a law enacted by the country's parliament, the National People's Congress.
Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.