Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have jailed an online activist who tweeted about the smog that shrouded the provincial capital Chengdu this winter for "spreading rumors."
The netizen, identified only by the online nickname Xinhai, had sent out a post on social media claiming that the city had issued a "red smog alert" on Jan. 5, police in Chengdu said, according to local media reports.
"The Chengdu city meteorological bureau has put out the first red alert in the city's history," the tweet said. "It alerts us that Chengdu will see the worst smog in 2,000 years of history, with the air quality index over 700, maybe over the cancer-causing threshold of 800."
The tweet was posted on Twitter-like Weibo platforms, on the smartphone chat app WeChat, and on the popular chatroom service QQ, and was retweeted in large numbers.
Its author was handed an administrative sentence, which can run up to a maximum of 15 days by police without the need for a trial, for "spreading rumors," the Chengdu Commercial News reported.
Online freedom of speech activist Xiucai Jianghu said the police had no way of proving that the tweet was inaccurate, however.
"It's not exaggerating one bit to say that this is the worst air pollution in 2,000 years," he said. "There wasn't any smog during imperial times in China."
"They were just telling the truth, and that hurt the government's image."
He said the jailing was part of an ongoing bid to spread a climate of fear among social media users.
"They want to suppress free speech and create an atmosphere of terror, so nobody will dare say anything bad about the government online again," Xiucai Jianghu said.
"It's not rumor-mongering just because it made the government look bad," he said. "They wouldn't say it was rumor-mongering if you praised the government and covered up something bad that they did."
No malicious intent
Shandong rights lawyer Shu Xiangxin said the accusation of rumor-mongering doesn't stand up in law.
"To show rumor-mongering, you have to prove malicious intent," Shu said. "Well-intentioned criticism doesn't count as rumor-mongering, and it should be encouraged."
"It is against the law, and against legal principles, to hold someone under administrative detention on such a pretext," he said. "It basically means that their powers are getting broader and broader."
"This leads to a situation in which everyone feels threatened, and where great damage is done to freedom of expression."
Chengdu residents, unused to the toxic brown haze that regularly engulfs more northern cities like Beijing, were quick to complain about the smog that engulfed their city.
The authorities launched a crackdown on spontaneous public protests after several days of heavy smog hit the city last December.
Schools banned the wearing of face-masks in the classroom, while the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda machine issued strict guidelines banning coverage of the pollution protests.
The clampdown followed sporadic protests, on and offline, that included the placing of face-masks on sculptures in downtown Chengdu, after which police threw a security cordon around the city's central Tianfu Square.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.