China to crack down on online 'rumors' amid public distrust of official statements

Clampdown is sparked by public skepticism over official claims of suicide in the death of teenager
By Mia Ping-chieh Chen and Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2023.02.03
China to crack down on online 'rumors' amid public distrust of official statements Jiangxi student Hu Xinyu.
(Weibo screen capture)

China's People's Daily newspaper called for an end to public speculation over the death of teenager Hu Xinyu as the country's internet regulator clamped down on online rumors. 

The move comes amid a social media storm about the 15-year-old Hu amid an apparent spike in missing teens in recent months. His body was found hanging from a tree earlier this week close to his boarding school after going missing for more than three months.

Police on Thursday said an investigation had ruled out homicide in his death and that an analysis of a digital voice recorder found with the body had yielded recordings made by Hu contemplating whether or not to jump from the fifth floor of his dormitory.

But the findings sparked widespread public skepticism, with social media brimming with armchair theories and speculation about how Hu died.

In response to the uproar, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday that "the relevant departments gave candid explanations and responded to public concerns" about the slow police response to Hu's disappearance, and called for the investigation to proceed "along professional and legal lines."

"We absolutely must stay away from emotional thinking, and resolutely crack down on those who spread rumors ... to win public trust," the paper said.

Editorial mouthpiece

People's Daily editorials are approved at the highest levels of government in Beijing, and the article suggests a broader crackdown on social media commenting on Hu's death may be on the way.

Administrators for the social media platform Sina Weibo said they are already in the process of identifying "illegal content" relating to the case, and "resolutely dealing with violations like rumor-mongering and fake news to ... generate traffic."

"[Weibo has] cleaned up more than 3,500 pieces of illegal content that spread rumors about this," the platform said on its official Weibo account, adding that it had "punished" dozens of accounts with bans and deletions.

"We are deeply saddened and sorry about what happened to Hu Xinyu," the statement said. "This site will continue to investigate and clean up relevant illegal content, and at the same time we appeal to the majority of users to respect the deceased and the facts, and not to believe rumors or spread rumors."

ENG_CHN_HuXinyuRumors_02032023_02.JPEG
The video screen with a time stamp shows that at 17:42:56, Hu Xinyu once appeared at a similar corner. (Screen shot of Web video)

Commentators have told RFA that a lack of official transparency in sensitive political cases and widespread censorship creates an information vacuum in mainland China into which all manner of conspiracy theories take hold. 

However, they also point to a number of unsolved missing persons cases and the prevalence of human trafficking and illegal organ-harvesting in China.

Cyber watchdog

Meanwhile, China's powerful Cyberspace Administration said it had flagged up more than 250,000 rumors on social media platforms including Weibo, Douyin, Baidu, Tencent and Bilibili since August 2022.

"Major platforms actively shoulder the main responsibility, conducting in-depth analysis of the data on their platforms based on authoritative releases of information," the agency said in a Jan. 25 statement.

"The work of tagging online rumors is an important measure to rectify the chaos of online rumors and to clean up cyberspace," it said. "In 2023, we will ... organize more major platforms to step up efforts to eliminate and expose online rumors."

Police have also warned that anyone gossiping about the case or "maliciously spreading false information" could face a police investigation and criminal charges.

"Some police departments have already cracked down on a small number of people who were intentionally fabricating reports and spreading rumors,” Jiangxi police department steering group chief Hu Mansong told a news conference on Feb. 2.

Censorship machinery?

Former Sina Weibo censor Liu Lipeng said it looks as if widespread censorship of the Hu Xinyu case is just getting underway.

"The official investigation results have been released, which is a bit like setting the tone," Liu told Radio Free Asia. "There will be much stronger efforts to delete going forward. There wasn't really very much censorship before that point."

Censors working for internet companies are typically told to work from official narratives to judge whether content breaks rules on rumor-mongering, so the Feb. 2 news conference which announced Hu's death was suicide will give them something to work from.

"Naturally, censorship orders have to be linked to unified [government] narratives and tone-setting, so anything that is different from what the government is saying will be deleted," he said.

Liu said the rumor-mongering is itself caused by tight controls on information and general lack of transparency in China.

"Nobody trusts the government any more, especially when it comes to minors and vulnerable members of society," he said. "They just pretend to support them, while all of its support has collapsed in private."

‘Crisis of public trust’

The Hu Xinyu case has once more highlighted a  "crisis of public trust" in China, Liu said on his Twitter account. "In the absence of credible news, [the public] can only resort to conspiracy theories.”

He said a similar phenomenon was seen in the wake of the discovery of a woman chained by the neck in an outhouse in Jiangxi in early 2022, and after the beating of several women at a barbecue restaurant in the northern city of Tangshan.

Zhang Jing, founder of the rights group Women's Rights in China, said the government appears to have lost all sense of its image in the public eye.

"The Chinese government at least used to have some sense of saving face, of presenting a more acceptable side, or some fear of losing public credibility," Zhang said. 

"But it doesn't need those things now, because it knows it will end in a hard crackdown, and so it no longer cares about losing public trust," she said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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