Updated at 04:35 P.M. EST on 2015-04-02
Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have formally arrested three netizens on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power" after they posted satirical and pro-democracy tweets to social media, their lawyer said on Thursday.
Liang Qinhui, also known by his online nickname "Sharp Knife," was detained by police in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou.
Police also detained Zheng Jingxian, known by his online nickname "Right Road for China" and Huang Qian, known by her online nickname "Jailbreak Archive," Liang's lawyer Wu Kuiming told RFA.
"The police detained them in separate operations, but they were all detained because of tweets they posted," Wu said.
"One was Liang ... another was 'Right Road for China,' and there was another, 'Jailbreak Archive,’" he said.
"I heard they were all arrested on the same charge," Wu said. "I think [they posted] stuff about democracy and political awakening and suchlike."
Liang's fiancee Fu Yuqin said the formal arrest notification had come 37 days after his initial detention.
"He was moved to the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center on March 10, and he has been held for a total of 58 days now," Fu said.
She added: "I sent him some things in the second half of last month, some money, but I haven't seen him since [his detention]."
Fu said police had questioned her about Liang's activities shortly before that.
"They came and questioned me about what tools he used to get online," she said. "They also asked me who he normally had contact with."
"I told them he was an honest and law-abiding person with very few possessions in his place; all he had was his smartphone," Fu said.
Fu told RFA at the time of Liang's initial detention that police had accused him of insulting Chinese President Xi Jinping in his posts to the popular chat site QQ.
However, it was hard to gauge from copies of his posts seen by RFA what exactly had triggered Liang's arrest.
"I told them that he had tweeted about air pollution and things like that, and then suddenly they have pinned this heavy charge on him," Fu said on Thursday. "I am totally dumbfounded by this."
"The police told me we exist in this environment, and so we must depend on the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party, and that there are some things that we shouldn't say," she said.
Fu said she is still unsure if or when the case will go to trial.
"I haven't had any news, and there's no timetable, and I don't know if he will be sentenced to prison, or what's happening," she said.
In February, Fu had quoted one of Liang's posts as saying that the beauty of a society lies in equality, and that of a country in freedom, the beauty of a government in its people, and the beauty of the people's lives lies in their enjoyment of their rights.
Behind the Great Firewall
China's 649 million Internet users are increasingly chafing against the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the "Great Firewall," or GFW.
Recently, anti-censorship campaigners have accused Beijing of carrying out, or at least enabling, a massive cyberattack on overseas websites providing tools for users wishing to tunnel under the GFW.
But the government has repeatedly denied any involvement in hacker attacks, and has defended its blocking of overseas virtual private networks (VPNs), which evade censors, saying the country needs to regulate "unhealthy" online content.
Amid an ongoing war on "illegal content," which often includes views critical of the regime, China's Internet regulator has vowed to step up its enforcement of real-name registration rules across all Internet services this year.
The Cyberspace Administration has ramped up its blacklisting campaign targeting websites that don't maintain what China's ruling Communist Party deems to be "lawful Internet information and communication."
China's Internet police have also called on the public to provide "enthusiastic tip-offs" from all sectors of society regarding undesirable content.
Rights groups say censorship under the administration of President Xi has been stepped up to include criticisms of the government that are merely implied.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Overseas cyber attacks
The arrests of the three netizens in China came a day after President Barack Obama unveiled a new sanctions program targeting foreign governments, organizations and individuals who use malicious cyber attacks to threaten U.S. national security, harm critical infrastructure, damage computer systems and steal trade secrets.
Obama said in a statement that hackers in China, Russia and Iran were among those attacking U.S. targets and added that "it's often hard to go after bad actors, in part because of weak or poorly enforced foreign laws, or because some governments are either unwilling or unable to crack down on those responsible," according to an Agence France-Presse report.
Teng Biao, a Chinese rights lawyer and visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, told RFA's Cantonese Service that the U.S. should implement not only economic sanctions but also political sanctions on overseas cyber attackers.
“China has long been engaging cyber attacks aimed at overseas computer networks,” he said. “There are similar reports out there. If there is sufficient evidence, it is necessary to implement economic and political sanctions against the responsible entities, including banning them from entering the U.S.”
Not all agree
But not everyone believes such sanctions will deter cyber hackers.
Bill Xia, president of Dynamic Internet Technologies, a U.S.-based cyber tech firm doubts the effectiveness of the sanction measures.
“The large network attacks from China are supposed to be government actions,” he said. “If the U.S. only wants to use financial measures to punish the individuals or institutions involved in hacking, that doesn’t sound effective.”
“If the hackers are from the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department or from China’s military, these measures look irrelevant,” Xia added.
Xie Tian, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina at Aiken said enforcing the American measures will not be easy as the country intensifies its fight against unlawful activities on the Internet.
He cited previous U.S. charges against Chinese military hacking officers as an example.
“I'm afraid there is no way to ask these outlaws to appear in a U.S. court or to issue a subpoena,” he said. “The actual enforcement would be more difficult. You can catch the Chinese military's bad behavior, but finally it depends on if the United States can be tougher diplomatically."
Reported by Qiao Long and Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service and Vivian Kwan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.