Two men who posted a video of columns of police they said were a guard of honor at a wedding party in the central province of Hunan have been sentenced to five days' administrative detention for using the Internet to spread rumors and "disturb public order."
The two men, identified only by their surnames She and Xiao, were sentenced to administrative detention after they posted a video of thousands of armed police, some wearing ceremonial white gloves, apparently taking part in a local wedding procession.
The video, "5,000 police create the swankiest wedding in Changsha," went viral on the Chinese Internet, generating widespread comments from netizens, who assumed they were watching a display of privilege linked to high-ranking officialdom.
But official Chinese media said the appearance of ceremonially dressed armed police on the same street as the wedding procession was a coincidence, as the officers were returning from a training drill and happened to be passing the wedding convoy at that particular moment.
"Local police officials said the rumor spread quickly, with the video clip receiving large numbers of hits," according to the English-language China Daily.
The two men, from Changsha's Furong district, were sentenced to five days' administrative detention.
China's government has maintained its stranglehold on the media in spite of attempts by a growing number of bloggers and investigative reporters to expose corruption and health and safety scandals.
In October, it launched a crackdown on online "rumors," detaining or issuing warnings to netizens who posted sensitive or undesirable information on websites and microblogs.
Leading Chinese Internet firms recently agreed to tighten content controls, the China Daily said, citing the example of popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, which had agreed to set up "rumor-crushing teams" to eliminate "false information" on the service.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the sentences show how little the Chinese judicial system values personal freedom.
"They act as if locking you up for a few days is a small matter," he said. "I think personal freedom is more important than that ... and it shouldn't be limited on a whim."
Liu said that a warning or a fine should have been sufficient, as the men had apparently acted without malicious intent.
Xiamen-based netizen Xiao Pan said the authorities are going out of their way to make ordinary people think twice about the risks of posting material online.
"They are doing everything they can to make us feel the risks of posting the truth online," Pan said. "Now we must accept the loss of our freedom in revenge."
"It's not just killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys; it is actually a bit more like white terror."
Chinese Internet commentator Ye Du said the authorities have become increasingly nervous of microblogging platforms following the recent uprisings in the Arab world.
"Before, they used to tolerate some critical reports," Ye said. "Now, these so-called negative news reports are being deleted or blocked as soon as they appear."
"They now pursue their source, to the point where no one dares to say anything and all forms of expression are suppressed," he said.
Earlier this year, China set up a nationwide command center to oversee the country's 485 million netizens and to "manage information" on the Internet.
The State Internet Information Office, directly under the control of China's cabinet, or State Council, now "directs, coordinates, and supervises online content management," official media reported.
Last weekend, its chief, Wang Zhen, told a conference on Internet management that the Chinese Internet must "develop in a healthy direction."
"We need to take more stringent and effective measures to strengthen the building and management of Internet culture, and its organizations and leaders," Wang told the meeting.
The purpose would be to "delineate the orderly dissemination of information on the Internet, and to deepen the scope of our corrective online operations," he said.
Internet technician Dong Xiaoxing said the authorities are now pro-actively filtering online content, as opposed to reactively deleting unwanted posts.
"They are using some new methods, such as [monitoring] hot tweets," Dong said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.