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China's Crackdown on Online Rumors Escalates with First Public Trial

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, April 11 2014

Today marks China's first public trial of an online "rumormonger" convicted of spreading false information via China's popular micro-blogging service Weibo. The government's move comes amidst an escalating crackdown on online rumors that began last summer.

According to China's state-run paper, Xinhua, the accused netizen, Qin Zhihui, confessed to accusations today that he had spread a rumor that the Chinese government provided 200 million yuan ($32.3 million) in compensation to the family of a foreigner killed in the high-speed train crash in July 2011. He is being charged in criminal court though the South China Morning Post reports that the prosecutor is seeking a lenient sentence for Qin since he has no prior criminal record.

Chinese law stipulates that an online rumor can be liable to criminal prosecution if it reaches 5,000 Internet users or is reposted more than 500 times, though this number seems hardly enough to be considered viral or to constitute public knowledge among Weibo's 10 million users and China's 1.3 billion people. Further, any Weibo user with 5,000 or more followers is liable to prosecution for something they post that is considered to be a rumor. The government claims the law is needed to ensure social stability.

Qin's rumor was reposted 12,000 times within two hours and outraged Chinese netizens who thought that the government was favoring foreigners; the compensation for the Chinese families who lost loved ones to the rail crash totaled only 915,000 yuan ($142,000) per victim -- 40 died though it appears that foreigners were compensated the same amount.

The rumor may have rang true for many of the Chinese because the high speed rail crash had already triggered intense anger among the public over the government's attempt to cover up the crash and also, for what many saw as a consequence of the government's crass pursuit of growth and economic progress at the expensive of its own people. Many of the families of the crash victims had been insulted by the compensation figure. Further, two Chinese American victims who were injured by the crash and whose parents were killed, had received the same level of compensation as Chinese families and found it not enough to cover their medical expenses in the U.S.; they tried to sue the Chinese government for $5 million but it appears officials had refused to negotiate.

In another rumor crackdown, officials arrested but have not yet publicly tried Dong Liangjie, an owner of a water purifying system who spread rumors that six major water supply systems across the country harbored traces of contraceptive medicine that could impact fertility. Officials claim Dong spread the rumor in order to promote his own water purifiers. While his rumor proved untrue, the sad truth is that Dong's rumor, like Qin's touches upon the truth and takes advantage of government failures in protecting its citizens. There have been a number of bizarre food scares -- exploding watermelons, neon pork, blood-colored rivers that cause cancer -- and coupled with the government's forced sterilization and abortion policies, Dong's rumor does not seem too far from the truth.

The willingness for citizens to believe in rumors has also been attributed to the dearth of independent media in China and the widespread understanding that state-run papers are simply mouthpieces. The government's own attempt to influence the microblogosphere has fallen flat. Despite a proliferation of accounts across multiple levels of government -- the Chinese government has a total of 100,151 to date -- some netizens find the online voice of the government just as drab as its real one. One user, Zhuo Yuexiong who has around 400,000 followers on Weibo, told the South China Morning Post, "Their words sound very official, much more filtered than before."

Since the Chinese began its crackdown on online rumors, some public figures have left Weibo out of fear that what they say can be used against them. As techPresident reported earlier, the crackdown on Weibo is pushing netizens to other social media apps like WeChat. But that too has proven unsafe with a crackdown last month that shut down a number of accounts used by political publications or activists.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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