Web users–trying as they may to navigate China’s dystopian online world–are ending up in jail cells as the Middle Kingdom’s war on “rumors” escalates. It’s not just “black PR” firms anymore; ordinary folk are finding themselves in the clink for everything from exaggerations to jokes.
In late July, a man blamed floods on feng shui problems created by unearthed snakes and frogs and was detained for five days. The trend continued into August; for example, a man surnamed Zhang was arrested and held for seven days for making un-patriotic remarks about the “Five Heroes on Langya Mountain.” Later, a man in Anhui Province was detained for five days for saying casualties from a traffic accident he witnessed were 16 instead of the 10 reported. On Sunday, a man was arrested for saying a couple was making out in public (in an effort to promote his bar). A man surnamed Yang–who claimed Bo Xilai was using a body double during China’s “trial of the century”–was detained for five days. Most recently, a 20-year-old woman in Hebei spent five days in jail for asking on a local website, “I heard a murder was committed in Louzhuang. Does anyone know what actually happened?”
I could go on and on with examples, each of which involve a convoluted web of local issues, patriotic drivel or just plain mistakes. Figures on the number of arrests are hard to come by but in Henan province alone police have investigated 463 cases and made 131 arrests since mid-June, according to officials cited by Caixin. National statistics are unknown, but the provinces appear to have the full support of the central government.
Despite claims of reform and progress, the feeling on the ground is that China’s hermit internet is getting worse, fast. The crackdown has been given the umbrella justification of cutting down on rumors–to fanfare from China’s bizarre pro-censorship state media. At its best, this policy is a pointless witch hunt for rumormongers; at worst, it’s an excuse to intimidate online speech altogether.
In an interview with The Diplomat, Beijing Cream’s Anthony Tao says: “Quite obviously, they’re opening a can of worms with this [crackdown]…For anyone who is half awake about Chinese media and how officials abuse power, there can potentially be some very terrible abuses of this policy.”
For all the media back-patting and government gossip, web users are still confused about what constitutes an online rumor. Of course, recently, a “black PR” firm got taken down by authorities, with 27 culprits investigated for wrong doing. However, Erma Company was a serious rumor mill, spreading thousands of half-truths and lies to fuel their PR machine, and the arrest of its employees elicited praise around the board. That case was a far cry from individuals getting casualty numbers wrong or singular jabs at the CCP’s show trial.
Media and web users aren’t the only ones who are confused about the rumor crackdown. A Weibo post from the local police in Guangzhou read, “The Security Administration Punishment Law can only be applied to cases where rumors have indeed disturbed social order, caused public panic and interfered with the normal work of government bodies.” Fair enough except that the post was deleted just hours after it was posted on Sunday, further muddying the waters.
Police officers who hunt down rumor spreaders–or the just plain uninformed–are called the Network Supervisor Brigade (网监大队). But, they’ve got help; China’s biggest internet companies set up a website to report rumors.
Attacks and editorials about rumors have been common staples in the China’s press this year, threatening both everyday posters and the “big Vs,” meaning influential posters who have had their identities verified. This rumor crackdown, quite apart from morphing into political butchery, also takes away from Xi Jinping’s conspicuously public crusade against corruption within the Party, as social media is the country’s only reasonably free forum for outing corrupt officials.
In the long line of humiliations that have led to China’s current social media sphere, it’s important to remember that China’s web users are taking the crackdown in stride. A man surnamed Xiong in Shanghai stated online that he was detained for 15 days at the Luwan Branch of the Public Security Bureau. The branch is fictional; it was a joke. Funnily enough, that rumor of being arrested for a rumor became a rumor, forwarded tens of thousands of times. Xiong, a verified user, has yet to be arrested for his little bit of satire.
Those arrested for “rumors”–such as the 20-year-old woman asking a question and the man who gave the wrong casualty figures for a traffic accident–have received support online from those who see the value in an alternative to the state-run press. However, opinions are mixed, with some taking the government’s rumor madness as gospel, turning in their fellow posters.
At this point, many are wondering if the government’s rumor crackdown is sustainable, as–beyond the obvious opposition–it’s raising questions about the reliability of the domestic press. Despite broad government support, China’s media aren’t exactly celebrated for their accuracy, getting duped by everything from snuff porn executions to Kim Jong Un being the Sexiest Man Alive.
This bad reputation, coupled with the crackdown, has left the media and propaganda departments as the butt of a few jokes online: Will the 网监大队 be paying Xinhua a visit anytime soon?