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China’s Crackdown on Cyber Activism

The government is trying to inhibit the growing power of online activism in China.

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China’s Crackdown on Cyber Activism
Credit: Internet bar via pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com

In the final weeks of 2013, a Chinese official announced the newest target in the government’s efforts to seize the ground of new media. Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Internet Information Office, called for a crackdown on an independent online investigation into the personal details of suspected wrongdoers, known in China as a “Human Flesh Search“ (人肉搜索). While such searches do have the potential to inflict harm, examining the crackdown on flesh searches in relation to other recent official announcements and legislation regarding online activities, Liu Zhengrong’s proclamation reflects more a continuation of an exhaustive government policy of circumscribing online expression and digital collective action than one of controlling “violent online activities.”

Human flesh searches have been equated with both cyber activism and cyber vigilantism. Sympathetic portrayals of the practice have pointed to the ability of flesh searches to empower ordinary citizens to hold the government more accountable. In an interview with The Atlantic, sociologist Tricia Wang explained, “Flesh searchers feel like they are sharing information in a system that does not have a comprehensive or consistent rule of law.” The searches are a component of the “long revolution,” analyzed by China scholar Guobin Yang in his 2009 book, The Power of The Internet in China, which is slowly forcing Chinese society to be more participatory and transparent.

Proponents of flesh searchers as democratizers highlight cases such as Yang Dacai, the head of the Saanxi Province Safety Supervision Bureau. After a photo of an unidentified official grinning maliciously at the scene of a bus fire that killed 36 people in 2012 went viral, an online investigation revealed the official’s identity. Images were then uploaded of Yang wearing luxury watches he would not be expected to be able afford on his public servant’s salary. The public outcry led to an official investigation, and Yang was later sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption.

Similarly, following a deadly car crash in Hebei, where the driver emerged arrogantly from his vehicle to taunt the surrounding crowd, “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My dad is Li Gang!” flesh searchers tore into the hitherto unknown Li Gang. The driver was identified as Li Qiming, the son of the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau. Images of the family’s luxury properties went viral. The father was dismissed and the son was given six years in prison.

In a recent article for The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi also noted several cases where a human flesh search has led to violence, such as a specific case sited by Liu Zhengrong in which a young girl committed suicide after seeing her personal details online. However, even taking the negative externalities into account, the official condemnation of the practice should be seen in light of Xi Jinping’s August comments urging the propaganda department to build “a strong army” and to “seize the ground of new media.” Liu Zhengrong’s benevolent claim of protecting Chinese citizens from violent online content is the latest in a series of developments that combined show a calculated policy by Beijing to ensure the government’s supremacy online.

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The targeted elimination of human flesh searches comes close on the heels of the government initiative to prosecute online rumors. The policy, which generated considerable condemnation in Western media for the ease with which it may be manipulated for political expediency, states that Weibo users accused of posting “rumors” that are viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times will be held criminally liable. Within the first two weeks of the policy, Chinese human rights defender Wen Yunchao catalogued more than 450 arrests.

Admittedly some individuals have written and distributed knowingly false information online to build personal or corporate reputations. As reported by Danwei, one false story spread by two Weibo celebrities arrested in August was a fabricated compensation of an Italian killed in the 2011 Wenzhou train crash. Yet the story of the deadly crash itself was first broken by a Weibo user because the Department of Propaganda had originally directed official media not to report on the incident. A restriction on posting “rumors” can significantly stifle such independent investigations into official malfeasance when the final arbiter of what qualifies as a rumor is the same government being investigated. A month after the announcement, South China Morning Post quoted Weiboreach, a social media research firm in China, that widespread self-censorship has followed the
“rumors” crackdown.

In 2012 the Supreme People’s Court proposed a similarly spirited measure. The court proposed that lawyers be disbarred for blogging or emailing trial information without preapproval. Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher, told The Guardian that the ambiguity of the court’s announcement could be used to block activist lawyers from contributing to broader informed discussion. That many of China’s rights lawyers are active on Weibo, constraining their ability to disseminate information about their cases effectively serves to limit access to potential information for online activists. Government attempts to emasculate online activism have extended further, in the form of directives to judges themselves.

This summer the Central Political and Legislative Commission issued a 15-article announcement aimed at addressing certain failures of the legal system. Duihua, and other rights monitors, responded with caution. Provision 8 notes that courts and police are to disregard “public-opinion hype” and “petitioning by parties to the case.” Depending on implementation, such wording could easily be implemented to diminish the impact of online activism.

When Li Tianyi, the son of well-known PLA singers Li Shuangjianga and Meng Ge, was first accused of leading the gang rape of a woman in a Beijing nightclub in 2013, many Chinese Internet users exploded with frustration that because of his status he would be given special treatment. Personal details of the trial and the family went viral on Weibo. After Li Tianyi was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, Zhejinag University law professor Lan Rongjie speculated that had the case not involved the scion of high ranking officials and thus generated such intense online attention, the 17 year old would likely have received a lesser sentence. The court, Lan speculated, was reacting to protect its image, which had been challenged by online activism, and thus handed down the maximum sentence.

Public opinion has also influenced official decisions in the other direction. Yang Zhong, a 16 year old in Gansu Province, was one of the first individuals arrested following the criminalization of posting rumors online. Yang was arrested on charges of “spreading rumors” and “provoking public disorder” after he posted several comments challenging the official police narrative of a suspicious local death in custody. His arrest sparked widespread public condemnation, generating thousands of comments on Weibo and elsewhere, although many were promptly deleted. The New York Times noted that the police were likely influenced by public opinion, and released the boy.

Meanwhile, the kind of online activism that likely influenced Li Tianyi’s harsh sentencing and secured Yang Zhong’s release has also had an impact on influencing national policies. Sun Zhigang, from Wuhan, had been working in Guangzhou for two years, when on March 17, 2003 the local police detained him for not carrying his local identification, based on an administrative procedure known as Custody and Repatriation. Three days later his parents were informed that he had died in custody. The parents ordered an autopsy, which revealed that the 27 year old had been beaten to death. Still, no official investigation followed. Over the ensuing days, as the family posted information to online forums and gathered public support, the case became a symbol of the highly abusive system. Addressing the mounting public pressure, both on and offline, then Premier Wen Jiabao announced on June 20, 2003 that the system would be abolished.

Similarly, in October 2006 Tang Hui’s 11-year-old daughter disappeared from her hometown in Hunan. Three months later, the daughter was found at a nearby spa, where she had been forced into prostitution. Several involved were sentenced in June 2012. Two months later, Tang Hui was also sentenced to 18 months in Re-Education Through Labor, reprisal for her ongoing petitioning against officials who had not been prosecuted. Her detention shocked Chinese civil society and demands for justice reverberated through social media. Her detention generated such a resounding national outcry that a Hunan court intervened to release her after only one week. The attention to her case through social media only served to invigorate longstanding public condemnation of the abusive system. On December 28, 2013 China’s NPC officially abolished the Re-Education Through Labor system.

In both Sun Zhigang and Tang Hui’s cases, a critical online response coupled with public challenges to an abusive policy and ongoing legal campaigns by domestic and international NGOs and scholars, backed by media coverage, demonstrated the ability of cyber activism to influence the government, presumably at times contrary to government design. To argue that one case led to the abolishment of either system is as simplistic as it is to argue that online activism is capable of having influence without corresponding offline activities. While most online activity is unsuccessful at achieving results like those just described, the importance is arguably not merely in the specific cases or their consequent effects but in the way Chinese civil society has engaged online to investigate or pressure government behavior in a system without rule of law.

Where freedom of assembly is tightly constrained and the government from the local to national level works to forestall collective action and coalition formation, the series of announcements and legislations regarding online activity in the latter half of 2013 illustrate efforts to circumscribe online civil society in much the same way. Rather than responding to violent content, as Liu Zhengrong claims, these efforts appear to demonstrate government perceptions of a threat to its rule.

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Michael Caster is a researcher and civil society consultant, specializing in nonviolent civil resistance and contentious politics in Central and East Asia.