On April 11, the trial of internet celebrity Qin Zhihui (better known by his online alias Qin Huohuo) began, along with wide-spread coverage from CCTV and the major China news media. According to the prosecution, Qin Huohuo used different Weibo accounts to spread false information, including posts alleging that: Major-General Luo Yuan works as a senior adviser of Siemens, Yang Lan (a Chinese journalist and talk show hostess) took 200,000 yuan in donations from the Project Hope charity, and that Zhang Haidi (chairman of the China Disable Person’s Federation) is actually a Japanese national. According to the prosecution, these rumors damaged the reputation of the above three figures.
The defendant Qin Huohuo confessed to the above crimes and repeatedly apologized through his tears: “I have now recognized that my behaviors are not permitted by the law, and the Internet is not outside the bounds of law. My Weibo posts instantly smeared the reputations which the victims had built up for decades. I would like to show my remorse to them and tell them I’m sorry. ”
The Internet is not outside the law, and freedom of speech also has legal boundaries. Some people use the name of freedom of speech to ignore the law and infringe upon the privacy and freedom of others. They are in fact enemies of the law, and they are destroying freedom of speech. In this sense, I strongly support the adoption of legal measures targeting those who deliberately create and spread rumors on the Internet, and who infringe on the privacy of others, endanger civil rights and disrupt social order. But having read some of the reports regarding the trial of Qin Zhihui, there are a couple of points I would like to raise for discussion …
The Qin Huohuo case of making and spreading rumors touches on the credibility of the individual, of social media, and of Internet platforms more generally. We shouldn’t just look at this as the individual case of Qin Huohuo. Think about it: Qin Huohuo was using the semi-public and semi-private WeChat platform. Even if he sought to do more damage, at most he could only hurt the reputations of a few celebrities. However, when the celebrities began to fight back, using the power of the system, Qin Huohuo (no matter how fierce) could only sit and wait for his punishment. While a defendant in court, he tearfully thanked those who arrested him for giving him a chance to apologize.
Now, compare Qin Huohou’s case to the mainstream media, which enjoys a far larger platform than microblogs and is funded with taxpayer money. Should it be held legally responsible for the repeated appearance of false news, or even the use of deliberate lies use to mislead and cover up the truth? Should it apologize to the victims?
I don’t like to always dredge up the old example of the People’s Daily writing about “one mu of land producing 5,000 kg of grain,” or the other similar “official rumors” that caused tens of thousands of Chinese people to starve to death during the Great Leap Forward. I want to talk about the present. Right now, we still have the problem of false information on every major television station, newspaper, and media outlet. For example, pollution of the tap water in Lanzhou was obvious early on due to the smell, but the local authorities denied it and cracked down on “rumor mongers.” After it was confirmed that the water had dangerously high levels of benzene, who investigated whether or not the “rumor fighters” in the major media outlets were in fact “spreading rumors” themselves?
Personal credibility, media credibility and the amount of public trust in the government are inseparable. If government-released information was believable—if the official media outlets did not publish false and misleading information—then malicious “internet marketers” like Qin Huohuo would find it hard to succeed.
When Qin Huohuo defamed the three celebrities mentioned above, each person sought to dispel the rumors using much more authoritative and important media platforms than Weibo. But the public preferred to believe the rumors. Why? In the eyes of ordinary Chinese people, the Chinese media has lost its credibility! How many “rumors” have been proven more reliable than media reports?
How did China’s media lose its credibility? I’ve discovered a very strange phenomenon: the authorities suppress public opinion, but they are even more strict against the official media. They tell the media, you can’t print this, you can’t publish that. In the end, thousands of print media outlets have lost the ability to guide public opinion, leaving these papers only empty shells. The regulatory agencies spend all day issuing injunctions: you can’t report on this, you can’t comment on that. These agencies are the reason rumors seem more authentic than the outdated “universal truth” released by official media.
When we look at some mass incidents, it’s easy to see that each incident involved some people with ulterior motives who took advantage of chaos and the poor flow of information to make and spread rumors. But the people were willing to believe these rumors, and not the official rebuttals.
For example, the protests over the Guangdong Maoming PX plant revealed an alarming phenomenon: most official media outlets released relatively accurate information and did a good job in “media relations.” But most people did not believe the official media—not only did these media reports not help settle things, but they seemed to add fuel to the fire. The government nurtured so many official media outlets, but it has ruined them through excessive control.
Realistically speaking, at this stage in China’s development, there’s a certain use for standardizing media speech and implementing effective media management in order to maintain social stability. But using high-handed approaches only makes it so that most mainstream media can’t do anything right. So the end result is the opposite of what China would like. When the obedient media receives dozens or even hundreds of orders every day, it can only report on romances and the affairs of entertainment stars. The clamor of many voices naturally attracts more attention, and the Internet has naturally become a hotbed for “rumors.”
President Xi Jinping has promised to create innovative government management mechanisms and to improve the government’s management ability. An important part of this will be improving media management.
In a sense, Qin Huohuo’s individual case and the credibility of the mass media have an inextricable relationship. The authorities should use the law to crack down on rumors, protect the privacy of citizens, and safeguard social stability. But more importantly, it should use the constitution to protect the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, including the right of free speech that the constitution gives to people and the media. When we can know the air pollution index without having to go through a foreign embassy; when the government will react to polluted tap water without needing citizens to alert it to the smell; when our civil servants and military officials can begin to openly disclose their assets; when those official media outlets with the long-standing habit of publishing false news to mislead the people take the initiative to apologize; when the authorities can act in strict accordance with the law and fight rumors in a fair and non-discriminatory way; then Qin Huohuo and others will have nowhere to hide!
This piece was modified and translated from a Chinese language piece on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.
Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at www.yanghengjun.com.