Authorities in China have stepped up their efforts to control the Internet. Now, anyone who writes an online message that is deemed defamatory and that is reposted 500 times - or read 5,000 times - risks up to three years in prison.
Officials say the law, enacted on September 9, is aimed at fighting rumours on the Internet. It’s the latest step in a campaign launched in August designed to take back control of social networks, which have helped leak many scandals in China in recent years.
Yang Hui, a 16-year-old student from the northwestern province of Gansu, became the first person to be detained for “rumour-mongering”. He had published posts on Weibo – China’s equivalent of Twitter – criticising his local police’s version of events regarding a suspicious death, and called for people to protest and demand the truth. After his message was reposted more than 500 times, police arrested him on September 17 for “spreading rumours and disturbing public order”.
The teenager was released on September 22 after seven days of detention, during which time many Internet users took to social networks to voice their support for him. Several lawyers also volunteered to defend him. Gansu police said in a statement that they had reduced an initial jail sentence of three years to seven days of “administrative detention” because he was a minor, adding that he had “confessed”.
Yang Hui flashes a victory sign after his release. Image posted on Weibo.
You Feizhu was part of a group of volunteer lawyers who helped defend the teenager. He posted several messages of support on his Weibo account.
“It’s September 23, around 2:30 in the morning, and Yang Hui has just been released. At the hotel where he has been taken, his father proudly tells journalists: ‘My son is courageous, a brave boy with a sense of justice.’ Yang’s father keeps telling his son to keep his head high. He cries: ‘You’ve done nothing wrong. Why are you acting like you are a criminal? Lift your head!’”
Since the start of the crackdown in August, several prominent online commentators have been arrested for various reasons, notably microbloggers from the “Big V”, a name given to the most popular in China.

“The police can designate anything that’s not to their liking a rumour and arrest the person who posted it”

Lu Haitao lives in Shanghai.
This new law is a real threat to freedom of expression. Anyone can quickly be retweeted 5,000 times in China! In addition, the definition of a rumour is up to the police’s interpretation. Nothing’s stopping them from calling an online commentary that’s not to their liking a rumour, and arrest the person who posted it.
If you ask me, several arrests carried out recently as part of this campaign have been unfair. For example, a woman posted a message on Weibo saying 16 people died in a road accident. Since the official death toll was 10 dead, she was arrested and jailed for “spreading rumours”. Someone else asked on Weibo: “I heard people talking about a murder in Louzhuang. Anyone know what happened?” And she was arrested, too.
This isn’t the first law aimed at repressing Internet users. Some have already been arrested for “insulting the idols of the revolution”. A Weibo user was detained for a week at the end of August for doing this after he wrote that the “Five Heroes on Langya Mountain” – soldiers said to have died during the war with Japan and who are considered to be heroes – were in fact deserters who were oppressing villagers.