In China, being retweeted 500 times can get you three years in prison

In China, being retweeted 500 times can get you three years in prison

By Gwynn Guilford @sinoceros September 9, 2013

Details of a new law issued by China’s supreme court are bound to make loose talkers on Sina Weibo and other social media platforms think twice before speaking freely. The law says that any libelous posts or messages will be considered “severebreaches of the law if they are visited or clicked on more than 5,000 times or forwarded (or “retweeted,” in Western parlance) more than 500 times. Those found guilty could face up to three years in jail, reports Reuters, citing Chinese state media.As if that weren’t alarming enough, the threshold for being charged with this crime includes offenses as vague and subjective as “damaging the national image” and “causing adverse international effects.”

The law is the latest attempt to crack down on “black PR firms,” companies that make money from removing unflattering information from the internet. Among other things, black PR firms often target companies, spreading gossip or misinformation about them, and then approaching them for payment in exchange for removing the smear campaign. It’s a big business; as TechinAsia pointed out recently, the Sina Weibo accounts controlled by a huge black PR firm that was just busted had a total audience of 220 million followers.

As Caixin reports, since the campaign against “rumor-mongering” and “spreading false information” picked up in June, Shanghai police have opened more than 380 cases, while Henan police have investigated a whopping 463 cases, making 131 arrests. And it’s not just Sina Weibo; TechinAsia reports that police are also watching Tencent’s WeChat, which is organized mainly around private circles of friends.

But for every big black PR firm bust, authorities also seem to be ensnaring a lot of innocent users of social media.

For example, in late August, a women in Anhui province posted on Sina Weibo that16 people died in a car accident that had just taken place, when the death toll was only 10. Local police placed her under “administrative detention” for five days as punishment for “spreading rumors.” In another case, a 20-year-old Anhui woman was imprisoned for posting the comment “I heard there was a murder in Louzhuang—is there anyone who knows what actually happened?” on a Baidu discussion board. The post, which was clicked on 1,000 times, counted as “disrupting social order” (link in Chinese).

In late August, a Weibo user stoked online discussion with a post saying that the “five heroes of Langya Mountain”—martyrs in the war against the Japanese who are a source of Communist Party pride—had actually been army deserters who oppressed the local villagers of Langya, and that the latter eventually gave them up to the Japanese. This, determined the local police, “created unhealthy social effects” (link in Chinese). Authorities arrested and held the Weibo user under administrative detention for seven days. Something similar happened with four people who “defamed” the Party mascot, Lei Feng.

The new clarifications have big implications for harmless online chatter. If the posts of an amateur historian or inquisitive citizen garner enough attention, the author could face three years in prison.

September 9, 2013, 1:37 p.m. ET

China Tightens Grip on Social Media

JOSH CHIN

BEIJING—Chinese authorities said that social-media users who post comments considered to be slanderous could face prison if the posts attract wide attention—a ruling free-speech advocates criticized as an attempt to give legal backing to the suppression of online dissent.

Internet users will face charges of defamation—and a possible three-year prison term—if they create slanderous content that attracts at least 5,000 hits or is reposted at least 500 times, according to the judicial interpretation, copies of which were posted to state-media websites on Monday.

The document said slanderous posts that cause “psychological imbalance, self-mutilation, suicide or other serious consequences” would also be considered defamatory.

Social-Media Rules

Offense (Penalty)

Rumors get 5,000 hits or reposted 500 times (Up to 3 years in prison or loss of political rights).

Company makes 50,000 yuan or more in profit for deleting posts/intetionally posting rumors (Up to 5 years in prison and fines up to 5 times amount of illegal gains).

Individual makes 20,000 yuan or more in profit for deleting posts/intetionally posting rumors (Up to 5 years in prison and fines up to 5 times amount of illegal gains).

–Source: Xinhua

Companies and people who seek to profit from slanderous postings face stiff fines and jail terms. People who start online rumors will be considered guilty of the crime of provocation and incitement, a crime previously applied to those who vandalize property, pick fights or create trouble in public places.

The new interpretation—jointly issued by China’s Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the top prosecutors’ office—provides Beijing with an added legal basis for its long-running effort to control conversation online.

Lawyers criticized the new ruling as overly broad and an attempt to discourage government critics. “What’s the point in even discussing this?” wrote lawyer Liang Xianglu. “Law is not a root that will ever truly grow in this patch of earth. Instead it will always be a stick wielded by a bunch of thugs.”

Another lawyer, Wang Kesheng, wondered on his microblog account how the new rules would have affected Luo Changping, a journalist whose posts led to the dismissal of a top official this year.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted the Supreme People’s Procuratorate spokesman Sun Jungong as saying the new interpretation isn’t intended to discourage Internet users from exposing official wrongdoing.

“Even if some details of the allegations or what has been exposed aren’t true, as long as [Internet users] aren’t intentionally fabricating information to slander others…they won’t be prosecuted on charges of defamation,” Xinhua quoted Mr. Sun as saying.

Authorities in charge of propaganda have grown increasingly jittery over the spread of social media, in particular Twitter-style microblogging services like Sina Corp SINA +1.64% .’s popular Weibo, which have challenged state media’s previous dominance in disseminating information.

In recent months, the government has stepped up efforts to manage online activity, detaining dozens for spreading rumors and warning influential microbloggers with large numbers of followers to watch what they say.

Many posts critical of Monday’s interpretation were deleted within hours of being posted.

Among the recent detentions were two men apprehended by Beijing police on Aug. 22 on suspicion of creating rumors in an effort to gain followers on Weibo. State media said the pair falsely claimed that an outspoken major general in the People’s Liberation Army was a deserter with family living in the U.S., in addition to spreading other untruths.

Beijing police also announced last month that they had detained a local newspaper journalist, Liu Hu, on suspicion of provocation and incitement, though police didn’t say why.

Several local media reports said that a week earlier, Mr. Liu had forwarded a social-media post alleging wrongdoing by a top official at the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, a business regulator.

Those cases and others have prompted questions from some lawyers and scholars about whether and how criminal laws should be applied in cyberspace.

In a report published Thursday and since deleted from its website, the influential Southern Weekly newspaper challenged the use of the charges of provocation and incitement in online cases.

The report quoted legal scholars who argued that the crime applied to actions that have negative consequences in physical public spaces like markets and airports, not in cyberspace.

The report also noted that defamation was a matter for a civil lawsuit, not criminal prosecution, except in cases where the defamatory statements “seriously threaten social stability or national interests.”

By expanding the scope of both crimes to cover online activity, the new judicial interpretation “violates the principles of criminal law,” said Xu Xin, a law professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

Mr. Xu took particular exception to the expanded use of provocation and incitement, which he described as a “catchall” crime that is often abused by authorities. “The legal community has been calling for this crime to be eliminated for years,” he said.

While admitting that rumor-spreading is a problem on Chinese social-media sites, free-speech advocates argue that authorities often define rumor broadly as anything that doesn’t appear on state media, which is rigorously censored.

The expanded threat of prosecution prompted an outpouring of gallows humor on Sina Weibo. A number of postings joked that, instead of asking influential users to repost messages, they would instead start asking not to have their messages reposted.

Others forwarded along a new slogan: “If you love someone, repost him. If you hate someone, repost him, too.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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