In their widening campaign against online “rumormongers” and other putative purveyors of social disorder, Chinese authorities have netted influential rights activists, freelance anti-corruption sleuths and even a billionaire entrepreneur who championed the rights of poor migrants. Many of those detained in recent weeks remain in police custody.
However, the enforcers of Internet propriety, it seems, were not prepared for the online outrage stirred up by the arrest last week of a 16-year-old boy who had publicly questioned investigators over the mysterious death of a karaoke club manager in Gansu Province.
On Monday, the police in Zhangjiachuan Hui Autonomous County apparently bowed to public pressure and released Yang Hui (楊輝), a middle-school student who was among the first people to be charged under new regulations that criminalize the spreading of online rumors with up to three years in jail. The authorities contend the boy had simply confessed to his crimes and served his punishment. Hours after his release, he posted online a photograph of himself flashing a victory sign. His shirt read, “Make the Change.”
Rights defenders and free-speech advocates have embraced his release as a small, but significant victory against what many here see as a draconian campaign against dissent that has ensnared dozens of people over the past two months. Those arrested include Xu Zhiyong (許志永), a prominent lawyer who had called on officials to publicly disclose their financial assets, and Charles Xue (薛蠻子), a Chinese-American investor who often railed against injustice to his 12 million microblog followers under his Chinese name Xue Manzi.
Yang’s arrest on Tuesday last week drew sympathetic coverage in the news media, and more than 10,000 people posted supportive messages, although many were promptly deleted. Lawyers from Beijing offered to defend him.
“With the arrest of this kid, I think the public saw this rumor campaign for what it really is: a devious attempt to crush normal online expression,” said Zhou Ze (周澤), a lawyer in Beijing who sought to rally public support for Yang’s case through his own account on Sina Weibo.
A wiry boy with a fondness for Apple smartphones, online games and the occasional furtive cigarette, Yang ran into trouble two weeks ago when he stepped into a local controversy involving the death of a man whose body was found in front of the Jewel Time International Karaoke club. The police ruled the death a suicide, but relatives claimed the man had been beaten up before being tossed from an upper floor of the building.
The youth, who spoke to some of the victim’s relatives, questioned the official version of events and posted a message that the club was owned by a local judicial official.
“You don’t want the world to know what happened?” he wrote. “What are you afraid of? I am not afraid of you. I took pictures, arrest me. I dare you.”
On Tuesday last week the police did just that, grabbing him from school and later charging him with “disrupting social disorder” because the posts, they said, inspired protesters to block a local street, snarling traffic.
Wang Shihua (王誓華), one of the lawyers who volunteered to represent Yang, said his detention was unlawful because his comments were not knowingly fabricated.
“It’s all right to crack down on rumors, but if such initiatives are expanded without limits or regard to principle, they become unconstitutional,” he said on Monday.
If the authorities in Zhangjiachuan thought the arrest of young Yang would chill outside scrutiny, they have been sorely disappointed. In recent days, some of China’s most intrepid journalists have been taking a closer look at what ranks as one of the country’s poorest counties. Bloggers have publicized lavish spending on government buildings, including nearly US$3 million spent on the county’s administrative headquarters, and the extravagant tastes of local civil servants, including the local party boss who was photographed wearing the kind of luxury watch that has felled other officials.
One uncovered old court documents accusing police chief Bai Yongqiang (白永強) of giving 50,000 yuan (US$817 at current exchange rates) in bribes to his former boss between 1995 and 2005. Bai has since been suspended, according to a post on the county government’s Web site on Monday night.
While Xinhua news agency called Bai’s suspension “unrelated” to the boy’s arrest, experts say the intense public scrutiny may have played a role in his release.
Additional reporting by the Guardian