Police Arrest Seven, Engage in “Online Pursuit” to Crack Down on Online Speech

The arrest of a popular Weibo blogger marked the denouement of months of high-altitude clashes between People’s Liberation Army troops and Indian soldiers in the Himalayas. In mid-February, the two sides agreed to synchronized disengagement, whereby troops retreated from positions held on the disputed border. Shortly after, a Chinese spokesperson disclosed for the first time that four Chinese troops had been killed in a bloody June brawl that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. Some did not believe the officially released casualty numbers. Qiu Ziming, a former investigative journalist who blogged under the handle La Bi Xiaoqiu, compared the clashes to a video game and suggested that more had died in the fighting. The following day, Qiu was arrested by local police for “[maliciously distorting] the truth,” and charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble. At CNN, Nectar Gan reported on Qiu’s arrest and the new criminal law that means the blogger could face jail time for his post:

In 2018, China passed a law that bans people from “insulting or slandering heroes and martyrs.” Originally a civil matter, the law will be made a criminal offense in an amendment to the country’s criminal law, which comes into effect next month. Under that amendment, people who “insult, slander or use other means to infringe the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs and damage the public interest of society” can be jailed for up to three years.

[…] On Friday morning, a popular blogger with 2.5 million followers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo raised questions over the official death toll, suggesting the real figure might be higher than four. “This is why India dares to publicize the number and names of their casualties, because from India’s point of view, they won with a smaller cost,” he wrote.

By the evening, police in the eastern city of Nanjing had detained the blogger, identified by his surname Qiu, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — an offense commonly used by the Chinese government to target dissent and criticism.

Writing on its official Weibo account Saturday, the Nanjing police claimed that Qiu had “distorted the truth” and “caused extremely abominable impact on society,” adding that he had confessed to his “unlawful act.” [Source]

This was not Qiu Ziming’s first run-in with the law. In 2010, while working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper Economic Observer, Qiu was branded a wanted criminal by police cronies of a local paper manufacturer that Qiu had investigated. From a 2010 report by Madeline Earp of The Committee to Protect Journalists:

[…] On July 23, police in southeastern Zhejiang province issued an arrest warrant for a reporter for the Beijing-based Economic Observer on charges of damaging the reputation of paper manufacturer Zhejiang Kan Specialty Material Company in a series of stories alleging insider trading. The company denied any wrongdoing, according to news reports. The journalist, Qiu Ziming, went into hiding but stood behind his reporting in posts to his Sina micro-blog.

The paper was quick to comment. “We are deeply shocked that our reporter Qiu Ziming has been listed as a wanted criminal due to engaging in standard news reporting,” a statement on its English- and Chinese-language websites said. “We’re committed to using all legal means to defend the legitimate right of the media and journalists to conduct interviews and engage in reporting.”

By July 29, police had revoked the warrant and apologized, according to local news reports. The website of the General Administration of Press and Publication, the state agency responsible for regulating Chinese print media, posted an article by its own news outlet, China Press and Publishing Journal, that supported reporters’ rights: “News organizations have the right to know, interview, cover, criticize and monitor events regarding national and public interest. Journalistic activities by news organizations and their reporters are protected by law,” according to a translation by the English-language edition of the Communist Party organ People’s Daily. [Source]

Qiu was not the only person arrested in this year’s online campaign against “slander.” Six other internet users were detained in what Global Times described as “efforts to protect heroes and martyrs’ reputation and crackdown on any humiliation or insult on the internet,” under a law passed in 2018. Most strikingly, police in Chongqing announced that they were engaged in “online pursuit” of a 19-year old outside of China. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson reported on the “online pursuit” and the use of the internet to harass critics overseas:

The men were detained under a 2018 law which makes it illegal to defame “heroes and martyrs” in China. An amendment set to take effect this month brings potential penalties of three years in jail. Another man who police said had lived overseas since July 2019, was “pursued online” over comments he made about the soldiers, “on suspicion of causing trouble on the internet”.

[…] “Heroes and martyrs are not allowed to be desecrated. Cyberspace is not outside the law,” it said.

[…] Yaqui Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the pursuit of the 19-year-old was a tactic by authorities “to show that they would not tolerate any speech questioning the official narrative of the border conflict, no matter where the critic is physically located”.

“Authorities used to harass overseas-based critics or their China-based families without resorting to formal prosecution mechanism or leaving a paper trail,” Wang told the Guardian. “Now they don’t feel they need to be discreet about it, or maybe they even want to be conspicuous about it.” [Source]


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