Chinese activist jailed over social media smog comments

The perils of using social media in China has been exposed by the experiences of an online activist in the southwest of the country, who has been jailed for commenting on the air pollution issues in the country.

The individual, who has been identified publicly only by his online handle, Xinhai, put a post on various Chinese social media outlets, including Weibo (the Chinese Twitter), WeChat (the Chinese WhatsApp), and QQ (a popular Chinese chatroom site) on 5th January stating that the city of Chengdu had issued a “red smog alert”.

Spreading rumours

The message stated that this was the first time that such a severe smog warning had been issued and went on to state that “Chengdu will see the worst smog in 2,000 years of history, with the air quality index over 700, maybe over the cancer-causing threshold of 800.”

According to Chengdu Commercial News, a local news outlet, the activist was subsequently given an Administrative Sentence for the messages, which authorities described as “spreading rumours”. In China, an Administrative Sentence is a penalty which allows police to detain an individual for up to 15 days without having to resort to any form of trial.

The offence of ‘spreading rumours’ is a pretty tough one for authorities to stand up. China has been beset by air pollution issues for many years due to a combination of rapid industrialisation, ineffective regulation, and large-scale corruption.

Widespread air pollution issues

Despite efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to use online and media censorship to hide any negative publicity about the country, it is now common knowledge across the world that China has air pollution issues.

Recent academic studies suggest that Chengdu is one of the worst affected cities in the country. The city saw widespread public protests over the issue last year, which the Communist regime clamped down on.

They issued strict guidelines banning media coverage of the protests, shut down the city centre for a time, and also banned schoolchildren in the city from wearing facemasks in the classroom to stop them breathing in the noxious air.

In this situation, the suggestion that commenting on it is “spreading rumour” is hard to justify.

Intimidation of Social Media Users

This has been pointed out by commentators, with online freedom of speech activist Xiucai Jianghu telling Radio Free Asia there is no way to prove the inaccuracy of the messages and rather the penalty was part of a concerted effort by authorities to intimidate social media users.

“It’s not exaggerating one bit… [he was] just telling the truth, and that hurt the government’s image,” he said. “They want to suppress free speech and create an atmosphere of terror, so nobody will dare say anything bad about the government online again.”

A Chinese human rights lawyer, Shu Xiangxin, went further, saying there was no basis in law for the penalty.

“To show rumour-mongering, you have to prove malicious intent,” he said. “Well-intentioned criticism doesn’t count… It is against the law, and against legal principles, to hold someone under administrative detention on such a pretext. It basically means that their powers are getting broader and broader.”

It is widely known that the Chinese authorities monitor social media and other online platforms to ensure no-one is saying anything negative about the regime or speaking about topics which are censored.

But as we have reported before, the regime is stepping up their clampdown on online freedom and this latest imprisonment appears to be a symptom of more stringent enforcement of these new rules.

For Chinese citizens, the only way to interact safely on social media is to use encryption tools such as a VPN to hide their identity. Without such protections, everything they write online no matter how apparently inauspicious can be subject to arbitrary law enforcement action of this nature.

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