China is tilting at rumour mills.
A ruling by the Supreme People’s Court mean that internet users who post rumours on social media sites run the risk of up to three years in prison.
The publication of false information deemed to be defamatory or “harming the national interest” will breach the law if it is viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times, according to the state news agency, Xinhua.
It is just one of a series of tactics to muzzle online dissent, explains the Financial Times, including most recently the broadcast of “a televised confession from one of the country’s most popular online commentators”.
An article in Monday’s edition of the influential party journal Seeking Truth described online criticism of the party and government as “defamation”, while Chinese-American investor and internet personality Charles Xue appeared on state television in handcuffs on Sunday to praise new legislation that in effect criminalises online dissent [more on that here].
The moves are part of a wider campaign launched in recent weeks by newly installed President Xi Jinping to stifle calls for political reform in China and assert control over the country’s unruly internet.
The initative is part of a “sweeping political strategy towards social media”, agrees Beijing-based academic Russell Leigh Moses.
But the failure of local authorities to use online forums to dampen speculation is alarming ruling Communist Party even more, he writes in the Wall Street Journal.
“Xi [Jinping] and his allies see social media activists as a menace, but one that they believe they can defeat. It’s the ineptitude and timidity in their own ranks that continues to worry Xi just as much.”
The threats have not deterred users of China’s major social network, Sina Weibo, from commenting.
“Whether someone has committed a crime is in the hands of other netizens,” remarked Dunan Guandian, in a post translated at the Global Voices site. “If others don’t retweet, he’s a good citizen, if others retweet, he has committed a crime.”
And Shen biji put it like this: “I just registered 500 accounts, if anyone annoys me, I will take revenge by retweeting his or her sensitive posts.”