Food reviews can land you in hot water as Chairman Xi cracks down on net
When Zhang was briefly admitted to hospital in June, he was not happy about the food.
He did what has become second nature to young Chinese, and posted his views on WeChat: the $2 dishes contained hardly any meat, the rice was too expensive, the better value sets all sold out too quickly.
He was soon discharged, went home — he lives in Shexian county in Hebei, the province that surrounds Beijing — and forgot about it.
To his amazement, 10 weeks or so later the police came to his home and asked if he was the person who had complained online about hospital food.
He was arrested, charged with “fabricating information and disturbing social order” and held in the police lock-up for five days before eventually being released. What had happened between his hospital visit and his arrest?
The Communist Party secretary — effectively the ruler — of the county had hauled in senior police to admonish them to “work harder, score some achievements that we can display to our people”.
The police responded by using the default tool now available to China’s security apparatus to spot, apprehend and if necessary create miscreants — the internet.
Not only regular police officers, but also members of the dedicated “net police” — and almost certainly in addition, large numbers of staff in subcontracted companies within the cyber-security industry that has become one of China’s main growth sectors — scrolled for weeks through myriad online messages posted by locals.
They were looking to identify cases whose apprehension might count in the eyes of that party chief as “achievements”, including crimes that might not even have been perceived as such when “committed”.
The police were so proud of tracking down the criminal Zhang that they posted the information about his crime online, complete with a photo of him standing facing two seated policemen as if in a court — although they did not reveal his given name.
Huang Shike’s fate was more severe. He was jailed for two years recently in the Yili Kazakh prefecture of Xinjiang region for using two WeChat groups “to discuss and instruct about religious texts”.
Huang, a Muslim aged 49, answered questions in one site about how most effectively to pray, and in the other he led a discussion about what the Koran says about animal sacrifice. The groups — each totalling about 100 members — comprised family and friends, his daughter said.
The court’s three judges stated in their finding that his crime com- prised “engaging in religious activities in a non-religious venue” — which they said was, in virtual terms, tantamount to the crime of “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”.
The court said that WeChat groups are “non-religious venues” — and cited a 2015 law that referred to using a website for “criminal activities”, without providing any evidence linking religion to such activities.
The online crackdown in the lead up to the 19th Communist Party congress that starts on October 18 has been ferocious — and is not expected to fade afterwards.
President Xi Jinping, who is looking to cement his already un- precedented power at the congress, chairs the Central Leading Group for Internet Security, to which the Cyberspace Administration of China reports.
The CAC has announced that from October 8, the organiser or host of a WeChat or other online group will be held responsible for the content of every post made by every person in that group, and will be liable to prosecution for material viewed as unacceptable politically, religiously, sexually or in other ways.
Many of the 1.1 billion Chinese people with mobile phones are members of 20 or more WeChat groups.
Netizens swiftly blogged commentaries on this new peril for people who post. One featured a convincing-looking socialist-realist emblem with workers with uplifted arms, proclaiming the launch of a new insurance product: “WeChat group organiser, for just $50 a year we guarantee that if you are arrested, our insurance company will provide you with a lawyer. If you are permanently disabled from a police beating, you will receive $200,000.”
Such whimsy never lasts long before it is taken down, either by WeChat’s in-house censors or police. But it is often noticed, copied and distributed to their own contacts by smart-eyed netizens.
One outcome being discussed online yesterday was the prospect of friends or relatives in countries such as Australia being invited to take on the putative role of organiser of chat groups, in order to protect Chinese organisers from potential prosecution.
In the meantime, people have begun dipping again into quotes from Chairman Mao Zedong, pasting them at the top of their posts in order to validate their political correctness if or when they are audited.
On guard in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People this week