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

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