It’s Official: ‘Spreading Rumors’ Online in China Will Get You in Jail

November 8, 2015 Updated: November 8, 2015

According to a new piece of Chinese legislation signed into law on Nov. 1, netizens found guilty of “spreading rumors” or “fabricated information” online can be jailed for up to seven years.

The ninth amendment to China’s criminal law was passed on Aug. 29 this year in the 16th meeting of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

According to the state-run People’s Daily, those who publish false alarms about natural disasters, police notices, or deliberately spread rumors on the Internet will be held for up to three years in prison if the act has disturbed social order. Those whose rumor mongering causes “serious consequences” can be put behind bars for three to seven years

The new laws appear to be an expansion of a 10-clause judicial interpretation from 2013 that defines the kinds of online behavior that constitute “fabricating facts to slander others” and “serious violations.” It rules that people face defamation charges if the offending content is viewed by more than 5,000 netizens or retweeted more than 500 times. 

Tools of suppression

Activists say that the new regulations simply increase the degree to which the Communist Party restricts freedom of expression and human rights in name of “stability maintenance” and “social harmony.” It is also questionable as to whether the law will be equally and fairly enforced. 

Hunan Province activist Ou Biaofeng told Voice of America that many genuine rumors on the Internet in fact arise from the very lack of freedom of expression and information that the Chinese regime enforces. He worries that the new regulation will be used against activists, dissidents and commentators on current affairs.

Ou said that “the intent is to suppress human rights defenders and dissidents. The authorities cannot tolerate criticism. This is a further suppression of freedom of speech in the name of legislation and law and to create a state of fear in society.”

Activist Wu Bin questioned the criteria for discriminating between true and false information, as well as how to determine which individuals were truly guilty or simply the victims of misleading posts.

“They set the standards,” Wu told Voice of America, “to be very flexible for manipulation. If they want to catch you, they’ll say you knew it and you spread it. For dissidents like us, the ones who criticize the government, they will do everything possible to set us up.”

Netizens have criticized the apparent contradiction between the state-run media’s habitual falsification or skewing of economic data, casualty reports in accidents and natural disasters, among other embellished content, and the new Internet regulations, which ostensibly target exactly such behavior.

Wu Bin said that the regime must set an example before making demands of the people. He suspects that the new regulations will not apply to the so-called “50 Cent Party,” or Internet users in the pay of the regime to produce posts in support of regime policy or to otherwise subvert or oppose dissident voices.