Internet censors are clamping down on content posted onto WeChat, a popular Chinese social-media platform, that may be considered inappropriate by the Chinese regime—by spreading a threatening message meant to deter netizens.
A text message sent to a WeChat chatroom for teachers at a middle school in Beijing recently shocked many netizens. A screenshot of the message circulated quickly. It read: “Anybody who posts on topics that are against the interests of the nation, the [Communist] Party, and society on WeChat will be punished severely in this campaign to sweep out evil.”
The message came with a warning: “Anybody who violates this rule and posts illegal information will face a sentence of one to eight years imprisonment.”
The message has placed netizens on edge.
A Beijing resident, who identified himself only with the surname Ma, told New York-based broadcaster NTD on April 17: “I have been seeing this kind of notification [on WeChat] frequently. The [Communist government] has never stopped its monitoring on WeChat. The monitoring is always strict, and [online police] have shut down users’ accounts or chatrooms frequently.”
“[The government asks us] not to tell the truth, but to say something favorable [about the Chinese regime],” commented a netizen with the moniker Xuehua Piaopiao on Tianya BBS, a popular online forum.
The threat of a heavy sentence has been spreading online since at least 2017, but Chinese authorities have never formally announced such regulations—nor have Chinese media reported on it.
But netizens have indeed been detained after posting “sensitive content” on WeChat.
Ni Huaping, a 40-year-old resident from Sanya City in the southern island province of Hainan, was detained in August 2018 after posting this message on WeChat on July 19, 2018: “I haven’t watched CCTV [state broadcaster] news for many years. How about Xi Pig-head?,” referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Pig-head” is a commonly used insult in Chinese, usually referring to a chubby, dim-witted person.
Ni was detained for 10 days and fined 500 yuan ($75) on Aug. 21, 2018, on the charge of “insulting others.”
As early as 2016, netizens were ensnared for their speech on WeChat.
Liu Yanli, 42, worked at a local branch of China Construction Bank in Jingmen City, Hubei Province. In September 2016, she was taken from her home by local police and detained for eight months. The police said her crime was posting or reposting content on WeChat related to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Xi Jinping.
Just over two years later, in November 2018, Chinese authorities again detained Liu, for posting comments on WeChat in support of military veterans, who had staged nationwide protests to demand better health care and pensions.
The Jingmen police charged Liu with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” after Liu refused to accept the charges.
On Jan. 31 this year, the Dongbao District Court in Jingmen City held the first hearing on Liu’s case. The court said Liu had written 29 online posts to attack CCP leaders.
Liu, who also hired a lawyer, defended herself in court, saying that China’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech to Chinese citizens. Liu wasn’t granted bail and remains in custody at the Jingmen Detention Center.
Dozens of other similar cases have occurred in recent years. In September 2017, the state-run media Xinhua quoted a Beijing lawyer, Shi Fumao, who warned of the consequences of posting online messages that the Chinese regime disapproves of: “Everybody [in China] should take a lesson from these cases, and must pay attention to your words and behaviors. Otherwise, you may violate the law or have committed a crime.”