In China, “rumors” can get you locked up. That’s what happened Wednesday to Yang Xiuyu and three others when their online postings, which mocked communist role model Lei Feng and other public figures, were reported to the police.
The police identified Yang Xiuyu, who founded online promotion company Beijing Erma Interactive Marketing and Planning Co, and his employee Qin Zhihui, as having “created and spread online rumors and profited from their illegal acts”, according to the official mouthpiece Xinhua. Two others were detained.
“The glorious image of Lei Feng was being questioned by some web users,” according to police, and who reported the posts demanded a “thorough investigation of the creators of the rumors defaming Lei Feng’s image.”
Lei Feng was a soldier promoted as a role model for selflessness and frugality since the early years of communist rule. His exploits are celebrated on an annual “Learn from Lei Feng” day. Some of the posts online poked at the legitimacy of his virtues: One, which was saved as a screenshot, said that Lei might be corrupt, spending 90 yuan on his clothes while his soldiers’ salary was only 6 yuan.
Yang and Qin were accused of spread the claims online as a means of getting attention and inflating their web traffic. Aside from Lei Feng, Yang and Qin also lampooned a well-known military affairs commentator and the head of China’s Disabled Persons’ Federation. The police statement said Qin had a history of circulating rumors. In 2011 he opened a total of 12 different microblogging accounts to circumvent censorship, and had over 100,000 followers, using variants of the handle “Qin Huohuo,” which means “Qin Fire Fire.”
“China has carried out a campaign to crack down on online rumors, and government authorities said netizens should bear in mind basic moral principles and deter false information to create a sound Internet realm,” Xinhua reported. “Qin and Yang have confessed to police that netizens should be manipulated to believe that they are the “victims of social injustice” and only “anti-social activities could help them vent their dissatisfaction.”
But according to the South China Morning Post, the action is part of a widespread campaign to discredit and silence liberal dissent, in effect since Xi Jinping became head of the Communist Party. A secret Communist Party Central Committee circular, published in April, calls for an all-out attack on what are identified as subversive forces within Chinese society, including any discussion of civil society, democracy, and freedom of the press.