The Washington Post

Beijing’s ban on Internet rumors threatens free speech. And some in China aren’t afraid to say it.

In this Friday, March 12, 2010 file photo, people use computers at an Internet cafe in Fuyang, in central China's Anhui province. (AP Photo)

The Chinese Internet isn't exactly known as a hotbed for free speech. But judging by a few recent events, debate about how the Internet in China should be managed is gaining steam.

Beijing has been embroiled in a campaign against online rumor-mongering of late. In a recent judicial ruling, the government announced stiff penalties for posting rumors that get shared 500 times or seen 5,000 times. Civil-liberties advocates say the ruling, with its possible three-year jail sentence, sets a dangerous precedent for free speech.

The new law is so extreme that even some domestic intellectuals have begun criticizing it.

Among the critics is Zhu Mingguo, a key party official in the province of Guangdong. His criticism of the anti-rumor rule might sound familiar to some in the West frustrated with how legacy organizations have adapted (or not) to new technology.

"In an environment of new media, we should take the initiative ... and seek breakthroughs in propaganda on the Internet ... and should not simply resort to the means of 'delete', 'shut down' and 'reject'," Zhu said, according to local media reports last week.

Zhu isn't the only official to voice his concerns over the crackdown. According to the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou law enforcement called the new policy a potential "nightmare" on its microblog — a post that was then shared by another provincial body's official account.

Between Zhu's comments and the public outcry online, a feisty discussion over Internet governance appears to be afoot in a country known for sending undercover agents into chatrooms and forums to spread propaganda.

China's digitally engaged population could make a bigger difference than you think. Its ranks aren't full of clicktivists. Instead, there's a robust cybersleuthing community whose forensic abilities far surpass Reddit even on its best days. These private investigators root out corruption by performing "human flesh searches" that turn up photos of government largesse and wrongdoing. The creepy term notwithstanding, the online gumshoes became part of a high-profile case last year involving a bureaucrat who bought luxury watches and grinned at the sight of human misfortune.

Photos can be doctored, of course, and it's not clear whether human flesh searches would be at risk under the new anti-rumor policy. But the resistance to the judicial ruling is evidence that the Chinese Internet is far more diverse than we sometimes give it credit for.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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