On Monday, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People Procuratorate issued a new rule that Internet users who post defamatory items that are reposted 500 times or viewed 5,000 times on the Internet could face up to three years in prison, according to China Daily.
The punishment for posting slanderous material on the Internet varies depending on the impact of the material. The interpretation states that people who post content that harms victims to the extent of mental illness or suicide will receive the most severe punishment, which can be a maximum of three years in prison, as reported by China Daily.
Carl Minzner, associate professor at Fordham Law School and Chinese legal expert, said this will have a significant impact on the social media landscape in China. “It will definitely have a chilling effect on the Chinese Internet,” he said. “And that’s exactly what is intended.”
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Sun Jungong, a spokesman for the top court, told Xinhua that Internet users will not be prosecuted as long as they are not intentionally slandering others. Minzner said the vague nature of the rule gives the state flexibility on applying it.
The Chinese government has a complicated relationship with social media. On one hand, activists have used social media as a tool to spread antagonistic messages about the government. On the other, netizens have also used social media to blow the whistle on corrupt officials, bringing them to the attention of higher authorities. One famous example is "Watch Brother," a local official who was brought down by hawk-eyed netizens who posted photos on Weibo of the official wearing five different luxury watches - more than a man should be able to afford on a state salary. President Xi Jinping has praised the actions of such whistleblowers, saying the government needs “the supervision of the people” in order to fight corruption.
Nonetheless, the government has tightened its grip on social media in recent years, taking steps that include registering social media users with their real names and ID numbers. Minzner says the new rule will make people think twice before posting or reposting rumors on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, but won’t stop hardcore social and political critics on Weibo.
“It’s not like you wake up tomorrow and there will be no critical postings on the Internet. The people who are really interested in reposting or putting critical information up there, they might still do it and increasingly run the risk of getting in trouble,” said Minzner. “Other people might be afraid of the consequences and gradually back off from posting rumors or political posts.”
Sun told China Daily that as of June, the count of netizens in China hit 591 million. Minzner said the increased influence of social media in China is a major reason for the state to take the reins with new laws. “This is one component of a broad state effort to sort of rethink and ramp up and take control of social media – not just for political purposes, but also for the social impact,” said Minzner. Weibo users are already mocking the new rule, tweeting images of 500 with the "00" as handcuffs.