Twitter Becomes Chinese Government’s Double Weapon: Punishing Dissent and Propagating Disinformation

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Twitter Becomes Chinese Government’s Double Weapon: Punishing Dissent and Propagating Disinformation

By Frances Eve

At 9:30AM Beijing Time on May 13, former journalist Zhang Jialong (张贾龙) is going to stand in front of a judge in the southern province of Guizhou for the first time since being taken from his home by Guiyang City police last August. The young father, who was fired from Tencent in 2014 for meeting with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry, is going on trial just nine days before his 32nd birthday.

His criminal activity, according to the prosecutor’s charge sheet, is that “from 2016 onwards, the defendant Zhang Jialong used his phone and computer etc. with a ‘scale the Firewall’ tool [e.g Virtual Private Network] many times to log onto the overseas platform ‘Twitter,’ and through the account ‘张贾龙@zhangjialong’ repeatedly used the platform to post and retweet a great amount of false information that defamed the image of the [Chinese Communist] Party, the state, and the government.”

This, according to authorities, “clearly” constituted the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” under Article 293 of China’s Criminal Law. Zhang faces a potential maximum five-year prison sentence.

Zhang, who used to be prolific tweeter, sent less than 200 tweets between 2016 and 2019. During that time, his Twitter account shows someone who would mainly “retweet” or “like” stories about human rights issues, politics, or history, including stories about detained activists or dissidents. He would occasionally make comments while also sharing personal news, like when he got married in 2017 and thanking well-wishers. He sent more tweets in 2016 when he wrote an open invitation to John Kerry to meet with him again and raised cases of prisoners of conscience. Shortly before police took him away on August 12, Zhang had liked a few tweets about the Hong Kong protests.

Human rights defenders like Zhang are increasingly being accused of using Twitter, alongside Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat, and QQ, to commit the “crime” of “slandering” the Chinese Communist Party or the government by expressing their opinions. As many Chinese human rights activists have increasingly tried to express themselves uncensored on Twitter, police have stepped up its monitoring of the platform. Thirty minutes after activist Deng Chuanbin sent a tweet on May 16, 2019 that referenced the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Sichuan police were outside his apartment building. He has been in pre-trial detention ever since, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Since a 2013 opinion from China’s supreme court and procuratorate, Chinese authorities have defined the Internet as a “public space” and online speech “disrupting” its “order” has been punished as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” under Article 293 of the Criminal Law. Chinese legal experts call “picking quarrels” a “pocket crime” because authorities use it to punish almost any activity they want. Unsurprisingly, this crime is regularly used in political cases against human rights lawyers, activists, journalists, NGO workers, and anyone else the police want to persecute for their online speech.

While the Chinese government systematically denies Chinese people their right to express themselves freely on the Internet, through the Great Firewall, censorship, and criminal prosecution for “picking quarrels” and other crimes, the government has aggressively used blocked western social media platforms like Twitter to promote its propaganda and launch disinformation campaigns overseas.

Chinese diplomats and government officials enjoy unfettered access to Twitter and other social media platforms blocked by the Chinese government inside China. An estimated 55 Chinese officials are on Twitter, of whom 32 joined in 2019. Chinese officials use these accounts to send out hundreds of tweets a week to spread propaganda and disinformation while simultaneously muzzling users inside the country who have a differing opinion. In April 2020, the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka’s Twitter account was briefly suspended, causing the embassy and Chinese state media to unironically demand that “freedom of speech’ must be honored.” What about the freedom of speech of Zhang Jialong and Chinese people who don’t agree with the government?

Zhang Jialong was a watchdog journalist, reporting on public interest stories like the 2008 toxic baby milk powder scandal and the government persecution of artist Ai Weiwei. He used his little time with a high-ranking US official to ask him for help to tear down the Great Firewall. After being fired from his job as a web editor at Tencent-owned for his comments in this meeting, Zhang returned to his hometown and led a low-key life. He got married and reduced his online presence. He expressed his views in what he must have believed to be a safe social media platform. Having already taken away his job, this time, authorities locked him up.  

Zhang Jialong’s last tweet was an announcement of the birth of his daughter on June 8, 2019. He should be free and be able to watch her grow up. She deserves to grow up in a country where her father isn’t jailed for his speech.

Frances Eve is the deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders

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