The provincial government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has just passed a law that went into effect last week that will issue large fines of up to 500,000 RMB to individuals spreading false news and harmful content online, harmful being defined as damaging to national security, religious and ethnic harmony or seeking to overthrow the socialist system. The Chinese government takes great pains to control the spread of information online and is doubly concerned about anything touching upon events in East Turkestan.
This new regional law is in addition to the many national level ones that already exist regarding punishment for spreading rumors and the provisions in the national anti-terrorism law and its regional implementation guidelines for punishment of those spreading “extremist” content. Restrictions on the internet have been stricter in East Turkestan for years. The entire system was shut down for 10 months in 2009, and more recent examples include increasing restrictions on the use of VPNs- individuals detected using one had their internet shut down in 2015 and one young man was charged with using “restricted terrorist software” for having one on his phone. Uyghurs suffer particularly harsh penalties- one boy was jailed for life for watching videos on his phone; another died in prison for the same crime. The regional government has been requiring real name registration for cell phones and other digital devices, while it has become increasingly common for smart phones to simply be confiscated.
The term “fake news” 虚假信息 in the new law’s title evokes the issue that has recently become a hot topic in the United States. In the US the term refers to stories designed to look legitimate which are spread via social media or websites designed for the purpose, either to generate ad revenue or drive an extremist narrative. It is less clear how authorities who passed this law will define the term given the fact that true information is often suppressed in China, in addition to reports that are actually false. Indeed, the core of the issue is that although China is often held up as the ultimate example of an authoritarian regime successfully controlling new communications technology for its own ends, its complete control over the media and the ability to monitor and shut down blogs and websites has not made the public more trusting of official news sources- quite the opposite.
The government began a crackdown on ‘spreading rumors’ in 2013, with punishments including fines and even jail time. With the decline of Weibo and rise of Weixin (aka WeChat), the authorities are making an effort to deal with the more difficult to censor platform. The official think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that users are more likely to believe what they read on Weixin as communication on it tends to be through personal networks, and reported that as many as 2.1 million “rumors” are intercepted per day. They recommended that the government try to strengthen official sources of information and to have a way for netizens to flag false information. The State Internet Information Office even set out guidelines saying that only official media accounts could print or reprint current events articles on their public Weixin accounts. None of this will solve the fundamental problem of the public seeing the official media as untrustworthy.
The spread of rumors and false news stories can indeed be harmful to society. Uyghurs were themselves victims of this in 2009 as rumors spread in the wake of the unrest in Urumqi of Uyghurs attacking Han with syringes. The authorities’ mishandling of the situation and citizens’ suspicion of the official media’s reporting exacerbated the hysteria. The passage of this latest local law will do nothing to reduce the spread of rumors, and there is every reason to believe that it could be used to punish those spreading true reports as well. It is only a free media, not one that serves the interests of the authorities, can seek the truth in current events and win the trust of the public. Although media around the world may be facing challenges in this, it is clear that repression only worsens the problem; it cannot solve it.