Gansu Teenager Detained Under New Rules on Online Rumors

December 13, 2013

In early September 2013, public security authorities in Gansu province criminally detained a teenager for allegedly “seriously disrupting social order” by posting comments about a local death online. The teenager, surnamed Yang, was reportedly one of the first suspects detained under controversial “online rumor” rules issued by China’s highest court and highest procuratorate in early September 2013. Internet users can now face up to three years’ imprisonment if officials deem the content users post to be “defamatory” and that content is reposted 500 times or is viewed 5,000 times. While authorities later downgraded Yang’s criminal detention and released him after an administrative detention, the case garnered widespread attention and contributed to a backlash against the rules to control Internet comments.

Teenager Detained for Online Comments

On September 17, 2013, public security officials in Zhangjiachuan Hui Autonomous County, Tianshui city, Gansu province, criminally detained 16-year-old microblog user Yang Zhong (whose microblog handle is Yang Hui) on charges of “seriously disrupting social order” after he posted online comments (Global Voices, 23 September 13; New York Times (NYT), 23 September 13). According to the September 23 Global Voices article, on September 14, Yang posted comments questioning the cause of “the unnatural death of a [KTV] worker” and urging people to protest an allegedly hasty investigation in which authorities ruled the death was a suicide (an image capture of Yang’s microblog comments is available via On September 20, the Zhangjiachuan County Public Security Bureau said in a posting on its official microblogging account that Yang’s message “seriously disrupted social order,”—an offense of criminal defamation punishable under the PRC Criminal Law’s Article 246—since it allegedly “resulted in hundreds of people gathering at the scene, traffic congestion, loss of control at the scene, serious public disorder, and serious interference with public security agencies handling casework.” (The official weibo posting has been removed, but an image of the posting is available on According to the NYT report, a volunteer lawyer defending Yang argued that the detention was illegal since the “comments were not knowingly fabricated” (NYT, 23 September 13).  The lawyer reportedly added:  “It’s all right to crack down on rumors, but if such initiatives are expanded without limits or regard to principle, they become unconstitutional.”

On September 24, 2013, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Chinese authorities downgraded Yang’s criminal detention and released him after seven days of administrative detention—a form of detention imposed by public security officials when the offense is not serious enough for criminal prosecution (RFA, 24 September 13). RFA also reported that Yang’s middle school expelled him. In addition,  China Daily reported that local authorities “coincidentally” suspended Bai Yongqiang, the director of public security for Zhangjiachuan Hui Autonomous County; however, the report did not provide any details about the reason for Bai’s suspension (China Daily, 25 September 13).

New Rules on Rumor Mongering

Overseas news media organizations claimed Yang was the first to be criminally detained under new rules targeting “rumor mongering,” in which online authors can now be subject to three years’ imprisonment under Article 246 of the PRC Criminal Law  (RFA, 9 September 13; NYT, 23 September 13; Bloomberg, 25 September 13). On September 6, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate jointly published the new rules as part of an interpretation titled the “Interpretation on Several Questions Regarding Applicable Law When Handling the Use of Information Networks To Commit Defamation and Other Such Criminal Cases” (hereafter “Interpretation”).  Under Article 2 of the Interpretation, authorities can sentence Internet users to up to three years’ imprisonment if content officials deem to be “defamatory” is reposted 500 times or is viewed 5[j1] ,000 times online. According to Xinhua, China’s official state-run news agency, the Interpretation on reposting defamatory content online offers a “more effective means to curb online rumors” (Xinhua, 9 September 13).

Internet Users and Experts React to Yang’s Detention and New Rules

Yang Zhong’s detention sparked widespread debate online, according to multiple reports (see, e.g., China Daily, 25 September 13; South China Morning Post (SCMP), 22 September 13; and CCTV, 25 September 13). According to the Global Times (GT), “Many Net users [were] outraged by the detention” (GT, 23 September 13). RFA reported that Internet users created an online advocacy campaign calling for Yang’s release (RFA, 24 September 13). On September 14, China Digital Times (CDT) translated some Chinese microblog users’ comments expressing dissatisfaction with the detention or regulations (CDT, 24 September 13).

According to the September 22 SCMP article, Chinese lawyers offered Yang and his family legal assistance, while some prominent lawyers released a statement calling for Yang’s immediate release. Other individuals and organizations also questioned the legal basis for the detention. In the September 23 GT article, for example, a professor with the China University of Political Science and Law questioned authorities’ determination that Yang fabricated information, stating: “Who is entitled to judge whether the information is [a] rumor remains vague.” For more information on free speech developments and the harassment of microbloggers in China, see the CECC 2013 Annual Report, Part II—Freedom of Expression, pp. 60–62.