China: First case of Twitter inquisition

On 15 November, a woman in China was sentenced to one year of ‘re-education through labour’ for sending a single tweet. Chen Jianping (@wangyi09, known as Wang Yi on twitter), the fiancée of human rights activist Hua Chunhui (@wxhch), was accused of disrupting social order for re-tweeting a satirical suggestion by her fiancé last month that anti-Japanese protesters should attack the Japanese Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. She added five words in Chinese, ‘angry youth, charge!’ Hua was also arrested but was released after five days.

According to Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director, “Sentencing someone to a year in a labour camp, without trial, for simply repeating another person’s clearly satirical observation on Twitter demonstrates the level of China’s repression of online expression.”

Jingpin Blog, describing the case as the first Twitter inquisition in China, explores what Chen’s tweet means in the context of ‘social order’ and China’s repressive political environment:


Is this a case of injustice? This depends on how we understand ‘disrupting social order.’ But such kind of literary inquisition is not the first in the world. In January this year, a British man joked on Twitter that he is going to blow up the Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster. He was arrested, fired from his job and banned from entering the airport. This is all because of just one tweet. We can see that inappropriate languages on Twitter could land you an arrest, whether you are in or out of China.

回到王译的文字狱,暂且不论法院的判决是否公平,也不管王译所说的是否真心话(我相信那只是一时的气话),那条信息的内容是很危险的,本来砸馆的说法就是滥伤无辜,你鼓动他人砸馆就更糟糕了,所以王译受到的惩罚比华春辉的要重。不妨想想,你如果说你不支持党,那么党可能不理你,因为你只是一个屁民,但是如果你鼓动他人和你一起不支持党,那党就会找你麻烦了,因为它要以儆效尤。当然,也不是说鼓动别人做事不好,关键要看是谁鼓动以及鼓动什么,像昂山素季那种鼓动整个国家的人为自由而奋斗就是英雄的行为,尽管这样的行为也给她带来了 牢狱之灾。

Back to Chen’s case. Without commenting on whether the decision is fair or not, and without considering whether Chen really meant it (I believe it is just a joke), the content of her tweet is very dangerous. The act of attacking the pavilion is dangerous. Now you are stimulating others to do so, which is even more dangerous. That’s why Chen’s punishment is heavier than Hua’s. Think about this. If you do not support the [Chinese Communist Party], the party will just ignore you because you are only an insignificant individual. But if you encourage other people to oppose the party, then the party will give you troubles. This is to act as a warning to others. Of course, this is not to say that encouraging other people to do something is a bad thing. It depends on who take the lead, and for what purposes. Take Aung San Suu Kyi, who motivates the whole country to struggle for freedom. It is a heroic act, although it brings her years of arrest.

On Twitter, many Chinese users are voicing their support for Wang Yi.

Here are a few tweets from Hua Chunhui (@wxhch) over the past few days:

@wxhch: 夜深了,我却无法入眠。我不知道现在王译睡了没有,不知道这几天她在劳教所是怎么过的,她是否还在绝食,她是否受到不人道的对待,不知道她身体怎么样了,我不知道。昨天上午我和她妹妹说,尽快给她送点她需要的东西,尽量多去看看她,我会争取尽快合法地去看王译。

It’s late at night, but I cannot sleep. I don’t know if Wang Yi has gone to sleep or not. I don’t know how she passed these few days in the labour camp, whether she is still on hunger strike, whether she was subject to inhumane behavior, what is her health condition. I don’t know. Yesterday morning I spoke to her sister. We have to send her necessities ASAP, and to visit her often. I will fight for our legal rights to visit her.

@wxhch: 看来2010年的气候是确实在为2012打基础。王译@wangyi09才因五个字被劳教一年,武汉李铁又因山洞癫蝠被逮捕了。每天生活在这样的信息中,真是心律不齐、呼吸困难啊!

It seems the political atmosphere in 2010 is in preparation for 2012. Wang Yi lost a year of freedom just because of five words. Wuhan scholar Li Tie also got arrested on the charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ Living in such kind of news everyday makes one feel nervous and difficult to breathe!


This morning, while travelling on a public bus in Zhang Yuan, I was on a phone interview with the Associated Press. After the phone call, a passenger asked me what I was talking about. I then briefly introduced Wang Yi’s case to the passenger, who was very surprised and said it is difficult to believe! Twitterers nearby, please use whatever means to tell the truth to everyone.

Here are some more tweets from online activists:

@tjitian: 王译(程建萍)被劳教绝非简单个案,这是个危险的信号-今后在维稳的幌子下,对于公民围观等维权活动,当局有可能如法炮制。面对他们猖狂反扑,需思考相应对策。

The case of Wang Yi (Chen Jianping) is by no means a simple, individual case. It is a warning sign – under the flag of social stability, the authority may do the same to all rights defense activities. In face of their crazy revenge, we need to think of our responses.

@wangzhongxia: 刘晓波224个字失去11年。字均18天。RT @mozhixu: 王译 @wangyi09应该可以去申请吉尼斯纪录,5个字失去一年自由,平均一个字要失去72天自由,应该是世界纪录了

Liu Xiaobo lost 11 years for 224 words. 18 days for one word. RT @mozhixu: Wang Yi can apply for the Guinness World Records. Lose 1 year for five words. On average 72 days for one word. This is a world record.

@lichaoxun: 抓捕程建萍《王译)是对所有翻墙上推,获得真相和直抒胸膩的网民朋友们的最直白的人权践踏和生存威胁。声援程建萍意义非凡。

Detaining Wang Yi is the most direct way of stamping on the rights and threatening the survival of Chinese citizens who defy censorship to seek and speak the truth. Supporting Chen Jianping has a very special meaning.

@ranyunfei: @wxhch华兄,你以前的什么,老兄我不知道,但你在王译同学面前,可谓展露一切情感。我认为王译是推特上最幸福的女人。尽管遭遇这么多苦楚,但你要告诉那些国宝,让他们连羡慕都没份儿。

Brother Hua, I don’t know what you did in the past. But you have shown all your passions for Wang Yi. I believe Wang Yi is the luckiest lady on Twitter. Even though there are tremendous amount of pains, you have to tell those state security police that they don’t even deserve to be envious.

Meanwhile, twitter CEO Dick Costolo has voiced his criticism on the Chinese government in his Twitter profile:

@dickc: Dear Chinese Government, year-long detentions for sending a sarcastic tweet are neither the way forward nor the future of your great people.

which was being translated into Chinese and retweeted by Chinese users, attracting various responses:

@nuosong: Twitter的CEO说王译“因发推而获刑一年”。而他可能并不知道,这个“刑”,既没有经过法院的审判,也没有经过检察官的指控,这只是一个由警方自家做出的决定。在中国,这个“刑”可以绕开司法程序,剥夺任何一个嫌疑人1至4年的自由,它的名字叫做“劳动教养”。

Twitter CEO said Wang Yi got ‘year-long detentions for sending a sarcastic tweet.’ He may not know that this ‘detention’ was neither a judgment from court nor the procuracy. It is just a decision by the local police. In China, this ‘detention’ can circumvent legal procedures and deprive of any suspect’s freedom from 1 to 4 years. This is called ‘re-education through labour.’

@baiwuya: 太给力了!twitterCEO出来说话了!支持王译!

A great support! Twitter CEO is speaking! Support Wang Yi!


  • > a woman in China

    From what I’ve researched, she’s not just “a woman” but has been pretty much a full-time (did she work?) dissident since 2006 and I’m sure this wasn’t the first time she’s pissed off the gov’t authorities. To say that she was convicted for this Tweet seems naive, is it not?

    • Neddy

      And that makes her arrest right, somehow. Right?
      The woman’s activism is a common knowledge to China-watchers. Nothing to do with “naivety” except of your dreams!
      Of course she was not convicted for this tweet alone… and that’s the point, isn’t it?
      Except to pandapologists.

      • Not sure why I’m replying to some anonymous head on the internet, but…

        > Except to pandapologists.

        Talk about naive…

        My point isn’t that clarifying her status as a dissident justifies her arrest, it’s that it helps to understand it. That’s especially crucial in this case since the story got trumpeted around the world as “the women who got arrested for Tweeting,” as if the Chinese gov’t is an irrational and dangerous actor. If you’re going to try to understand the dynamics behind what happens in China it’s better to have all the facts out in the open.

        If you’re trying to _understand_, disclosure is your friend. If you’re trying to paint the Chinese government as *evil* (googly eyes), then you’re going to censor information with no qualms. And then you’re now worse than the other side because as the Chinese authorities have learned self-censorship is the most effective kind.

        • Penny Redding

          Micha S, your point is self-contradictory. If the local police who put Chen away is targting her for her activism since 2006, why don’t they say so? Why isn’t the case put through the court system, allow her legal representation, and show the Chinese public that re-education through labor is what you get if you work on freedom of speech, for example? It seems that the Chinese government is the party which began this deception, not civil society actors.

          Given that you believe you have a less-than-naive understanding of how the Chinese regime works, can you kindly tell us what would have happened to activists like Chen if they were to openly advertise their work? Correct. She would have gotten ten years instead of one for “flaunting disobedience to the authorities.” Open activism reduces fear in others and encourages the civil rights movement to spread. Ooh, that would be most “irrational and dangerous,” now, wouldn’t it?

          In fact, as you must know, that sort of publicity, and the swell in public support among Chinese citizens, is what the government goes all out to avoid. Hence the sentencing for the sarcastic tweet rather than her other work.

          And let’s just be absolutely clear about what kind of “dissident work” we are talking about here. Take your local export assistance center in Anytown, USA. Let’s say that the son of the director of that illustrious government bureau goes to the local hotel, spots a pretty 18-year-old waitress, and rapes her. She seems less than glad to have received his attention and fights back. He beats her up and throws her body out of the window. The local police sends dozens of cops to wrest her body from her family, has a standoff with the local people, incinerates the body, and puts her father in jail for one year for daring to take his kid’s case public rather than taking some dough and calling it a day (as parents do in many other similar cases.) That’s right. Chen’s subversive “dissident work” included posting about such cases. The girl in the above case is called Gao Yingying :

          but as someone who currently live in China surely you’ve heard about the Fenghuang case in Hunan recently? It’s just about identical.

          I am a good liberal democrat and leftist who never hesitate to indict imperialism and oppression in Western democracies. But I want to see you, or anyone else, defend the kind of government that would put such activists behind bars. How exactly is Chen “worse than” her oppressors? And if these government officials are driven by rational self-interest, does that make what they do less *evil?

          And finally, I am Chinese. So none of the knee-jerk “anti-China Westerner” reactions, please, from any fifty-centers lurking around here.

          • > It seems that the Chinese government is the party which began this deception, not civil society actors.

            So is this the standard that we civil society actors are measuring ourselves against now? “They’re the ones who lied first.” Please don’t fall into that trap.

            As for the rest of your comment, you’re picking up on a semantic distinction that is peripheral to my main point and letting yourself get carried away by your emotions. You and Neddy are implying that because I’m rational and calm-headed, therefore I must be a 50-center or China apologist. That’s another dangerous road to take.

            This isn’t about China, it’s about how your present yourself and the labels you apply to yourself.

          • That is to say, less combatively: I agree with you that the Chinese government is rotten to the core (who doesn’t agree? even Chinese!), but I find the word “evil” much too essentialist (victims of historical circumstance? to a large degree!) and I’m *definitely* not going to play their game (wrestle with pigs? no thanks!).

  • […] Safe World for Women is campaigning for Wang Yi, a Twitterer, who was sentenced to one year labour re-education for retweeting a satirical message. (via […]

  • Penny Redding

    I was unclear in the above post. The export assistance center in Anytown, USA analogy is meant to illustrate that in such cases, the perpetrators are always the children of petty local officials. The Chinese equivalents are entities such as the State Administration of Industry and Commerce. Such cases are either covered up as suicides, or some other poor sucker takes the blame.

  • Penny Redding

    Micah S., I think the problem here is you must be ignorant, in spite of your assertions to the contrary, to the level of danger Chinese activists face.

    Your point is what seems peripheral to the central argument here, which is, to what extent can civil society activists in authoritarian China be expected to be open and transparent about what they do? And should the authorities be held to the same standards? Or, better yet, can those of us who live in safer societies understand that those authorities fear transparency and openness, seeing it as a way to enlarge the movement against their power, and therefore make it virtually impossible to operate openly and transparently?

    There is a cat-and-mouse game here. The authorities do not want people to bring up Wang’s advocacy work. Her comrades can of course use her as a pawn, pump up the volume about all of her work, and hope to build more support for her. But that sort of open challenge crosses the line, and the police would always take revenge against the accused.

    Not only are we talking about longer prison time, we are looking at broken joints, hanging you up by fingers for hours, urinating over you, and applying electric shocks to your genitals. One prisoner bit off a piece of the tip of his tongue during this assortment of torture. People are often too exhausted to commit suicide.

    This is not some rarefied philosophical argument for those of us who live with this and care about the human consequences. 这是我们的未来,我们的幸福。外人要说话,要支持,绝对欢迎,当然也希望看到有建设性的批评。但是拜托不要以西方人的天真无知强加于我们,我们已经够累够苦的了! You may be well-meaning, but as an outsider, you may want to take more time to truly understand the plight of those inside, before you pass judgment on complexities you are not privy to seeing.

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