The Only Protection from China's Online Crackdown: Joining Its Informant Site

In an effort to rein in online extortion and restore control over whistleblowers, China’s government is cracking down on online “rumor-mongering” of the sort that disrupts the “social order.” 

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In an effort to rein in online extortion and restore control over whistleblowers, China’s government is cracking down on online “rumor-mongering” of the sort that disrupts the “social order.” Today, to forward the latter goal, Cui Shaopeng, a senior Communist party discipline official, announced the launch of a new official Communist Party informant site (link in Chinese). Only those using the site will be protected from any attacks against them, as Reuters reports.

The announcement comes on the heels of a government crackdown on “social disrupting” online posts. Authors whose tweets fit that description and are retweeted 500 times or viewed 5,000 times risk three years in prison.

One objective behind these laws is to go after a nasty, growing extortion business that targets individuals and companies online. Another is to solidify government control over the corruption-busting of Chinese officials—by threatening anyone saying anything online that makes the government look bad.

The government already has an informant site, launched in 2009. The new site includes the old site architecture as well as links to informant sites for three other government divisions. Whistleblowers enter their name, email, home address, telephone number, a form of government-issued identification and place of work, along with similarly detailed information about the person being reported. Submitting most of that information is optional, but the government wants to make it worth the informant’s while. “Anyone retaliating against whistleblowers using the site will be severely dealt with,” said Cui, who reminded everyone to use his real name (link in Chinese). In other words, anonymous informants wouldn’t be able to claim protections under the law.

Of course, those who use their names risk criminal liability. ”Whistle-blowers are responsible for the authenticity of their reports,” warns the site—and reporting false information or disturbing the working order of the discipline agency constitutes a crime (link in Chinese).

The government has already shown a willingness to go after informants. With its anti-corruption crackdown has come a slew of arrests of citizen corruption watchdogs. In March 2013, the government launched a crackdown on anti-corruption activists and campaigners. Just today, the police detained Dong Shiru (paywall), a well-known microblog whistle-blower in Yunnan province. That follows the arrest of Chinese-American investor Charles Xue, an outspoken microblogger with 12 million followers (paywall), on prostitution charges. So far, the authorities haven’t used the “rumor-mongering” law against more prominent bloggers; like Xue, Dong was detained for something unrelated to his blogging.

The government has arrested several journalists recently; during the trial of Bo Xilai, a popular party leader charged with corruption, at least one, a Chongqing journalist, was arrested for “rumor-mongering.”

One possible reason the government launched an entirely new site: the Party’s disciplinary arm is showing off its digital savvy. Cui recently hosted an online chat with (seemingly carefully picked) users of the site. He also boasted that the agency would soon launch a tablet version and a microblog site (no word yet on how “rumor-mongering” laws might relate to its operation).

That said, the old site was popular enough without the PR push; the agency fielded 301,000 informant reports as of 2012, says Reuters, though it’s not clear what came of those cases. And therein lies the irony of an official whistle-blowing site: It hardly counts as accountability when you’re allowed to pick and choose your fights.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.