A photo of a defiant teenager was circulating widely on Chinese social media on Monday morning. His firm stare, his "V for victory" hand gesture and his apt choice of outfit, a sweater with the slogan “Make the change”, matched the defiant mood of the group of activist lawyers who had publicised his case nationwide last week and were rewarded with a rare victory.
At around 2am on Monday morning, 16-year-old Yang Hui was released after a week-long detention at a Zhangjiachuan police detention centre, where he had been held on charges of “causing trouble”. He had been picked up by police last Monday after he wrote an online post in which he raised doubts about a local police investigation into the death of a karaoke bar manager.
Yang is the youngest known microblogger to be detained in a nationwide campaign aimed at reining in free speech. Police followed a judicial directive from earlier this month and detained the teenager for the online post, which had been re-shared by more than 500 people.
Two activist lawyers, You Feizhu and Wang Shihua, travelled to the remote county, which ranks among China’s poorest, and campaigned for his release. Shortly afterwards, more than 40 prominent lawyers signed a petition calling for Yang’s release. Posts about a corruption case that incriminated the police chief in charge of Yang’s detention also circulated online.
With Yang’s release, the group of lawyers, who are closely connected to each other and experienced in challenging political campaigns through legal arguments, have achieved a minor victory in portraying China’s “anti-rumour” campaign as the excessive crackdown it is. Hundreds of people have been reported questioned or detained since over the last two months throughout the country.
The lawyers have also re-gained their optimism for the power of online activism. “If China’s netizens unite, who can stop them?” posted Zhou Ze, a well-known Beijing-based lawyer. “Thank you Zhangjiachuan, thank you ‘mouse youth’!”, he wrote, using a popular nickname the 16-year-old has gained, which is a reference to the fact that the young man had got into trouble solely for his online speech.
While commercial papers reported extensively on the lawyer’s efforts to secure his release, state media have not swayed in their support of the “anti-rumour” campaign.
Local governments, like that of Zhangjiachuan have not had “their baptism” with the internet age yet, argued the Global Times in an editorial on Monday. “We think, because a standoff has emerged between urban intellectuals and minor local officials, higher levels of government should provide grassroots administrations with policy support” in dealing with elite urbanites, who in this “classical case have mislead public opinion”.
A commentary in the mouthpiece of the Chinese armed forces, the PLA Daily, on Monday reveals how serious decision makers in Beijing are taking cases such as Yang’s.
“Some online criticism is no longer a matter of reasonable critique, it carries ‘value artillery shells’ of negative sentiment,” according to the commentary. “Some very small issues are magnified, and become a critique of the national culture, the state system and its road [of development].”
Xu Xin, a law lecturer from Beijing, cautioned legal activists from reading too much into Yang's release. "Even though this was a small victory, it's by far not a victory of China's Internet users, and even less a victory of the rule of law," he wrote in a WeChat message.