What you should know about heading a WeChat group
Mainland law throws up issues of responsibility for group administrators
WeChat has become an extremely popular way for people in the mainland to communicate, and people (and companies) in Hong Kong use it to reach out to mainland friends and the mainland market.
A small reminder to those whose names are registered with WeChat: there have been a number of reported criminal cases in which heads of WeChat groups have been prosecuted, although none so far involve people from Hong Kong or people posting on WeChat from Hong Kong. Setting aside the complicated questions of cross-border criminal liability – which require close examination – let’s look at what is set out in the mainland Criminal Law and some recent court reports.
Users posting on WeChat have been prosecuted under various Criminal Law articles.
Some heading a WeChat group have been prosecuted under Article 364 of the Criminal Law, and its related judicial interpretation by the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate, punishing the dissemination of obscene materials.
In a recent case, from Zhejiang (浙江) province, published in People’s Court Daily, the head of the WeChat group called, in Chinese, “adultery” was criminally punished for failing to stop a group member from disseminating obscene material. The court decided that the head of the group had a responsibility to supervise and examine what other group members posted and delete content if necessary.
In a recent prosecution under Article 293 of the Criminal Law, a man’s role as head of a WeChat group was cited along with other evidence. The which punishes organising a mob to disturb public order, has also been cited. Villagers in Foshan (佛山) were angry that the village authorities were selling their land. One of the villagers, who opposed the sale, and organised a WeChat group to communicate better about protesting against the local authorities, was punished under that provision. The criminal judgment cited the defendant’s role as head of the WeChat group, among other offences.
A more recent addition to the Criminal Law arsenal is Article 291-1 1 (in effect from November 1, 2015) of the Criminal Law.
It outlaws the fabrication of false reports of danger, epidemic, disasters or security alerts and transmitting them through information networks or other media.
Seriously disturbing the social order is punishable by up to three years incarceration, or seven years where serious consequences result.
Forewarned is forearmed!
Susan Finder is Visiting Fellow with the Centre of Chinese Law at HKU