A detained 16-year-old boy from rural Gansu, and not disgraced Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, dominated online debate over the weekend so much so that censors blocked keywords related to the teenager’s case.
After state media released previously unseen footage of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo defending himself in court last month and reported his life sentence on graft charges, political debate on China’s social media has now focused on Yang Hui, a middle-school student in Zhangjiachuan county in western Gansu province.
He is the youngest known person to be detained amid a crackdown on “online rumours” in China, which has seen hundreds of people arrested for posting messages online deemed libellous or speculative since last month.
Police took Yang away from school on Tuesday shortly after he questioned the official explanation of the death of a karaoke bar manager on September 12 in three posts on his Tencent weibo account last week. He has since been placed under criminal detention for “inciting trouble”.
Following a public outcry, the Zhangjiachuan Public Security Bureau issued a series of statements arguing the detention was justified “because Yang was spreading rumours, inciting mass demonstrations and seriously obstructing the social order”.
Police claimed that Yang’s posts had been shared more than 500 times. Posts online, which attract more than 500 reposts or 5,000 views, can be deemed criminal according to judicial guidelines issued earlier in September.
Although Yang is not an adult, he is old enough to assume legal responsibility, according to Chinese criminal law.
China’s legal rights activists have taken up the case. Two well-known defence lawyers You Feizhou and Wang Shihua have offered Yang’s family free legal assistance and have, so far in vain, attempted to meet Yang at a county detention centre. Fan Zhongxin, a law professor in Hangzhou and head of China’s legal history association, declared Yang’s case the defining legal case of the year.
By Sunday, some of China’s most well-known lawyers, including Jiang Tianyong and Li Fangping, signed a statement calling for Yang’s release. “Public security departments should respect the guarantee of freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution and the fundamental principles of the Penal Code when dealing with speech crimes,” they wrote.
Other lawyers have pledged to travel to Gansu and offer their assistance to Wang and You if the teenager is not released soon.
Many weibo users meanwhile have resorted to sarcasm. “Secretary Liu is great, Director Bai is great!” many quipped in a frequently used tagline referring to the county’s Party Secretary Liu Changjiang and police chief Bai Yongjiang. “You have worked very hard,” micro-bloggers mocked.
Other rushed to dig out information on the leaders of the county officially ranked as one of China’s poorest. By the weekend, hundreds of people had shared photos of the county’s sumptuous government offices, completed in 2006 at a cost of 16 million yuan (HK$20.3 million).
Others circulated a judgment in a graft case  from earlier this year, according to which Bai curried favours with a superior with bribes amounting to 50,000 yuan, the equivalent of two decades of the average income of a local resident.
“Zhangjiachuang is really a microcosm of China,” lawyer Wang Peng commented.