Be careful what you share in WeChat group chats. An enticing rumor might be enough to put you behind bars, especially if it’s about Huawei, China’s embattled smartphone giant.
Chinese police announced Wednesday that they have detained three people in Shenzhen and Beijing for spreading rumors online. What information could be so unseemly as to get someone thrown in jail? The rumors said senior leaders at Huawei were arrested for being American spies.
According a Weibo post from national police, a 48-year-old male surnamed Wu confessed to starting the rumor in a WeChat group to “show off his ability of acquiring information” and to give his friends a new topic to talk about. As punishment, he is reportedly being detained for 10 days.
The other two, according to the police, shared this rumor to more chat groups. One of them will reportedly be detained for three days. The other is getting off with just “education and training” because before reached by police, he already clarified to the chat group that the information came from an unverified rumor.
In recent years, new laws in China have cracked down on the spread of rumors and information that “disrupts social order.” When rumors are about sensitive subjects, it’s especially liable to rankle authorities.
Huawei’s troubles amid an escalating trade war with the US has put China’s online censors on edge. Huawei has been blacklisted from buying US technology, putting its smartphone business in dire straits and resulting in a push for people to rally around the company.
So Chinese authorities are touchy about rumors about Huawei or even just the trade war in general. Censors in the country have been working overtime trying to control public discourse on the topic.
Mainland media outlets are told to not “over-report” on the trade war, with a preference for media outlets to simply republish whatever comes out of state-owned media. One popular financial news aggregator was recently shut down over “violating rules under Chinese cybersecurity law.” In 2018, the trade war was also one of the most censored topics on WeChat, according to research by WeChatscope, a research project by the University of Hong Kong.
Police said that the rumors are a bad influence and that Huawei reported it to the police. Even without Huawei stepping in, it’s possible police could have caught it. WeChat is both heavily monitored and censored.
A regulation enacted in 2017 also specifically targets groups chats by holding administrators accountable for whatever is said by other group members. One chat group owner was sentenced to six months in prison last year for allowing members of a WeChat group to share pornographic content.