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A man from Beijing was sentenced to nine months in prison and fined 1,000 yuan (US$150) for making a joke about joining Islamic State on the social media platform WeChat. Photo: Shutterstock

Comment about Islamic State on social media lands Chinese man in prison

Internet users question how authorities found out about message made in a private WeChat group

A Chinese man has been sentenced to nine months in prison for making a joke on social media about joining Islamic State, local media reported.

The 31-year-old, identified only by the pseudonym Zhang Qiang, was found guilty of breaking China’s antiterrorism laws after suggesting to his friends in a private WeChat group that they should “come join ISIS with me”, using an abbreviation for the terrorist group, Worker’s Daily reported on Friday.

The incident happened on September 4 last year, after Zhang changed his profile picture to an image of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. On seeing the new picture, a friend messaged the group of about 300 people saying, “Look, a big shot just arrived.”

Zhang, who lives in Beijing, responded to that comment with the message that landed him in prison.

He was arrested the following month and charged with spreading terrorist and extremist propaganda, though the investigation found no other terrorism-related comments on his phone or computer.

“It never crossed my mind that a joke would cause this much trouble for me,” he told reporters. “I really regret it.”

Zhang appeared in court in June. As well as the nine-month prison sentence, he was fined 1,000 yuan (US$150).

Many internet users argued that the punishment was too harsh, with one Jiangxi-based commentator saying: “Although his actions were bad, this sentence seems severe.”

While China is not the first country to arrest someone for joking about terrorism online, several internet users questioned how Zhang’s comment became public knowledge considering it was made in a private WeChat group.

“Very curious about how the police found out,” a Guangdong-based user said.

The social media platform recently tightened its control over its users, making all group administrators criminally liable for messages posted in their chat rooms.

An internet user from Beijing joked about reverting to more traditional forms of communication to avoid suffering the same fate as Zhang.

“I have already informed all my friends, in the future we will correspond by carrier pigeon, [and by] writing letters instead of calling each other. Only these ancient methods will be safe.”

Beijing lawyer Shi Fumao was quoted by Worker’s Daily as saying that internet users should be careful about what they say online or “risk of committing a crime”.

In August, another Chinese person was sentenced to eight months in prison and fined 1,000 yuan for uploading a video to the internet that had terrorism-related content.