Varying punishment for online dissent

China has long taken aim at “negative information” about its one-party rule in cyberspace, but how it criminalizes disseminators of such information has not always been consistent. While “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” has been increasingly used to stifle dissenting voices, prosecutors have not entirely stopped using the endangering state security crime of inciting subversion to pursue online critics. 

Two cases recently concluded in Jiangsu illustrate the overlapping scope of activities punishable under the two different crimes. On June 18, 2020, Ge Jueping (戈觉平) was sentenced to four years and six months with three years’ deprivation of political rights for inciting subversion. About a month later, Wu Qihe (吴其和) received a prison sentence of three years and eight months for “picking quarrels.” This crime does not carry a supplemental sentence of deprivation of political rights. Ge and Wu openly supported victims of forced evictions in Suzhou and actively took part in protests in support of evictee Fan Mugen, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for aggravated assault earlier in 2015. 

Although Ge and Wu were sentenced for different crimes, prosecutors presented strikingly similar evidence against the duo. In addition to the public nuisance Ge and Wu allegedly created, the allegations centered on the negative information they posted online. Both were accused of using the Internet to hype up sensitive cases and incidents since 2013 by “distorting facts and maliciously attacking the nation’s judicial system.” However, only the acts committed by Ge were construed as subversive: the court held that Ge intended to “create an illusion of judicial injustice and antagonism between the government and people,” with an ulterior motive to incite people to “gradually disintegrate the power basis of the Chinese Communist Party.” Wu was similarly accused of “smearing, attacking the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” but no explanation was given as to why the same acts did not amount to incitement to subvert state power. 

It is not immediately clear how prosecutors determine which crime to pursue. Given the similarity in the harshness of sentencing, this question matters little to China so long as dissent can be silenced. Obfuscating the political nature of Wu’s case, the crime of “picking quarrels” perhaps provides an added benefit of avoiding scrutiny from observers. 

“Picking quarrels” also appears to be a more likely option and results in lighter punishment if an individual only directs the criticisms against local officials. This point can be attested to by a case Dui Hua uncovered online: a court also in Jiangsu sentenced Wang Hongquan (王洪全) to 18 months in prison for “picking quarrels” because he allegedly set up a “fake” news media agency in Hong Kong and released a number of negative reports about government corruption, township elections, wage arrears, forced evictions and land seizures across multiple localities. The 14-page judgment said such coverage had a substantial negative impact on local government bureaus. There was no mention of how the negative coverage inflicted harm on the Chinese Communist Party or the socialist system. 

Two other co-defendants were also convicted of “picking quarrels:” reporter Tang Yunli (唐云立) was sentenced to 13 months’ imprisonment. Li Hede (李鹤德), who was responsible for promoting the news website, received a one-year suspended sentence. 

Article 22: Insulting the national anthem

On November 4, 2017, China passed the 10th amendment to Criminal Law, making disrespect of the national anthem a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. This move aims to further legislate respect for the nation and brought treatment of the national anthem in line with desecration of the national flag and symbol. The newly expanded Article 299 defines the following acts as an insult to the national anthem: 

  1. maliciously altering the lyrics or music of the “March of the Volunteers;”   
  2. performing it in a distorted or derogatory manner, or otherwise desecrating its solemnity.  

There have been few if any reports of anyone being criminally pursued for insulting the anthem. The amended Article 299 makes these acts a criminal offense only when the circumstances are serious without explaining the criteria to determine seriousness. At the time of writing, all publicized cases have only resulted in administrative punishment, except for one case Dui Hua discovered involving an Almighty God member.

On December 18, 2019, a district-level court in Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps sentenced a group of 12 Han Almighty God members to prison terms from two years and six months to six years. All but one of them were convicted of Article 300 “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of law.”  Police discovered the lyrics of “the Song of Satan’s Victory”” from an electronic file and cited witnesses’ testimonies as saying that the song was similar in tune to the national anthem. The song was composed by Hu Liancai (胡连彩) at the church’s behest in 2018. The judgment stated that Almighty God “silently sang” the song in public during a weekly national flag raising ceremony in Chepaizi Reclamation Area. 

Despite being a member of Almighty God, Hu was sentenced to 30 months in prison not for Article 300, but for maliciously altering the lyrics of the national anthem under the Article 299. Hu’s codefendants who disseminated or contributed to the altered lyrics were convicted only of Article 300 but are serving longer prison sentences. The judgment did not state the extent to which the national anthem was modified; nor did it substantiate how or whether the anthem was performed in a distorted or derogatory manner. This first known criminal case appears to suggest that being a member of a banned religious group could be an important factor to determine whether the circumstances are serious in national anthem cases.