China Encourages Citizens to Report Each Other for Posting 'Mistaken Opinions' on Internet

China launched a hotline this past Friday to target online comments that defame the ruling Chinese Communist Party or question its account of history ahead of the party's 100th anniversary in July.

This program allows internet users to report on others who spread "mistaken opinions" online in order to create a "good public opinion atmosphere," the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in a notice.

"For a while now, some people with ulterior motives...have spread historically nihilistic false statements online, maliciously distorting, slandering and denying Party, national and military history in an attempt to confuse people's thinking," the notice said. "We hope that most internet users will play an active role in supervising society...and enthusiastically report harmful information."

The hotline is a crackdown on "historical nihilism," a term used in China to describe public doubt or skepticism over the Chinese Communist Party's account of the past, according to Reuters.

Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this new initiative isn't really a debate about history.

"It's simply an effort of the current leadership to control the conversation about Chinese history and to limit any debate about interpretations of different events, all with the goal of putting the current leadership and [President] Xi Jinping in the most positive light," he said.

China's internet is already one of the most rigidly censored in the world. It bans most foreign social media sites, search engines and news outlets. Kennedy said this hotline is part of the "overall environment in which the scope of permissible debate has been radically shrunk."

The CAC notice did not explain what the punishment would be for violators. However, people in China already face jail time and other legal punishments for posting content online that criticizes or questions the Communist Party's leadership, policies or account of past events.

Kennedy is unsure how the people of China will use the tip line, if at all. He said the hotline could be more symbolic, "where people can demonstrate that they themselves are zealous advocates of the party and Xi" or be used to "tattle on others" for not being as committed to the party or for a personal grievance.

However, Kennedy does not expect massive engagement with the hotline.

"Domestically within China, this is probably going to be ignored by most as just something that they don't want to get involved with," Kennedy said. "That that type of demand for political expression is not something that Chinese want [because] it's highly risky.

Earlier this year, Chinese lawmakers made legal amendments to the country's constitution to stipulate that people who "insult, slander or infringe upon" the memory of China's national heroes and martyrs face jail time of up to three years, according to Reuters.

In February, The New York Times reported on a public Google spreadsheet that lists speech crimes in China. The spreadsheet lists nearly 2,000 times when the Chinese government punished people for what they said online and offline over the past eight years. It also includes links to publicly issued verdicts, police notices and official news reports.

Released recently, 22-year-old Chinese citizen served 15 months in jail for "insulting state leaders" on Internet. His name is Zhang Shulin, he was arrested in Oct 2019 for his messages in a QQ group chat that "insulted state leaders". #speechfreedom pic.twitter.com/Dzokhh5qSJ

— 中国文字狱事件盘点 (@SpeechFreedomCN) February 14, 2021

The crimes listed range from people punished for what they said about COVID-19, to journalists who questioned a clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers last year, to others who called police "wolves" or "bastards" or cursed out the police after receiving a parking ticket.

The spreadsheet was created by a young man who told the Times that his surname was Wang. He started the spreadsheet in 2019 and is active on Twitter, "collecting and exposing cases that China violates citizens' rights of speech freedom."

"I knew that there were speech crimes in China, but I've never thought it's so bad," Wang said on Twitter under the user name @SpeechFreedomCN.

China Communist Party
People visit an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party at a museum in Beijing on March 12. The Chinese government recently launched a hotline for people to report online comments by "historical nihilists." AFP via Getty Images