Libel case
FEMINISM

The Low Bar for Online Defamation in China

Several women have been falsely accused of promiscuity and “money worship” online, highlighting a lack of legal protection against internet rumors

Returning home from work on the evening of November 14, Katherine Zhang received a disturbing phone call from a cousin, who told her he’d received a message from an anonymous QQ user who claimed to have been in a “friends with benefits” relationship with Zhang back in 2017. “She looked like a good girl, and not someone who would just hook up,” the user told Zhang’s cousin in chat records seen by TWOC.

Zhang, a woman in her 20s from a mid-sized city in central China, recalled two similar incidents from last year, where friends had told her a stranger had added them on QQ, asking if they knew Zhang—and in one case, claiming Zhang had had a one-night stand with him. “From the way they described it, I feel the messages were all sent by the same person and all intended to slander me,” says Zhang, who doesn’t know how many of her contacts have received such messages.

Although the friends who got in touch with Zhang were suspicious of the messages and tried to warn her about them, she worries that others who don’t know her as well could be fooled by the false allegations. One female acquaintance, whom Zhang added casually on QQ four years ago after meeting her at a jogging club event, but had never spoken with since, blocked her after sending her a single message: “Little bitch, I’ve always considered you respectable. I didn’t expect you to be this kind of person”—after reading false accusations by the anonymous messenger, Zhang believes.

“I feel really unsafe on social media these days,” says Zhang, who was shocked, confused, and repulsed by the revelation that an anonymous netizen has been tarring her reputation and combing through her QQ contact list for apparently over two years. She’s also not sure why she is being targeted. “I have never done anything to offend anyone in my life,” she says.

Cases of young women victimized by online rumors, usually falsely framing them as sexually promiscuous or “money-worshiping,” have received increased public attention in recent months. In early November, pictures stolen from the social media account of a Beijing student with the Weibo name Keshui Aixingren were edited into a video on Douyin describing her as a “player” from the northeastern Jilin province, who spent 200,000 RMB of her boyfriend’s money, while having affairs with over 100 other men.

On November 19, a Shanghai woman blogging under the Weibo name “Niki Jun” found that a portrait she had taken with her grandfather, then posted on social media app Xiaohongshu, had been used in a story on video platform Toutiao. The sensationalized video claimed the old man was a wealthy entrepreneur in his 70s who had married a woman over 40 years younger than himself, and lavished her with gifts.

Most prominently, since early August of 2020, a 28-year-old woman from Hangzhou, identified in the media by the pseudonym “Ms. Wu,” had spent eight months trying to pursue criminal charges against two men who spread a video and fake chat records alleging she was the lonely wife of a rich man seducing a delivery driver. One of the rumormongers, a convenience store owner surnamed Lang, shot a video of Wu with her face clearly visible while she was picking up a delivery at the gate of her residential compound, and sent it to a WeChat group, along with fake chat records in which he and a friend surnamed He “roleplayed” as the “rich wife” and the courier.

The story was circulated in private WeChat groups in July, and picked up by a public WeChat account on August 8. By September 20, multiple accounts had re-distributed the story, viewed over 60,000 times and shared 217 times in total, according to evidence compiled by Wu and shown to reporters.

Motives for rumor-mongering can be casual or calculated. Lang told news site The Paper that he’d originally shot the video just to show another person where he was, then sent it to his WeChat group and made the chat records with He as a “joke.”

But the Toutiao marriage story was more deliberate, fabricated by a blogger with a history of lifting images of young and attractive women from the internet and claiming they had married older men for money. According to feminist WeChat account Girls Don’t Be Afraid, stories of scandal, sex, and promiscuity featuring young women get a high amount of attention and clicks online, with misogyny and objectification of women among some netizens as the root cause.

“When they see a woman who is successful and good-looking, or even one who looks affluent, they just think—their wonderful life must be the result of having a sugar daddy; their money must come from a man. [They believe] beautiful women must all be gold-diggers,” the account states, “so they treat women as objects to be criticized, mocked, and evaluated.”

Zhang suspects the person who contacted her friends is an old acquaintance trying to get revenge after she had spurned his desire for a friends-with-benefits relationship. He is “the only person I know that could have a motive,” she speculates.

In China, victims of libel face two options for prosecution. Their first option is to try to make it a criminal case, citing the PRC’s Criminal Law, which threatens a punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for “fabricating facts to slander others…where the consequences are serious.”

Alternatively, they can file a civil case for “reputation infringement,” which is easier to prove but come with much lighter penalties, ranging from a warning, a fine, or a maximum of 20 days of “administrative detention,” a form of punishment for offenses not covered by China's Criminal Law. Wu had originally sued Lang and He for civil infringement, and got them placed in nine days of administrative detention, before going on to press criminal charges.

On November 23, the Chengdu-based news site Red Star News announced that the Toutiao blogger, identified by his surname Wu, was placed in “criminal detention” by the public security bureau of Dongguan, Guangdong province, for “fabricating and disseminating false information.” The article was shared by a rumor-refutation website set up in 2018 by the Central Cyberspace Administration and retitled “Don’t Spread Rumors,” with an editor’s note saying the case had been “dealt with.”

But being detained is not the same as being criminally prosecuted—the case is still under police investigation. Wu, the Hangzhou woman, spent two and a half months compiling evidence to even get her case accepted by a court, and four more months for the court to sentence Lang and He to a year each in prison for defamation in April of this year.

Criminal charges are hard to bring forth without a police investigation, and police typically set a high threshold for evidence before they’ll agree to investigate. Commenting on Wu’s case for the state-run Xinhua News Agency, Professor Xue Jun of the Peking University Law School pointed out the difficulty of getting justice for online libel, requiring the cooperation of online platforms to release the identity of the culprit. Among the rumormongers, there is the common assumption that the vast number of people spreading the rumor means they cannot all be held accountable.

In 2013, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (China’s highest court of appeal) fleshed out the circumstances which could be considered “serious” enough for a criminal conviction for “cyber defamation”—the information could be proved by a notary to have been viewed over 5,000 times or re-posted over 500 times, or else have caused “mental disorders, self-harm, or suicide” in victims.

In all three cases here, the women reported harassing messages and death threats sent to themselves or their families. Wu, from Hangzhou, was let go by her company, allegedly because the incident had exhausted her and resulted in a “serious impact on the company’s business development.” She was unable to find new employment and suffered from depression, self-confining to her house for fear of confrontation. Zhang has set her social media accounts private, and deleted her profile photo and her current workplace.

Counter-intuitively, the further the false information spreads, the easier it is to press a criminal charge under the law. This means that victims of defamation need to publicize their case if they are to gather enough evidence. Wu had to reach out to the public, asking them to send her any online posts that contained the rumors about her. Similarly, before the arrest of the Toutiao blogger, his victim Niki Jun posted on Weibo asking for people to send her screenshots of any posts they could find containing defamatory statements about her.

That the police acted on Niki Jun’s case is unusual. “My lawyer told me this morning that it is almost impossible to get criminal detention for rumormongers, and police almost never accept such cases,” she posted on Weibo two days before the arrest, “and that it could take years and cost hundreds of thousands of yuan for victims of defamation to defend their rights, even when the rumor is big enough to be a trending topic on Weibo. I cried in despair.”

Cases with a smaller impact, like Zhang’s, are even harder to pursue. On November 16, Zhang alerted QQ’s parent company, Tencent, through their security platform Tencent Guard, about the account that contacted her cousin. The company replied the next day saying it had suspended the account, but she believes this hinders more than it helps, at least in terms of getting legal redress.

“[Now] that person can’t message my friends again, which means I can’t get any more evidence,” she says. Tencent has denied her request for the user’s personal information.

On November 30, the municipal court in Zhang’s city rejected her application for a court order for Tencent to release the individual’s identity, apparently without stating a clear reason. Now she is caught in a loop, having already been told by the police that her case is a civil rather than a criminal matter. Without knowing the name of the QQ user, she cannot sue for defamation, but Tencent will not give her such information without a court order, which she cannot obtain without presenting the court with more evidence—such as the name of her defamer, suggests a lawyer she has consulted.

Zhang has no idea how long it will take her to obtain justice. But she is undaunted. “People should pay for their lies and mistakes.”

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author

Alex Colville is the culture editor at The World of Chinese. Blown to China by the tides of curiosity, then marooned here by the squalls of Covid, Alex used to write for 1843, The Economist, and the Spectator from the confines of a cold London flat. When he’s not writing for TWOC, he can be found researching his bi-weekly column for SupChina from the confines of his freezing Beijing hutong.

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