In China, 'defaming cultural icons' online can land you in jail

Chinese police have detained two Internet users for allegedly starting online rumors that tried to defame government groups and a cultural icon in the nation.

30-year-old Qin Zhihui and 40-year-old Yang Xiuyu both worked at a company “that deliberately fabricated rumors over the Internet,” China’s Ministry of Public Security said in a posting on Wednesday. The rumors were created as a way to drum up a greater online following and “illegally obtain benefits” for the two, the ministry added, without elaborating.

Both Qin and Yang have accounts listed on China’s Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service with over 500 million users in the country. The two were arrested for allegedly posting comments defaming Lei Feng, a former soldier in China’s People’s Liberation Army, who has figured in propaganda campaigns in the country since his death in 1962.

Lei is partly celebrated for his modesty and selflessness. But the online posts from Qin and Yang claimed Lei lived a life of luxury, prompting Chinese Internet users to complain to authorities.

Qin and Yang also allegedly created rumors targeting the Chinese government, according to the ministry. During a 2011 train accident in which 40 people were killed, the two posted that local authorities had spent 200 million yuan ($32 million) to compensate only foreigners who were in the crash. The claim was re-posted 12,000 times two hours after it appeared, and stirred up public discontent against the government, the ministry said.

Other Internet posts by Qin and Yang tried to discredit a well-known expert on military affairs, a senior journalist, public figures and ordinary people. Both Qin and Yang are still under arrest, and have admitted to fabricating the rumors, according to the ministry.

Since the rise of Chinese social networking sites, police in the country have routinely tried to crack down on alleged online rumors, at times even arresting people. In some cases, authorities have detained people for posting sensitive information critical of Chinese officials. Last year, a Twitter user in the country was held by authorities after posting a political joke about a major government meeting.

Earlier this month, Beijing authorities set up a site where users can be alerted of online rumors. One of the latest rumors to be debunked includes the purported news that six prison inmates had killed 78 women. The site also disputes a recent rumor that disposable chopsticks can be made into edible bamboo shoots.

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