“With the arrest of this kid, I think the public saw this rumor campaign for what it really is: a devious attempt to crush normal online expression,” said Zhou Ze, a lawyer in Beijing who sought to rally public support for Mr. Yang’s case through his own account on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog service.
A wiry boy with a fondness for Apple smartphones, online games and the occasional furtive cigarette, Mr. Yang ran into trouble two weeks ago when he stepped into a local controversy involving the death of a man whose body was found in front of the Jewel Time International Karaoke club. The police ruled the death a suicide, but relatives claimed the man had been beaten up before being tossed from an upper floor of the building. The youth, who spoke to some of the victim’s relatives, questioned the official version of events and then posted a message noting that the club was owned by a local judicial official.“You don’t want the world to know what happened?” he wrote.“What are you afraid of? I am not afraid of you. I took pictures, arrest me. I dare you.”
Last Tuesday, the police did just that, grabbing him from school and later charging him with “disrupting social disorder” because the posts, they said, inspired protesters to block a local street, snarling traffic. The police also claimed he had stolen a motorbike when he was 15, although they say he escaped punishment because of his age. His father has said the allegations are untrue.
Wang Shihua, one of the lawyers who volunteered to represent Mr. Yang, said his detention was unlawful because his comments were not knowingly fabricated.“It’s all right to crack down on rumors, but if such initiatives are expanded without limits or regard to principle, they become unconstitutional,” he said Monday.
Many analysts say the current offensive against online rumors is the latest fusillade in the Communist Party’s battle against liberal ideas like democracy and human rights, and those it fears could shake its hold on power. Unlike previous attempts to rein in China’s freewheeling microblogs, now estimated to include 500 million registered users, officials have been going after relatively moderate rights advocates as well as some of the most popular voices on Weibo.“We’ve seen an across-the-board tightening,” said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project in Hong Kong.
If the authorities in Zhangjiachuan thought the arrest of young Mr. Yang would chill outside scrutiny, they have been sorely disappointed. In recent days, some of China’s most intrepid journalists have been taking a closer look at what ranks as one of the country’s poorest counties. Bloggers have publicized lavish spending on government buildings, including nearly $3 million spent on the county’s administrative headquarters, and the extravagant tastes of local civil servants, one of whom was photographed wearing the kind of luxury watch that has felled other officials.
Mr. Yang, who works in his family’s noodle shop, seems to have been emboldened by his ordeal. Soon after his release, he posted comments thanking his supporters. Later in the day, he was to participate in a live online interview with Sina Weibo members. But the exchange mysteriously ended just moments later, and soon afterward, the boy’s microblog account disappeared, too.
Patrick Zuo and Mia Li contributed research.