Singer's arrest in China fires free speech debate

AP News
Posted: Aug 01, 2013 3:03 AM

BEIJING (AP) — Hours after a man with long-running grievances against officialdom set off a homemade explosive at Beijing's airport, a singer-songwriter turned to the Internet to release her own sarcastic wish list of to-be-bombed targets.

By the next day, Wu Hongfei — known for her activism and whimsical songs — was in police detention on a criminal charge that prompted an outcry and an outpouring of public discussion on the boundaries of China's free speech laws in the new era of social media. In a rare backtrack by local authorities, Wu will apparently be released Friday without further prosecution.

"If the state machine is used to penalize anyone who ever says wrong words, who would dare to say anything?" Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan said.

Wu's wish list played off a Chinese word that means both "explode" and "fry," and her list of targets included an unnamed government official and local agencies such as a government housing commission — as well as chicken wings, potato chips and Chinese-style bread.

She posted the satirical comment on her Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog in the early hours of July 21, the morning after Ji Zhongxing detonated a bomb from his wheelchair at Beijing's main airport, injuring nobody but himself. The blast by Ji, who for years had sought compensation for what he said was a beating by officials that left him paralyzed, drew both condemnation and sympathy on behalf of those deemed without avenues to redress wrongs.

After Wu's post, Beijing police detained her on the criminal charge of causing trouble, though they later changed the accusations to spreading terrorist information and disturbing public order. It was the first known case of a public figure detained for something they wrote on Weibo.

Nobody would suggest a wholesale easing of free speech in China was in the offing, or that questioning the dominance of the ruling Communist Party would be tolerated any time soon. However, prominent legal scholars have spoken up in defense of Wu's right to free speech, urging the government to be more tolerant of speech that can serve as a release valve for the disgruntled.

"It is clear that she was merely blowing off some steam, and that's markedly differently from spreading rumors," said Chen Hongguo, a law scholar at Northwest University of Politics and Law. "The public would get a sense of crisis if they see a woman like Wu getting punished."

Many Chinese have been questioned and admonished by police over online comments, and some have been sent to labor camps in China's extralegal system without due process. But Wu's case, as the first known formal criminal detention of a public figure in a case like this, grabbed nationwide attention with leading news portals sending alerts on the case's latest developments.

Many members of the public voiced their support for Wu, posting their own to-be-fried lists, while also noting that other far more violent posts on social media have been ignored by authorities.

Local authorities this week apparently halted the criminal proceedings against Wu. Her lawyer, Chen Jiangang, said she has been fined 500 yuan ($80) and been given 10 days of detention, including those already served, and would be released Friday without further prosecution. Beijing police did not respond to AP's faxed request for comment on Wu's case.

"The case of Wu Hongfei generated widespread alarm among netizens in China," said Maya Wang, a researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "So it is a relief for Chinese netizens that Wu no longer faces the prospect of prison."

Wu, with a fan base of about 130,000 on one social media platform, has so far been a largely underground singer who engages in social activism through music. Still, she is no political dissident, said her lawyer, Chen Jiangang.

"She didn't set out to be a hero or to challenge the authorities on free speech," Chen said. "She regrets the remarks, but she also does not believe she's broken the law. Anyone with common sense will not consider her posting as a terrorist message."

China is not alone in parsing the line between terrorism and harmless threats or satire. However, in China, laws often are so vague and the lack of judicial independence so acute that authorities can interpret the laws to serve political interests or engage in personal vendettas. Zhang, the Peking University law professor, said China is in need of consensus on the boundaries of free speech and the limits of judicial intervention.

"Did her speech cause any housing commission employee not to show up for work or nearby residents to worry?" said Zhang, who argued that Wu did not pose any clear and present danger to the society. "The majority of the public probably won't take her words seriously."