Single Sarcastic Tweet Lands Chinese Activist in Labor Camp

China this week sentenced online activist Cheng Jiangping to one year in a labor camp for retweeting a message urging an attack on the Japanese pavilion at the recently concluded Shanghai Expo, according to Amnesty International UK.

News of the sentence comes as tension within China over the country’s relationship with Japan grows.

The two countries’ long-running feud over ownership of a group of small islands northeast of Taiwan flared up again recently, and rowdy anti-Japan protests erupted this week in central China, leading to heightened security there.

News of Cheng’s sentence spurred Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to post a critical message addressed to the Chinese government.

The Incredible Wrongness of Tweeting

Cheng had used Twitter to repeat a message — known as “retweeting” — posted by her fiance, Hua Chunhui, Amnesty International UK said. This was apparently sent to mock demonstrators who had smashed Japanese products in protest over the Japanese navy’s recent detaining of a Chinese fishing boat near the disputed islands off Taiwan.

Hua contends his message was meant to be satirical.

Cheng was arrested 10 days after retweeting the message Oct. 17, on what was to be her wedding day. Her whereabouts were unknown until this week, when news that she’d been detained and sentenced by local police emerged, Amnesty International UK said.

She was sentenced to “re-education through labor,” an administrative punishment that police can impose without a court trial. It can deprive individuals of liberty for up to four years, according to the human rights group.

Cheng is reportedly being held at the Shibali River women’s labor camp in Henan Province.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo reacted to news of Cheng’s sentence by posting a note on his blog addressed to the Chinese government stating “year-long detentions for sending a sarcastic tweet are neither the way forward nor the future of your great people.”

Twitter spokesperson Matt Rozen declined to comment further on the issue.

Cheng’s Ordeal

Cheng’s fiance, Hua, told the BBC she had begun a hunger strike.

Hua and Cheng’s lawyer, Lan Zhixue, have appealed Cheng’s sentence to the Henan Provincial Department of Justice and People’s Court, CNN reported. They’re seeking medical parole for Cheng, who suffers from high blood pressure, and are suggesting she serve her sentence at home.

Apparently, Hua himself has not been detained, although he was taken from his office in the city of Wuxi by police and held for five days the same day Cheng was arrested.

Amnesty International UK speculated that Cheng has been targeted for her online activism over the years and her expressions of support for other Chinese dissidents and activists, including imprisoned consumer rights advocate Zhao Lianhai and jailed Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Amnesty International USA did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The Subtext to Beijing’s Actions

China might have clamped down on Cheng because of the political issues surrounding the country’s relations with Japan.

Many Chinese still smolder over massacres of civilians perpetrated in the cities of Nanjing and Chongqing during World War II by the Japanese military.

Further, the two countries have long contested ownership of a group of islands off Taiwan. That issue flared up in September when the Japanese arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that collided with two of their coast guard boats near the islands, triggering anti-Japanese riots in China. This led to Hua’s tweet.

While Twitter has been used by activists to expose repressive actions by authorities in various countries, most notably during the contested elections in Iran, it can also be abused by those authorities.

“Like anything else in life there are positive and negative attributes and consequences to the use of digital and social media,” Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told TechNewsWorld. “They can be powerful tools for democracy, but can also be used by governments and corporations and other special interests to engage in repressive policies and shape the public debate. There are no easy answers here,” he added.

Getting Around the Twitter Ban

The Chinese authorities have banned Twitter, but human rights activists and other interested parties have managed to use it there anyway.

“This shows the great firewall of China has holes in it,” Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld. “There is no easy way for the Chinese government to enforce their ban on Twitter. So long as an ISP doesn’t block the service, you can run it.”

Alternatively, Twitter might be accessed through virtual private networks running from foreign companies back to offices outside of China. That, in effect, provides connectivity to Twitter via tunnels through China’s firewall.

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