On your own head tweet it

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words posted on what is well known to be a social forum where satire, sarcasm and flippancy are staple features of any utterance, can never lead to a criminal conviction. So goes a new take on an old proverb, except the last few weeks have really flown in the face of this reasoning. 

Charlie Brooker poured scorn on the case of a man whose conviction was upheld last week, who reportedly tweeted about blowing an airport “sky high”, when strikes delayed his departure. Paul Chambers had received support from the likes of Stephen Fry, who declared it absurd that the authorities would take this to be a sincere and menacing threat as opposed to an obviously jovial and hyperbolic expression of frustration. 

The fine he received did cause outrage, especially in the Twittersphere, where people took to retweeting his tweet in a display of solidarity and in defiance at the conviction.Yet, compared to his punishment, the sentence given to Chinese activist Cheng Jianping seems dauntingly extreme. 

Cheng, who is thought to be the first Chinese citizen to become a prisoner of conscience on the basis of a single tweet, retweeted her fiancé’s tweet which made a satirical suggestion that the Japanese pavilion at the Shanghai Expo be attacked.She has been sentenced, without trial by an independent court, to a year in a ‘Re-education Through Labour’ camp for “disturbing social order”. 

Cheng’s fiancé Hua Chunhui’s original tweet said: “Anti-Japanese demonstrations, smashing Japanese products, that was all done years ago by Guo Quan [an activist and expert on the Nanjing Massacre].  It’s no new trick.  If you really wanted to kick it up a notch, you’d immediately fly to Shanghai to smash the Japanese Expo pavilion.”

Retweeting the comment as ‘wangyi09’, Cheng Jianping added the phrase “Angry youth, charge!”  The original tweeter, Cheng’s fiancée, is not known to have been detained.

According to other Chinese activists on Twitter, Cheng had participated in low-level online activism, including voicing support for imprisoned Nobel Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, before the retweeting incident.  This suggests that there might be more to her detention than meets the eye. 

Twitter is blocked in China but is widely accessed and used, particularly by human rights defenders and their supporters who often use the social networking platform to quickly organise protests in support of human rights activists who are detained or tried in court.  Cheng’s conviction is testament to the pervasive nature of China’s repression of online discussion and is a bad blow to one of the few bastions of uncensored expression in China. 

It also seems to be part of a more widespread global trend where individuals are being held to account as a result of the most literal, and might I add mirthless interpretation of their tweets. Part of Twitter’s appeal has been its characteristic spontaneity, and the stream-of-consciousness nature of tweets, it is sad that users will now be cautious about tweeting their mind.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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