Chinese Internet Police Units from 50 municipal governments began conducting “speech inspections” on social media platforms on June 1.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Public Security, the Internet Police will be patrolling major social media platforms including Weibo and WeChat round the clock to prevent illegal information from spreading under a shared username and account “Internet Police Inspection and Law Enforcement” (网警巡查执法). The Internet police teams are meant to detect “illegal and harmful information,” prevent improper words and deeds, publish case reports, and guard against cyber criminals. They will “educate and warn” those who misbehave and crack down on those who violate the law.
The first generation of Internet police patrol units has been deployed mainly in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as cities where ethnic minorities reside. Second and third-tier cities will start patrolling online at a later stage.
Since 2008, when Weibo became popular in China, a large number of police units have created their own social media accounts to receive complaints and crime reports from ordinary citizens. But until now, they were not responsible for monitoring online speech. Social media censorship is mainly executed by platform administrators who receive instructions from various government and party authorities to filter politically sensitive words or delete the accounts of problematic users. Most social media platforms have also set up community reporting systems to prevent rumors and libel from spreading online.
For years, police have been interrogating and arresting netizens for “spreading rumors” or “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”. The most recent cases are human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang's speech incrimination. But the launch of the “Internet Police Inspection and Law Enforcement” program thus implies a more coordinated effort in the incrimination of online speech.
The ministry statement has also highlighted that fact that in 2015, Internet Police Units have already deleted approximately 758,000 pieces of “criminal information” and handled 70,000 “cybercrime” cases. “The stepping into light” of Internet police may further the chilling effects of their actions on critical voices.
Independent writer Ye Du told Radio Free Asia:
The state sees Internet as the battlefield of ideological control. Weibo and WeChat are major tools for advocating democracy in the social media era. Weibo has been cleaned up and more efforts have been put on WeChat thanks to the Internet police. However, the Internet is still active. In the recent Qing'an police shooting incident, many netizens spoke up and generated huge pressure for the authorities. They became aware that the crackdown on opinion leaders, strict control on WeChat public platform or real name system could not stop people from expressing their opinions. […] That's why the Internet police now have to make themselves visible. This is a threat to netizens intending to generate fear so that netizens will self-censor their speech. This is the real intention behind the move.
Ordinary netizens are not happy about the speech inspection, but many reacted with a sense of humor. In a Weibo thread where “Chengdu Internet police inspection and law enforcement” introduced themselves and their work, Chinese netizens commented with dark humor, mocking at the authorities overt control over people's speech while neglecting food security and real criminal acts that affect people's daily life:
Gutter oil deep fried food, Sudan I tainted eggs, Cadmium tainted rice, polluted water, plasticizer drinks, explosive fruits, Paraffin oil hotpot, Tofu made with talcum powder, white fungus processed with sulphur, PM2.5 dust in air, thugs and goons, thieves and robbers, they are all fxxking safe. Only the Internet is unsafe.
The Internet is not outside the rule of law – this saying is inaccurate. So many people have already been arrested for their critical speech online. Is this not enough? You guys like to lie without blinking your eyes.
我被世纪佳缘酒托骗钱，你来管？ 我一夜情（合法的吧？）没搞成，手机还掉了，你来管？ 我淘宝花正品的钱买到山寨货，你来管？ 管不了就别吹牛逼，行不？
I was cheated by an online matching platform, you want to handle this? I failed in my one night stand (this is legal right?), lost my mobile, can you handle this? I got counterfeiting goods from Taobao, can you handle that? If you can't take care of these problems, don't boasting around.