Chinese Media Warn WeChat Group Admins: “You Can Be Arrested for What Happens in Your Group Chat”

First published

Chinese media are reminding group admins this week that managing a group chat is “not a joke.” Cautionary headlines read: “Who sets up a group is responsible for it! Many group leaders have already been detained.”

“Did you all think being a group host is free and easy? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”, official state newspaper Xinhua posted on Weibo on April 26.

Recently, multiple state media (here, here) have reported about online group hosts being arrested due to the illegal content appearing within the online community they were managing.

Within the WeChat app, a ‘group host’ or ‘group owner’ (群主) is an admin who has permissions to add or remove members, edit group chat information, and publish announcements. A Wechat group can hold up to 500 members.

Now, state media are reminding Chinese netizens of the regulations that went into effect on October 8 of 2017. These regulations, issued by China’s Cyberspace Administration, stipulate that those who establish and manage an online (chat) group are responsible for its content. (There’s a translation of these provisions by China Law Translate here.)

These “internet groups” (互联网群组) are not just limited to WeChat. The term refers to any online group or community, including group chats on Weibo, Baidu, QQ, Momo, Alipay, or other social media platforms that enable users to set up and manage a group.

Chinese state media, however, particularly focus on WeChat group admins in reminding them that they need to pay careful attention to the information that is posted within the group they manage.

Besides obscene and illegal content, it is not allowed, as this article lists, to post “politically sensitive information”, “spread rumors,” “bring news about Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan that has not been reported by official news channels,” or to publish “military information.”

Showing that not “properly managing” an online group can have serious consequences, some examples of group admins being arrested are raised in the media this week, mostly using the headline “Who sets up a group is responsible for it! Many group leaders have already been detained” (“谁建群谁负责多名群主已被拘留”).

In one case, a WeChat group host was reportedly punished for allowing members of his group chat to send petitions, organize a march, and forwarding inappropriate speeches in relation to the local Auguste projects.

The Auguste project (奥古斯特项目) is a pesticide investment program that caused unrest in Hebei province in the summer of 2016, leading to protests. After a few months, the government abruptly aborted the project.

In another case, a group member surnamed Ma (马) advertised obscene videos in a 100+ member WeChat group. For a membership fee of ten yuan ($1,5), Ma would send out videos. In this case, the group owner named Wu (吴) was accused of “spreading obscene material” and was later arrested and detained for “ignoring criminal activities” within his group chat.

Although it is not reported why various Chinese media are posting these articles at this particular time, it might be part of China’s nationwide Clean up the Internet 2019 (净网2019) campaign. The initiative, launched by the central authorities, aims to “purify the social and cultural environment,” with particular focus on cracking down on illegal and obscene content on the internet.

By Gabi Verberg, Manya Koetse

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