At least seven people over the past week have been threatened, detained or arrested after casting doubt over the government’s account of the deaths of Chinese soldiers during a clash last year with Indian troops. Three of them are being detained for between seven and 15 days. The other four face criminal charges, including one man who lives outside China.
Their punishment might have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for an online database of speech crimes in China. A simple Google spreadsheet open for all to see, it lists nearly 2,000 times when people were punished by the government for what they said online and offline.
The list — which links directly to publicly issued verdicts, police notices and official news reports over the past eight years — is far from complete. Most punishment takes place behind closed doors.
Still, the list paints a bleak picture of a government that punishes its citizens for the slightest hint of criticism. It shows how random and merciless China’s legal system can be when it punishes its citizens for what they say, even though freedom of speech is written into China’s Constitution.
The list describes dissidents sentenced to long prison terms for attacking the government. It tells of petitioners, those who appeal directly to the government to right the wrongs against them, locked up for making too loud a clamor. It covers nearly 600 people punished for what they said about Covid-19, and too many others who cursed out police, often after receiving parking tickets.
The person behind the list is a bit of a mystery. In an interview, he described himself as a young man surnamed Wang. Of course, if the government found out more about him, he could end up in prison.
Mr. Wang said he decided to compile the list after reading about people who were punished for supposedly insulting the country during celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, in October 2019. Though he is young, he told me, he remembers more freedom of expression before Xi Jinping became the Communist Party’s top leader in late 2012.
“I knew that there were speech crimes in China, but I’ve never thought it’s so bad,” Mr. Wang posted in August on his Twitter account, where he writes in both English and Chinese. He wrote that he had become depressed after reading more than 1,000 verdicts.
The list, bluntly titled “An Inventory of Speech Crimes in China in Recent Years,” detailed what happened to those who questioned Beijing’s official account of the June clash between Chinese and Indian forces at their disputed border in the Himalayas. The Indian government said then that 20 of its soldiers had died. Last week, the Chinese government finally said four of its troops had died.
State-run media in China called them heroes, but some people had questions. One, a former journalist, asked whether more had died, a question of intense interest both in and out of the country. According to the notice the spreadsheet linked to, the former journalist was charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble — a common accusation by the authorities against those who speak up — and faces up to five years imprisonment.