Two amateur computer coders are set to be tried on Tuesday in a case that illustrates the Chinese government’s growing online censorship and heightened sensitivity to any deviation from the official narrative on its response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.
The two were taken by police more than a year ago.
Authorities have not said specifically why Chen Mei, 28, and Cai Wei, 27, were arrested in April last year, so friends and relatives can only guess. They believe it was because the two men had set up an online archive to store articles deleted by censors and a related forum where users could skirt real-name registration requirements to chat anonymously.
Started in 2018, the archive kept hundreds of censored articles and the forum saw discussions on sensitive issues including the anti-government protests in Hong Kong and complaints about the ruling Communist Party. But what got them in trouble with authorities appears to be archiving articles showing an alternative to China’s official narrative about its pandemic response just as the country started facing questions over its handling of the initial outbreak.
In keeping the censored articles and providing a place for them to be discussed, the two run afoul of increasingly strict regulations in an already stifling online environment under President Xi Jinping. Just last year hundreds were prosecuted for online speech.
Chen and Cai are being prosecuted under a catch-all charge of “stirring up trouble and picking quarrels.” Chen’s older brother, Chen Kun, said the court appointed lawyer notified family last week that their case would be heard Tuesday.
In January 2020, the two began archiving articles about a mysterious new illness circulating in Wuhan. For Cai, who is from the area and could not go home to see his family for the Lunar New Year holiday, the news was particularly upsetting.
“A lot of things happened in China then that made us very upset, and he may have been affected by that,” said his girlfriend, Tang Hongbo. She was also detained but released after 23 days when it became clear she didn’t know much about the project. “Every day we were looking at the internet, and we were all in this tragic mindset.”
Xi has made cyberspace governance a priority, and under his direction, the government created its own model to manage the challenges and opportunities of the internet. China eliminated online anonymity by requiring people to register under what is known as the real name system starting in 2016. Social media accounts are linked to a mobile phone number, which is tied to an individual’s national ID number.
A Chinese activist, using court and government records and media reports, tallied more than 750 prosecutions for web speech in 2020 in an online database and posted on a Twitter account named SpeechFreedomCN. He said he runs the database anonymously out of fear of retribution.
A friend of Cai, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution, said Cai had grown frustrated with the censorship regime. In response, he and Chen launched the Terminus2049 archive and 2049bbs forum in 2018 as a “public platform of free exchange,” Cai wrote in a welcome post.