Local authorities may have believed that their actions wouldn’t draw much attention. They were wrong. Almost from the moment of Yang’s arrest, the news spread online, sparking outrage so great that by Sunday night it largely overshadowed discussion of the life sentence given to ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai that morning.
Much of the anger was directed at the anti-rumormongering law and the perceived bullying of a 16-year-old. The uproar became so intense that some search terms associated with the case — including “administrative detention” — were blocked on Sina Weibo.
Perhaps most significant were those tweets that dug into the excesses and perceived corruption of the local government that persecuted Yang. Many users pointed out that Zhangjiachuan has been designated a state-level poverty-stricken county, entitling it to extensive government aid that — based on online searches — has been wasted on vanity projects. Some netizens circulated an image of a vast, posh conference room that they claimed belonged to the local party secretary.
“Who says Zhangjiachuan is a poverty-stricken county?” asked a Sina Weibo microblogger in Wenzhou on Sunday night. Another Weibo user, also posting Sunday evening, tweeted five specific allegations against the local government, including a suggestion — based on old documents uncovered by microbloggers — that the local police chief had bribed his way into his job. That post garnered more than 14,900 re-tweets and 5,600 comments but it was neither deleted nor has it generated any form of prosecution.
Instead, these tweets seem to have produced results. Early Monday morning, Yang was released from detention. Shortly after, the earnest-looking young man posed for a photo making a defiant “V” for victory sign. Later that day, the local government’s website announced that Zhangjiachuan’s police chief had been suspended. Court records that have turned up show that the police chief gave the equivalent of about $8,000 to his boss over 10 years. No explanation was given for the bribes, though the boss was sentenced to 12 years in jail for taking them back in April.
As progress for online free expression goes, this is minor. Zhangjiachuan is a small, unimportant locality far from Beijing. Punishing its officials — and freeing its junior- high students — means almost nothing to national leaders who have spent the last two months tightening their control of the Internet. Arguably, Yang’s freedom actually enhances the government’s case for the rules by suggesting that they’ll be applied reasonably, contrary to widespread fears.
There should be no question about the Communist Party’s determination to keep up its anti-rumormongering campaign. Major state-owned newspapers have expressed support for upholding the rules. And even young Yang, triumphant as he left detention, seems to have developed a better appreciation for the government’s bottom-line on information control. According to an official statement by the Zhangjiachuan government, he confessed his offenses before his release. In the interview with the Beijing News, Yang was asked how his experiences may have changed him.
“I’ll continue to follow microblogs, but my posting will be more cautious, based on verifiable evidence and devoid of foul language,” he answered, no doubt delighting his jailers.
For now, there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about: As of Wednesday, Yang’s microblogging accounts remain deleted.
Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg’s World View blog.