BEIJING — When China acknowledged this year that four of its soldiers had died fighting Indian forces on the two countries’ disputed mountain border eight months prior, the irreverent blogger Little Spicy Pen Ball had questions.
“If the four [Chinese] soldiers died trying to rescue their fellow soldiers, then there must have been those who were not successfully rescued,” he wrote on Feb. 19 to his 2.5 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese social media site. “This means the fatalities could not have just been four.”
The day after, Qiu Ziming, the 38-year-old former newspaper journalist behind the blog, was detained and criminally charged. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to three years.
“Little Spicy Pen Ball maliciously slandered and degraded the heroes defending our country and the border,” according to the annual work report published by the country’s chief prosecutor office this month.
A contrite Qiu, sitting behind bars, called his actions “an obliteration of conscience” in a taped statement aired on the state broadcaster’s prime-time news show on March 1.
Qiu’s is the first case to be tried under a sweeping new criminal law that took effect March 1. The new law penalizes “infringing on the reputation and honor of revolutionary heroes.” At least six other people have been detained or charged with defaming “martyrs.” The government uses the terms “revolutionary heroes” and “martyrs” for anyone it memorializes for their sacrifice for the Communist Party.
The detentions typify the stricter controls over online speech under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which have deterred nearly all open dissent in the country. The new law even seeks to criminalize speech made outside China.
Such is the case of Wang Jingyu, 19, who lives in the United States and is now a wanted man in his hometown of Chongqing, China. The authorities accuse him of slandering dead Chinese soldiers after Weibo reported him for a comment questioning the number of border fight casualties.
“This is killing a monkey to scare the chickens,” Wang says. “The Chinese state wants to show others that if anyone wants to be like me or relay the truth, then you will be pursued.”
A 2018 law allows police to investigate speech defaming martyrs. Several people have been detained as a result, according to an online spreadsheet kept by a free speech activist, but such behavior did not carry a jail sentence until now.
“Cyberspace is not outside the law,” the Chongqing public security bureau said in an online notice after it declared Wang would be “pursued online” for his comments. “Public security organs will crack down on acts that openly insult the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs in accordance with the law.”
It’s unclear how authorities plan to apprehend Wang. A police officer who contacted Wang, asking him to turn himself in, did not answer calls and texts from NPR.
China’s ruling Communist Party is hyper-sensitive to challenges of its rule. One of the newer threats it has identified is “historical nihilism” — that is, rejecting the party’s official version of history and its pantheon of revolutionary heroes and martyrs.
The four Chinese soldiers who died during the border clash last June are the newest members of this canon. They were killed high up in the Himalayas, where hundreds of Chinese and Indian soldiers armed with nothing but stones and batons beat each other bloody, with each side accusing the other of alleged encroachments over an unmarked border line. Days after the incident, India said 20 of its troops died in the brawl.
China refused to confirm fatalities on its side until this February, when it released the names of four soldiers killed and a fifth who was critically injured in the disputed Galwan Valley area. State media ran extensive footage of their service and the last hours of their lives.
The sudden media blitz infuriated Wang, he says. He had closely followed China and India’s border tensions and questioned the initial lack of fatalities reported by China. He wondered about the families of the soldiers who he suspected had died, left to grieve silently in the absence of official recognition.
In late February, as he sat in the backseat of a friend’s car in Europe, Wang went back and forth for half an hour over whether to write anything online. He currently lives in California but his parents remain in the Chinese municipality of Chongqing, where they worked for two state-owned firms.
“I knew if I mocked these soldiers, it would bring a negative impact on my parents,” Wang says. “But I was just too angry.” He pressed publish on three comments under a news item lauding the four Chinese troops.
The People’s Liberation Army soldiers “deserved to die,” he wrote, and the Indian forces were within their rights to confront their “offenders.” Wang now acknowledges the comments were offensive, but he says he deliberately crafted them to push the bounds of speech in China.
His comments went viral and were aired on China’s most-watched evening news program. Shortly after, Wang says his parents were questioned for hours by police officers.
Chongqing’s police department did not respond to a request for comment.
In the days following his social media posts, Wang says his mother and father were kept under effective house arrest in their Chongqing home, where they were able to call Wang twice, briefly, under police watch. He has been unable to reach them since.
“They told me they support me, and they are proud of me,” Wang said.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.