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Back to Index of Social Media Disinformation

Despite the country’s strict regulation of media and the internet, misinformation still appears to be permeating social media and the internet in China. Chinese law prohibits any online publication and transmission of false information that may disrupt the economic or social order. The law also bans other information, such as information that may endanger national security, overturn the socialist system, or infringe on the reputation of others. Spreading false information that seriously disturbs public order through an information network or other media is a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Network operators are obligated to monitor the information disseminated by their users. Once a network operator discovers any information that is prohibited by law or regulation, it must immediately stop the transmission of such information, delete it, take measures to prevent it from proliferating, keep relevant records, and report to the competent government authority.

Social media platforms must maintain a license to operate businesses in China. Users are also required to register their real names and other identity information with service providers. Also, specific rules regulating internet news information services have been established. For example, when reprinting news, internet news information service providers may only reprint what has been released by official state or provincial news organizations, or other news organizations prescribed by the state.

I. Background

Although the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) declares that citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press, these freedoms are not institutionally protected in practice.[1] Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World report states China is “home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments and its most sophisticated system of censorship, particularly online.”[2]

Despite the strict regulation of the media and internet, misinformation, or what Chinese laws and domestic media often refer to as “rumors,” still appears to be permeating the internet and social media in China. Internet regulators reportedly received 6.7 million reports of illegal and false information in a single month in July 2018, with many of the cases coming from Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat.[3] The government has been dealing with online misinformation since the spread of the internet in the late 2000s, and has launched a series of campaigns to combat online rumors.[4]

Various factors are propelling the phenomenon of the spread of misinformation in China, a Foreign Policy article argues, such as “a deep sense of societal insecurity, the increasing politicization and commercialization of information, and a craving for self-expression.”[5] According to the article, “the party-led campaigns against rumors have been seen as attempts to take out potential critics and enemies. When the government labels something a rumor, that information comes to be seen not as fake but as something the government doesn’t want the public to know.”[6]

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II. Current Legislation

China does not have a law specifically regulating online political advertisement. The country’s Cybersecurity Law, as discussed below, prohibits the publication and transmission of false information that may disrupt the economic or social order online, including through social media. The law also bans a wide range of other information, such as information that may endanger national security, overturn the socialist system, or infringe on the reputation of others.

A. Publication and Transmission of Prohibited Information

1. Prohibited Information

On November 7, 2016, China’s first-ever Cybersecurity Law was adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC).[7] The Law prohibits network users from conducting a series of activities online, including

  • endangering national security, national honor, or national interests;
  • inciting subversion of national sovereignty or the overthrow of the socialist system;
  • inciting separatism or breaking national unity;
  • advocating terrorism or extremism;
  • advocating ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination;
  • spreading violent or obscene information;
  • fabricating or disseminating false information to disrupt the economic or social order; and
  • infringing on the reputation, privacy, intellectual property, or other lawful rights and interests of others. [8]

2. Network Operators’ Obligation to Stop Transmission and Delete Information

Network operators are obligated to monitor the information disseminated by their users. Once a network operator discovers any information that is prohibited by law or regulation, it must immediately stop the transmission of such information, delete the information, take measures to prevent the information from proliferating, keep relevant records, and report to the competent government authority.[9]

3. Penalties

Publication or transmission of the above-mentioned prohibited information specified by the Cybersecurity Law, or of any information that is prohibited from publication or transmission under other laws or administrative regulations, is subject to prescribed penalties.[10] According to the Cybersecurity Law, violation of the Law may result in administrative penalties and criminal sanctions.[11]

On August 29, 2015, the NPCSC adopted the Ninth Amendment to the PRC Criminal Law.[12] The Amendment added into the Law the crime of spreading false information that seriously disturbs the public order through an information network or other media. This offense is punishable by up to seven years in prison. The Ninth Amendment added a paragraph to article 291a of the Criminal Law, stating that

[w]hoever fabricates false information on [a] dangerous situation, epidemic situation, disaster situation or alert situation and disseminates such information via [an] information network or any other media, or intentionally disseminates [the] above information while clearly knowing that it is fabricated, thereby seriously disturbing public order, shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than three years, criminal detention or public surveillance; if the consequences are serious, he shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than seven years.[13]

B. Internet Service Providers’ Obligations to Cooperate

1. License Control

Social media platforms must maintain a license to operate businesses in China. According to the Administrative Measures on Internet Information Services, a regulation issued by the State Council on September 25, 2000, any service providing information to online users via the internet is subject to the regulation.[14] According to the regulation, profit-making internet service providers must obtain an operating license from government authorities. Nonprofit providers must also register with government authorities.[15]

The regulation sets forth obligations of the internet information service providers to cooperate with the government authorities. For example, service providers must keep records of all information published and the publication time, as well as users’ information such as their accounts, IP address or domain name, time spent online, etc.  Such records must be kept for sixty days and provided to competent government authorities when requested.[16]

2. Real-Name Registration

Social media users are also required by law to register their real names and other identity information with service providers. Under the Cybersecurity Law, when providing services of information publication or instant messaging, the service providers must ask users to register their real identity information. The service providers are prohibited from providing relevant services to any users who do not perform the identity authentication steps.[17] 

Where service providers fail to authenticate users’ identities, the competent authorities may order them to rectify their wrongdoing, suspend their businesses, shut down their websites, revoke relevant licenses, or impose a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 yuan (about US$7,500 to $75,000) on the service providers and/or a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 yuan (about US$1,500 to $15,000) on the responsible persons.[18]

C. Specific Rules on Internet News Information Services

On the basis of the PRC Cybersecurity Law and the Administrative Measures on Internet Information Services, China’s central internet information authority, the Cyberspace Administration of China, issued the Provisions on Administration of Internet News Information Services on May 2, 2017.[19]

1. License Control

Under the Provisions, any entities providing internet news information services to the public—whether through websites, apps, online forums, blogs, microblogs, social media public accounts, instant messaging tools, or live broadcasts—must obtain a license for internet news information services and operate within the scope of the activities sanctioned by the license.[20] Such licenses are only issued to legal persons incorporated within the territory of the PRC, and the persons in charge and editors-in-chief must be Chinese citizens.[21]

Providing internet news information services without a proper license is punishable by a fine of 10,000 to 30,000 yuan (about US$1,500 to $4,500).[22]

2. Restrictions on Reprinting News

When reprinting news, internet news information service providers may only reprint what has been released by official state or provincial news organizations, or other news organizations prescribed by the state. The original sources, authors, titles, and editors must be indicated to ensure that the sources of the news are traceable.[23]

State or local internet content authorities may issue a warning to violators of this provision, order them to rectify their wrongdoings, suspend their news services, or impose a fine of 5,000 to 30,000 yuan (about US$750 to $4,500). Violators may also be criminally prosecuted, according to the Provisions.[24]

3. Prohibited Information

The Provisions also prohibit internet news information service providers and users from producing, reproducing, publishing, or spreading information content prohibited by applicable laws and administrative regulations.[25] State or local internet content authorities may issue a warning to violators of this provision, order them to rectify their wrongdoings, suspend their news services, or impose a fine of 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (about US$3,000 to $4,500). Violators may also be criminally prosecuted, the Provisions state.[26]

4. Obligations of Service Providers

Once internet information service providers find any content prohibited by the Provisions or other laws and administrative regulations, they must immediately stop transmitting the information, delete the information, keep the relevant records, and report the matter to competent government authorities.[27]  

The Provisions also repeat the requirement of real-name registration under the Cybersecurity Law, providing that internet news information service providers must ask users of the internet news information publication platform service to register their real names and provide other identity information.[28]

Violators of these provisions are punishable by the state or local internet information authority in accordance with the Cybersecurity Law.[29]

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III. Other Government Actions

The government has reportedly launched campaigns to combat online rumors by shutting down social media accounts, demanding that websites “rectify their wrongdoing,” detaining those accused of manufacturing misinformation, and imposing penalties on dissenters and opinion leaders.[30]

In 2018, China launched a platform named “Piyao”—a Chinese word meaning “refuting rumors.”[31] The platform, which also has a mobile app and social media accounts, broadcasts “real” news sourced from state-owned media, party-controlled local newspapers, and various government agencies.[32]

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IV. Media Coordination

Tencent, the operator of China’s biggest social media platform WeChat, released a report in January 2019 concerning its fight against rumors spread online. According to the report, WeChat intercepted over 84,000 rumors in 2018. In addition, thousands of “anti-rumor articles” were published on WeChat by government internet, public security, and food and drug authorities; scientific research institutions; and the state media.[33]

The Foreign Policy article, which was published in September 2018, reports more incidents where social media companies cooperated with the government to fight the spread of “rumors:”

In 2016, Beijing requested that Baidu delete unverified advertisements, revise its procedures for running paid listings, and provide reimbursements for losses caused by the promotion of fake news. Last year, the country’s national and provincial cyberspace authorities investigated top social networking platforms, including WeChat, Weibo, and Baidu Tieba, and found posts containing “violence, terror, rumors and obscenity.” The companies, in turn, offered apologies, self-criticism, and more self-regulation. This June, the authorities demanded that the internet search engine Sogou delete advertisements of the popular video app Douyin, which allegedly “insulted heroes and martyrs.”[34]

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Prepared by Laney Zhang
Foreign Law Specialist
September 2019


[1] Qianfan Zhang, The Constitution of China: A Contextual Analysis 225 (2012).

[2] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019: China Country Report, https://perma.cc/GXC4-6NT6.

[3] Stella Qiu & Ryan Woo, China Launches Platform to Stamp Out ‘Online Rumors’, Reuters (Aug. 30, 2018), https://perma.cc/3976-TPRB.

[4] Maria Repnikova, China’s Lessons for Fighting Fake News, Foreign Policy (Sept. 26, 2018), https://perma.cc/U2N4-KKQ6.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] PRC Cybersecurity Law (adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) on Nov. 7, 2016, effective June 1, 2017) (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/3HAP-D6MZ.

[8] Id. art. 12, para 2.

[9] Id. art. 47.

[10] Id. art. 70.

[11] Id. art. 74.

[12] Ninth Amendment to the PRC Criminal Law (adopted by the NPCSC on Aug. 29, 2015, effective Nov. 1, 2015) (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/JZL6-XV2K, English translation available at Westlaw China (by subscription).

[13] Id. art. 32.

[14] State Council, Administrative Measures on Internet Information Services (Sept. 25, 2000, effective on the same day) art. 2 (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/M6J4-HV7V.

[15] Id. art. 4.

[16] Id. art. 14.

[17] PRC Cybersecurity Law (adopted by the NPCSC on Nov. 7, 2016, effective June 1, 2017) art. 24 (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/3HAP-D6MZ.

[18] Id. art. 61.

[19] Cyber Administration of China, Provisions on Administration of Internet News Information Services (May 2, 2017, effective June 1, 2017) art. 1 (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/Y5VB-XZJV.

[20] Id. art. 5.

[21] Id. art. 6.

[22] Id. art. 22.

[23] Id. art. 15(1).

[24] Id. art. 24.

[25] Id. art. 16(1).

[26] Id. art. 25.

[27] Id. art. 16(2).

[28] Id. art. 13(1).

[29] Id. art. 26.

[30] Repnikova, supra note 4.

[31] Homepage, China Internet Joint Rumor Refuting Platform (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/JN4X-F8UA.

[32] Qiu & Woo, supra note 3.

[33] 2018 Report on Managing Online Rumors Published, 774 Institutions Refuted Rumors on WeChat, People.cn (Jan. 18, 2019) (in Chinese), https://perma.cc/8QCK-37ZQ.

[34] Repnikova, supra note 4.

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Last Updated: 12/30/2020