China sentences Web marketer to 4 years in prison during campaign to clean up online rumours

BEIJING, China – A Beijing court on Tuesday convicted an Internet marketer of illegal business practices and sentenced him to four years in prison for posting false information and deleting posts critical of his clients, in a case that state media have used to praise a government crackdown on online expression.

Chaoyang District People’s Court also fined Yang Xiuyu, manager of online marketing company Beijing Erma, 150,000 yuan ($24,000).

The court said Erma made more than 530,000 yuan ($86,000) by posting false information and deleting critical posts between 2008 and 2013 and 220,000 yuan ($36,000) by deleting negative information for others between May 2012 and 2013. The unidentified clients included a pharmaceutical company, a construction company and a travel agency.

It is not uncommon in China for companies to pay others to generate online publicity for them, help promote their reputations or damage those of their competitors.

Yang was arrested last year soon after authorities launched an intensified campaign to clean up rumours, negativity and unruliness on social media — a platform for Chinese to express themselves to a large audience in a country where all traditional media are state-controlled. While critics say the campaign has suppressed criticism of the government and ruling Communist Party, commentaries in state media have leapt on the case to argue that a cleanup of “unbecoming behaviour” is needed.

The court previously said that Yang had used an account on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblogging service to write that a model and her “sugar daddy” had spent 8.88 million yuan ($1.4 million) chartering a jet to go to London for the 2012 Olympics. Public outrage ensued before it was revealed to have been a publicity stunt for the travel agent.