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Tweet costs Chinese woman a year in prison

The Japan Pavilion Cheng joked about smashing.
The Japan Pavilion Cheng joked about smashing.

Most of us don't think twice about sending a tweet or a retweet. The worst consequence for us? Embarrassment, perhaps? Flaming?

But for one 46-year-old Chinese woman, retweeting a joke, a satirical suggestion from her fiance, has cost her a year of her life in a labor camp. She also missed her wedding day as she was detained and arrested.

Granted, she suggested smashing the Japan Pavilion (part of Expo 2010 Shanghai), but in the context of the message, it's clear it's satire, which is, according to good old Merriam-Webster is defined as "wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly."

Twitter is banned in China, but it's obvious people have found ways to get around restrictions, and by the same token, the government has also found ways to closely monitor messages it deems disrupting to the social order.

Amnesty International has released a statement urging the Chinese government to release online activist Cheng Jianping, who retweeted a post by her fiance, Hua Chunhui, "mocking China’s young nationalist demonstrators who had smashed Japanese products in protest over a maritime incident between China and Japan involving the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands."

Here's the original post:

"Anti-Japanese demonstrations, smashing Japanese products, that was all done years ago by Guo Quan [an activist and expert on the Nanjing Massacre].  It’s no new trick.  If you really wanted to kick it up a notch, you’d immediately fly to Shanghai to smash the Japanese Expo pavilion."

Logging in under wangyi09, Cheng Jianping added "Angry youth, charge!" to the retweet. 

For that, she was detained by police "for disrupting social order" 10 days after she posted that comment, according to BBC News, which also reports she was sent to the Shibali River women's labour camp in Zhengzhou city in Henan Province.

Amnesty International writes, "Re-education Through Labour is an administrative punishment that can deprive an individual of their liberty for up to 4 years through a decision by the police without a trial by an independent court."

Cheng's fiance, Hua, told BBC News that his fiance had begun a hunger strike. He is also lobbying to have her sentence commuted to re-education at home. 

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Director for the Asia-Pacific, suspects Cheng was "targeted for her online activism over the last few years and her expressions of support for other Chinese dissidents and activists."

Amnesty International reported that, according to other Chinese activists on Twitter, Cheng had supported imprisoned Nobel Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo and imprisoned consumer rights advocate Zhao Lianhai, and had done fundraising in support of other activists.

BBC reported she has run into trouble with police before, having been detained by them for 5 days in August after expressing support for an advocate of democracy in China who was involved in the protests preceding 1989's Tiananmen Square massacre.

But despite that, this kind of reaction will not do China any favors in correcting its reputation for how it deals with human rights activists.

The Next Web Asia points out the "stark contrast" between Cheng's sentence and the punishment imposed on Paul Chambers, the irate Northern England flier who tweeted, "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your s— together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

For that, Chambers was found guilty and fined about $4,800. (And fired. Twice. Now unemployed.) But his arrest and subsequent "Twitter Joke" trial raised the hackles of thousands of sympathizers for whom the right to free speech is not to be taken lightly. This New York Times story shows the minefield authorities step into when they start confusing hyperbole with terrorism. This Wall Street Journal article gives other examples of others in Britain feeling the burn of questionable tweets.

But none of them have been jailed for it. Perhaps Cheng should now be the torch-bearer of #IamSpartacus, the Twitter campaign that supported Chambers.