In China, 24 Members of a Subculture Website Sentenced, the Main ‘Culprit’ Gets 14 Years in Prison

China Change, February 3, 2021

Niu Tengyu (牛腾宇). Photo: RFA

The arrests started a year and half ago during the summer break. From July to August, all the way into October, 2019, China rounded up scores of young people from multiple provinces and cities. Some are in their twenties, and others are teenagers still in school. The 24 defendants were first detained in Maoming Municipal First Detention Center, Guangdong, and then in October 2019, they were brought to Foshan, and at least some of them were placed under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location for secret interrogations for a period. The indictment charged them with “picking quarrels and provoking disturbances” and “infringing on citizens’ personal information.” 

Over the course of the eighteen months or so, some were released, and in November 2020, 24 remaining defendants were tried at Maoming Maonan District People’s Court (茂名市茂南区人民法院). On December 30, 2020, under heavy guard by armed police, the 24 were sentenced. The longest sentence – 14 years in prison – was given to Niu Tengyu (牛腾宇), a twenty-one years old skilled coder. The others were given sentences of one to four years in prison.

The 1902136 Special Case 

The case known as the “1902136 Special Case”was first reported on social mediain October 2019 but drew little attention. A series of recent reports from Radio Free Asia (here, here, and here), as well as information shared by lawyers, shed light on it.  

Purportedly, it all beganwith someone posting personal information of Xi Jinping, allegedly the daughter of Xi Jinping, as well as Xi’s brother-in-law on two websites called zhina wiki (支纳维基) and zhina.red (红岸基金会) in May 2019.

Xiao Yanrui (肖彦锐), who is the founder of esu.wiki website (恶俗维基), currently living in exile and wanted by the Chinese government, told RFA that Xi’s family information wasn’t posted on esu.wiki but the arrests centered on the administrators and members of this site, because the administrators of the other two sites are based overseas.

The 1902136 Special Case was ordered and supervised by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, and deputized to Maoming Public Security Bureau in Guangdong. The case was filed at Maonan Public Security Branch (茂名市公安局茂南分局) in June, 2019.    

The three platforms were collectively known as the “esu circle” (“恶俗圈”) where mostly young users spoof and dox celebrities and high-profile personalities. While the indictment and the court judgement focuses on doxing activities on esu.wiki and zhina.wiki, zhina wiki and zhina.red had topics that also show anti-establishment sensibilities, such as “Hong Kong Anti-extradition protest,” “Guide to Hong Kong demonstration,” “Xinjiang reeducation camps,” and “Carrie Lam.”

Zhina.wiki also had a “gao ya museum” (“高雅画廊”) that aggregated political memes readily available on Chinese social media. A site retained some of the memes of Xi Jinping, former party secretary Jiang Zemin, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump. The name of the “museum” – Cultured and Elegant – is meant to be ironic. 

These activities by anonymous netizens are part of a phenomenon in China known as “Jian Zheng” (“键政”), or “keyboard politics,” that has many divergent groups espousing different leanings and tastes. 

As someone who has had little exposure to this brand of subculture, it is impossible to independently evaluate the content and activities of these sites as a whole for this report, given that all three platforms have closed down, and a tweet in January claims that the domain name zhina.red had been bought by an anonymous person.

However, in November 2019, SupChina published an in-depth article about zhina wiki and esu wiki sites titled “China’s Dirty Web” that may serve as an overview.  

Looking at the bigger picture, it should be noted that, over the past few years, the Chinese authorities have shut down thousands of websites for “harmful” online information (here, here, here and here), including foreign movie sites, crowd-sourcing movie subtitle groups, and joke apps.  

The 112-page court judgement of 14 adult defendants (the judgement of minors in the case was issued separately) makes no mention to Xi Jinping or his family. Instead, it presents acts of “doxing,” “victimization,” “internet violence,” “purchasing and selling privacy information,” and “spoofing” (恶搞) at esu.wiki and zhina wiki, singling out Niu Tengyu and Xiao Yanrui as the main culprits.

The court judgement, which should be, but is not, available on the court website, also avoided mentioning what could be part of the real motive of the sweeping arrests, in addition to divulging Xi’s family information: In October 2019, internet police in several provinces in China issued announcements of netizens being detained for visiting esu.wiki. The Paper, a Shanghai-based state media outlet, says in October 2019, “esu.wiki is a website with overseas servers that is filled with reactionary insulting-China, anti-China expressions that distort history and reality, and it is a carnival ground for spiritual Japanese elements (精日).” 

“In addition, the website also illegally obtained a large quantity of citizens’ personal information, such as addresses and ID numbers. These law-breaking elements posted privacy information on esu.wiki for retaliation or for other purposes, and their actions have violated the law.”

Of note, an excerpt of the Indictment shows that the lead defendant Niu Tengyu (牛腾宇) was initially charged with “inciting subversion of the state power.”

Niu Tengyu, the Main ‘Culprit’

Niu Tengyu ended up bearing the brunt of this mass crackdown. Born in 1999, he is from Gaoping city (山西高平市) in the southeast area of Shanxi Province, and lived with his single mother in Jiaozuo city, in northern Henan Province (河南焦作市), about 125 kilometers from his hometown. He quit school at 13, but was a computer prodigy who won the third place in the National Internet Security Skill competition in 2014 at the age of 15. Several universities tried to recruit him, but he turned them down, and has been making a living as a programmer. His friend Xiao Yanrui, pictured below on the right, described him as being mature, low-key, and principled, always willing to share his expertise with young friends through online instructions.

Niu Tengyu (middle) and Xiao Yanrui (right). Photo: RFA.

Xiao believes that the Chinese authorities zoomed in on Niu Tengyu because of his skills, suspecting that he was behind much of the data breaches. But Xiao insisted that most of the data used as evidence in the case came from the CCP’s internal systems that were either purchased online or obtained through connections by members. 

Xiao Yanrui told RFA that, in June 2019 after anti-extradition protests erupted in Hong Kong, the two young men went to Hong Kong to take a look. Two months later in August, the two met in Japan again. Niu disappeared shortly after returning to China. Given that esu wiki didn’t actually post information about Xi’s family, Xiao Yanrui believes that Niu was made a scapegoat and targeted for his “potential” rather than what he has actually done.

Now let’s take a look at the portrait of the young man that emerges from the court judgement. 

“Between 2014 to 2019, Xiao Yanrui (handled in separate case) and defendant Niu Tengyu….led the organizing and planning to establish esu wiki and zhina wiki, two illegal websites. The sites have five tiers of members, including founders, administers, forum leaders, and registered users. They formulated sets of rules and set up Telegram groups to direct members to administrate the sites and engage in criminal activities.”

“Through these two sites, Xiao Yanrui and Niu Tengyu accepted many people from the ‘esu circle,’ encouraged, indulged, or acquiesced members’ to ‘edit [online entry of],’ ‘curse,’ ‘intimidate,’ ‘insult,’ ‘defame,’ or ‘dox’ people through call spamming, physical safety threat, mailing pranking materials, or issuing ‘zhao bomb’ (赵弹). These acts of violence or soft-violence are crimes of picking quarrels and provoking disturbances and infringing on citizens’ personal information, victimizing 375 people, of which 211 people’s ID were exposed, causing some victims to self-harm themselves and others to suffer from mental illness or depression….”

“To sum up the above, Xiao Yanrui, Niu Tengyu and others constituted an evil force criminal organization, and Xiao Yanrui and Niu Tengyu are main culprits who organized, led and directed the group.”

During the period the two sites operated, according to the court judgement, esu wiki had 1,071 entries; zhina wiki had 58 registered users, 5 administrators, and 150 entries of people exposed.

The court judgement says that Niu Tengyu revived defunct esu wiki in 2018, and “illegally obtained 19,845,751 entries of category-three personal information, including name, gender, ID number, household registration place, email, and cellphone number, and shared them with others on Google Cloud.”

Niu Tengyu was sentenced to 8 years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking disturbances,” 5 years in prison for “infringing on citizens’ personal information,” and 2 years for “illegal business operation.” His combined sentence is 15 years in prison, and the court decides to implement a 14-year sentence with a RMB130,000 fine.

Lawyers represented Niu Tengyu and the 23 others during the first instance said very little to the public about the case. We are only learning more about it after lawyers for the appeal began to speak out. Parents are also beginning to engage the media.

Niu Tengyu Said He Was Forced to Confess Made-up ‘Crimes’

Niu Tengyu was placed under RSDL from December 10, 2019, to January 22, 2020, in a guesthouse in Foshan. In a handwritten note that was recently brought out, Niu Tengyu wrote:

“I hereby state: Around January 2020, I was forced to write ‘confessions’ on a few hundred pages of A4 paper. I wrote tens of thousands words. All of the content I wrote was required by the police, and I was forced to make up and fabricate things that are non-existent, deliberate fabrications according to their demands. I had to write enough pages within a given timeframe following the titles and outlines they demanded. When failing to do so, I was allowed to eat nothing but rice, I was deprived of sleep, and I was hung up and beaten. Between December 10, 2019, and January 20, 2020, I slept less than 30 hours in total, and I was crippled by beating. I’m hereby stating that all these documents were fabrications under duress, and they do not represent my own opinion, and much of them are not true.”

Niu Tengyu’s handwritten note. Photo: Apple Daily.

Niu Tengyu’s mother told RFA that, being the one who suffered the most abuse, her son nonetheless has refused to admit guilt. Those who have been released said that, during the trial, Niu Tengyu confronted the prosecutors and the judges by pointing out their procedural and evidential abuses.

He told his mother via lawyers, “I never cried, but I never imagined that they could be so impervious to reason.” 

The second instance is expected to happen soon.

One response to “In China, 24 Members of a Subculture Website Sentenced, the Main ‘Culprit’ Gets 14 Years in Prison”

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