It was recently reported that Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who was among the first to raise the alarm about the coronavirus disease (now named COVID-19) and died after contracting the virus from a patient, had been reprimanded by the police for “spreading rumors.” On his Weibo account, Dr. Li posted the “letter of reprimand” that he was asked to sign at the local police station on January 3, 2020, which gives more information on his “unlawful act” and the reprimand he received.
1. What law was Dr. Li accused of violating?
According to the letter of reprimand, Dr. Li was accused of “making false comments” that “severely disturbed the social order,” which violated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Law on Penalties for Administration of Public Security (PAPSL). Chinese police officers are empowered by this Law to punish, without going through court trials, behaviors that “disturb public order, endanger public order, infringe upon personal rights or property rights, or hamper management of the society,” but are not serious enough to be criminally punished (art. 2).
Although the document does not cite to a specific article of the PAPSL, article 25 of the Law governs spreading rumors. The article prohibits “intentionally disturbing the public order by spreading rumors or making false reports of dangerous situations, epidemic situations, or police actions.” Violators of this provision are punishable by administrative detention of up to ten days and/or a fine.
Based on this article, a law professor in China argued that, even if the early alert Dr. Li sent to the Wechat group of his medical school classmates was not exactly accurate, that was not a rumor and he did not have the intent to spread a rumor.
2. Is spreading rumors punishable by other laws?
Yes. In 2015, the Ninth Amendment to the PRC Criminal Law was adopted, which added into the PRC Criminal Law a new crime of spreading false information online or through other media and seriously disturbing the social order (art. 291a). An offender can be punished by up to seven years’ imprisonment. In addition, the 2016 PRC Cybersecurity Law prohibits various online activities, including “manufacturing or spreading fake news that disturbs the economic or social order.”
For more information on China’s regulation of “rumors” on the internet and social media, see my 2019 Law Library report, Initiatives to Counter Fake News: China.
3. What does the term “reprimand” mean under Chinese laws?
There are several types of reprimands (xun jie in Chinese) under different Chinese laws. As explained by a Chinese lawyer, the term “reprimand” appears in the country’s major litigation laws for judges to sanction contempt of court, such as a witness refusing to testify without justifiable reasons or anyone violating court rules.
In addition, under the PRC Criminal Law, if an offense is found minor and does not require a criminal punishment, the offender may be exempted from the punishment but may be reprimanded, ordered to make a statement of repentance, or subject to administrative penalties (art. 37).
4. Are police officers authorized by laws to reprimand citizens?
There are a few laws and regulations specifically authorizing the police to reprimand citizens under certain circumstances. For example, the Regulation on Letters and Visits (xin fang) empowers the police to reprimand the petitioners (art. 47). The Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency provides that the police may reprimand juveniles who are exempted from penalties because they are under fourteen years old, or the offenses are especially minor (art. 37).
The predecessor of the PAPSL, the 1986 Regulation on Administrative Penalties for Public Security, also empowered the police to reprimand those under the age of fourteen who were exempted from penalties. When the PAPSL was adopted, however, this provision was revised and under the new article 25 of the PAPSL, the police may only order the parents, or other guardians of the minors, to discipline them.
5. Does the PAPSL authorize the police to reprimand citizens?
The PAPSL does not contain a provision authorizing the police to generally reprimand citizens for their minor unlawful acts, other than those specified by the above mentioned laws. The Law specifies that the police may impose administrative penalties in four forms: warnings, fines, administrative detention, and/or revocation of licenses (art. 10). The Law also requires the police to follow specific procedures when investigating PAPSL cases, making penalty decisions, and executing the decisions (chapter 4).
The Wuhan police force reportedly contended that they “did not impose penalties of warnings, fines, or detention” on the eight persons who spread unauthorized information about the coronavirus, but only “educated and criticized” them because their acts were “especially minor.”
A law professor argued that the police cannot impose the reprimand without being authorized by the PAPSL. If the police used the reprimand as “a measure to implement an administrative penalty such as a warning,” it must issue an “administrative penalty decision” following the procedures specified by the Law; there is no legal basis for replacing such a decision with a “letter of reprimand.”
6. What about the remedies?
Decisions on administrative penalties in PAPSL cases can be challenged through administrative reconsideration or litigation (art. 102). Furthermore, under the PAPSL, when public security organs or police officers unlawfully exercise their powers, and infringe upon the rights and interests of citizens, legal persons, or other organizations, they must apologize. They are also liable for any damages caused (art. 117).
Under the PRC Administrative Procedure Law, if someone who has the right to bring a lawsuit is deceased, his or her close relatives may bring the suit (art. 25).
However, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), China’s highest court, appears to have held in other cases that since a reprimand imposed by the police is not an administrative penalty, it cannot be challenged through administrative reconsideration or litigation.
Lawyers are calling for the SPC to further clarify this matter and allow police reprimands to be challenged in the courts. According to the lawyers, a reprimand imposed by the police in PAPSL cases is either effectively a warning or a new form of administrative penalty, since it will result in mental pressure and cause damage to a person’s reputation.