Tencent has long had a potent tool for muzzling critics: shut down their accounts. But in recent months the Chinese social media group has changed tack, slapping multi-million-renminbi defamation lawsuits on three bloggers who wrote about the company on its ubiquitous WeChat app.
“It’s very weird,” said Jianfei Yan, who was faced with a Rmb1m ($140,000) defamation lawsuit from Tencent in March after writing an article about the dominance of the “super powerful” WeChat platform and its potential for data breaches. “If Tencent questioned my comments, they could [have stopped] me publishing them on WeChat . . . but they just directly appealed to the court and sued me.”
Tencent declined to comment on the cases. But in a document submitted in May after a court hearing against Jihua Ma, another of the bloggers, it said it opted against deleting the offending articles on WeChat because doing so “would further cause damage to Tencent’s reputation”.
The Shenzhen-based company has never shied away from suing corporate rivals. Last year it engaged ByteDance in a flurry of suits and countersuits, including some over defamation. But the move to sue the three individuals demonstrates a new front in the battle to eliminate reputational damage in an increasingly competitive marketplace — and a new chapter in the censorship of online dissent in China.
Xuyang Sun, the third blogger, was sued by Tencent for Rmb5m earlier this year after he pointed out that the company’s efforts to reduce children’s time spent gaming could be circumvented. “I think they just pick the soft persimmon,” he said, arguing that his critique was milder than similar attacks levelled by the state-owned People’s Daily newspaper.
Chasing critics through the courts rather than simply shutting them down sends a forceful message to multiple audiences, said one Hong Kong-based defamation lawyer — whether it is to other bloggers looking to write critically about the organisation, or even to employees who might be tempted to leak information about it.
“It’s a trend I think we are going to see more of,” he added.
Other companies have taken similar steps in the past. Tencent-backed Meituan Dianping sued blogger Yu Bin for Rmb10m in March 2017 after he published a post on his personal Sohu account and other internet platforms asserting that the food delivery company was delaying its plans for an initial public offering. The case was closed after Mr Yu paid Rmb110,000 and issued an apology.
For defendants, defamation suits can have big repercussions. While Tencent’s lawsuits against its critics have so far all been civil cases, precluding jail sentences, the large sums demanded as compensation can be financially crippling.
“These amounts are enormous,” said Minan Zhang, a law professor from Sun Yat-sen University in southern China, noting that typically in cases of alleged reputational damage, compensation awarded by courts runs to less than Rmb10,000.
Two of theTencent cases have been lodged with the Internet Court of Guangzhou, while the third was at Shenzhen Nanshan District Court. Blogger Jihua Ma said he is now in talks with the company in an attempt to settle his Rmb10m suit out of court. All three cases are still pending.
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