DUNHUANG (Gansu) • An oil-field worker in this Gobi Desert town posted poetry online memorialising the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. An artist in Shanghai uploaded satirical photos of his wincing visage superimposed on a portrait of the Chinese president. A civil rights lawyer in Beijing wrote microblog posts criticising the Communist Party's handling of ethnic tensions.
The men were all detained under a broad new interpretation of an established law China is using to carry out the biggest crackdown on Internet speech in many years.
Artists, essayists, lawyers, bloggers and others deemed to be online troublemakers have been investigated or jailed for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", a charge that was once confined to physical activities like handing out fliers or organising protests.
The increasing use of that law to police online speech is part of President Xi Jinping's strategy to deploy the legal code to silence dissent and clamp down on civil society.
Since a Communist Party conclave last October, when Mr Xi and other leaders stressed "rule of law", the government has introduced a series of new laws to tighten the vice over civil society and rein in foreign groups, which the party fears could help foment a revolution.
"The core of rule of law is that the government shall be restricted by law," said law professor Zhang Qianfan of Peking University. "But now it is using the law to punish whoever criticises it or has some influence in the public realm."
In March, five young feminists using social media to organise a campaign against sexual abuse were detained and initially investigated on the picking-quarrels charge.
The latest wave of detentions of "provocateurs" came this month, when police rounded up more than 200 civil rights lawyers and their colleagues. Some remain in detention and may be charged with picking quarrels and other crimes.
An article in People's Daily, the flagship party newspaper, accused them of organising protests and using instant messages to "engage in agitation and planning". Global Times, a party-run tabloid, said the lawyers "often were no longer engaged in law, but in picking quarrels and provoking trouble with a plainly political slant".
The legal definition of "picking quarrels" was expanded in late 2013 by the nation's top legal bodies, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, to encompass online behaviour. The charge could apply to anyone using information networks to "berate or intimidate others" and spread false information. First-time offenders can be jailed for up to five years.
The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights group, said the interpretation was a "major elaboration" on the charge and that it treated online space "not only as a platform through which to incite others to disrupt social order but as a kind of public space itself that can be thrown into disorder by certain kinds of acts".
The expanded interpretation also made unlawful any "defaming information" that is reposted 500 times or viewed 5,000 times, actions generally beyond the control of a post's author. That definition was reiterated in the draft of a cyber-security law released this month.
Dui Hua said in a March report that since the new interpretation took effect, "a growing list of Chinese people have been detained or charged over speech-related incidents". Among other things, the charge has been used to reinforce an "anti-rumour campaign" aimed at silencing people who question the official versions of news events.
NEW YORK TIMES