A postgraduate student in Beijing has been fined more than 3,000 RMB (just over 500 USD) for negatively reviewing a graduate test preparation program on Zhihu, a Chinese Q&A site similar to Quora.
The program is run by Guangxi Wenkao Education Consulting Co., Ltd., and is operated through the website Wenkao.com. It is described as an exam preparation service for master’s degree students in the field of liberal arts and sciences.
According to the Chinese publication The Paper, the student, Zhang Ming (a pseudonym), wrote on Zhihu on April 7, 2020, “The website was trying to have a fight on WeChat. Whoever left reviews with their real names would be cyberbullied.”
The platform deleted the comment in January 2021 “due to violations of the company’s rights and interests,” The Paper reported.
Wenkao.com sued the student for his comment, claiming that his words defamed the company (the irony of their actions presumably lost on the organization), with the courts ultimately awarding Wenkao.com 3,272.5 RMB in damages.
A second netizen, identified as Ma Qian on Zhihu, was also sued for commenting on the site, “Wenkao’s service is so bad. I wouldn’t take it for free. Disgusting.”
According to The Paper, both the defendant and two plaintiffs have submitted appeals.
The case has blown up on Weibo as news of the court ruling became public. The hashtag related to the case had accumulated more than 260 million views at the time of writing.
Netizens have been overwhelmingly supportive of Zhang, and the incident has sparked discussions online about freedom of speech relating to non-political topics.
“Who knew that an adjective or an idiom or even a certain verb in your bad review might be taken out and said to be an infringement of a company’s rights?” asked a Weibo user. “I gave a bad comment on a shopping app because the product was not good, and the seller kept asking me for good reviews. But the bad comment was deleted by the platform in less than a minute. Do I have to thank them for protecting me?”
Another netizen, apparently unconcerned with the prospect of being sued herself, chimed in, “Okay, now I know that Wenkao and Zhihu are both rubbish. Capitalists really can do whatever they want.”
Others pointed out that the entire online review ecosystem has been tainted, with companies buying, manipulating, and, indeed, suing to curate positive online images of their products and services.
Zhang reportedly took the Wenkao.com course back in February 2020 and found it of average value.
One of the company’s managers responded on January 17, seeming to defend their litigation efforts by, in part, claiming that Zhang never expressed dissatisfaction to them directly after taking the course and the comment was baseless.
“Our business has been established for more than 10 years, and we have never cyberbullied any customers,” according to the Chinese publication China Youth Daily. “It’s unnecessary for us to invade our customers’ privacy.”
The manager confirmed with China Youth Daily that the company gives customers who leave good reviews free benefits such as study materials or services.
The program may have won their battle in court, but if a company has to release a statement saying they’ve never cyberbullied any customers, they’ve probably lost the war.