A high profile online campaign has helped a Chinese teenager avoid becoming the first person charged with violating new criminal laws against spreading rumours on the internet.

Yang Hui, a 16-year-old student in northwestern Gansu Province, was detained last week amid allegations that he had broken strict anti-rumour mongering laws introduced as authorities move to tighten control over information on the internet.

The teenager, who was released on Monday, had posted pictures of a protest following the unexplained death of a man at a karaoke hall owned by relatives of a local official. In the post Mr Yang said some of the relatives of the dead man had been detained and he dared police to arrest him. The police blamed him for the protest.

China’s judicial authorities issued a legal interpretation this month allowing people to be prosecuted for defamation or “spreading online rumours” if their posts are viewed by more than 5,000 internet users or forwarded more than 500 times. The move is part of an ongoing effort to rein in China’s Twitter-like service Weibo, with one high-profile commentator appearing in handcuffs on TV to praise the new restrictions.

Weibo has been used in recent months to co-ordinate online campaigns but also protests that have brought large crowds into the street to demonstrate against a range of issues from corrupt officials to polluting factories.

Netizens rallied to Yang’s defence by digging up unresolved corruption cases – some involving the police – in his city of Zhangjiachuan. The tousle-haired youth with thick glasses looked “stressed” when he was released on Monday morning, said his lawyer, Wang Shihua. “But in general he’s fine. We asked him, ‘do you feel pressure?’ He replied with confidence ‘not a problem’.”

The Yang case with its sympathetic protagonist is a good thing that will “loosen up the current situation” amid the new wave of crackdown over Internet posts, said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese civil rights lawyer.

“Public security bureaus will be more careful of dealing with such issues in future,” said Mr Pu. “It is childish to convict a person based on 500 retweets.”

Weibo may be uncomfortable for the authorities but eliminating the space for exposing abuses and blowing off steam may have unintended consequences in terms of fuelling unrest.

“You need information to be transparent and then rumours won’t spread,” says Wang Erping, a specialist in the psychology of social unrest at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His research shows that violent unrest is most likely in areas where strong distrust in local government is coupled with faith that higher authorities will step in to check local abuses.

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi

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