As China's social media takes off, Beijing's censorship campaign heats up
A few well-regarded intellectuals known to be critical of the Communist Party have drawn millions of followers on China's Twitter.
Chinese government censors are silencing influential opponents by shutting down their social media accounts on the pretext of a campaign against online rumors, victims of the practice say.Â
â€śThe authorities believe that liberal ideology will undermine their rule,â€ť says Murong Xuecun, a famous author and outspoken critic of censorship whose accounts on four Twitter-like platforms disappeared suddenly last Sunday evening. â€śThe space on Chinaâ€™s Internet for public opinion is being narrowed.â€ť
Social media sites such as Sina Weibo, which has 300 million users, have become forums for unprecedented freewheeling discussion and news-sharing. Despite being subject to careful censorship, they have expanded the range for self-expression beyond recognition throughout the past five years.
Particularly striking has been the role of a few well-regarded intellectuals who have drawn millions of followers with often-barbed comments on current affairs that are seldom sympathetic to the Communist Party or the government.
They appear to be among the first to be affected by a campaign by the State Internet Information Office, launched two weeks ago, â€śtargeting those who create and spread rumors online,â€ť said the state-run news agency Xinhua.
Though Xinhua made reference to bloggers spreading rumors about bird flu, other observers see a darker purpose behind the campaign.
â€śThe government fears that more and more opinion leaders are gaining recognition by ordinary people and they represent an alternative authority to the government,â€ť argues Zhang Xuezhong, a lawyer whose own Sina Weibo account was mysteriously closed on Monday.
Such opinion leaders are a focus of the official crackdown on rumors.
â€śSome verified accounts with a large number of followers also help lend credence to this wrong information through re-posts,â€ť the Xinhua report said. â€śThese posts severely damage the authority of Internet media and destroy normal communication,â€ť the agency added.
Mr. Murong, who says he had 8.5 million followers on his four accounts, suspects they were shut down because he had used them to post a message from a friend, law professor He Bing, whose own account had been closed earlier after he relayed a post about a young man stabbing a government Internet regulator.
Professor He had nearly half a million followers, making his a â€śbig Vâ€ť account â€“ a term used to describe heavily followed accounts opened by individuals whose identity has been verified by the platformâ€™s managers. That gives their content added credibility.
Such accounts are at the heart of Sina Weiboâ€™s business model, attracting millions of readers. Closing them â€śwould be bound to have an impactâ€ť on the siteâ€™s revenue, says David Bandurski, head of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. â€śSina Weibo is like a party; if itâ€™s no fun people wonâ€™t go.â€ťÂ
Such commercial considerations, though, are trumped by the Chinese governmentâ€™s determination to regain a measure of control over online debate and comment, Mr. Bandurski argues. â€śSetting the agenda through media control is a priority to maintain [Communist] party rule,â€ť he says.
Popular commentators such as Lee Kai-Fu, a former head of Google in China who has more than 40 million followers, â€ścan carry sensitive topics to places the government does not want them to go in a matter of minutesâ€ť through multiple re-posts, Bandurski points out.
Murong, whose writing and blog posts have made him a widely followed critic of censorship, sees the governmentâ€™s campaign against rumors as another blow in â€śthe online battle for public opinionâ€ť which he believes the Communist Party is losing. â€śThey really want to win back lost ground,â€ť he says.
Murong recounted how he received a telephone call from a Sina Weibo employee two minutes after his account on the site vanished at 10:00 p.m. last Sunday evening. â€śHe said they had got orders from above to shut me down,â€ť Murong recalled, â€śbut he didnâ€™t tell me why.â€ťÂ
He is not hopeful about his chances of opening a new account, even anonymously, and worries about the implications for freedom of expression in China of the government crackdown.Â
â€śThere are only about 400 or 500 liberal intellectuals who are really active on Weibo,â€ť he estimates. â€śIf the authorities suspended their accounts it would be very hard for them to make a comeback.â€ť
'It just causes more online protest'
On the other hand, he points out, â€śwhenever they close a Weibo account a lot of people raise their voices against that. It just causes more online protest.â€ť Some of his followers have changed their account names to â€śMurong Xuecun second generationâ€ť in solidarity since he was silenced.
Professor Zhang said he did not bother to ask Sina Weibo why his account had been closed. â€śThe government does not like my opinionsâ€ť about democracy and civil rights, he said, and that was sufficient. But he thought a recent post might also have precipitated his fate.
Last week Zhang revealed on his Sina Weibo blog the content of a government order sent to his university, the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, advising teachers to avoid speaking to students about universal values, press freedom, civil society, civil rights, the Communist Partyâ€™s past mistakes, the privileged class, and judicial independence.
The existence of the â€śseven donâ€™t talksâ€ť memo, as it has become known on the web, has since been confirmed by other professors at other universities.
â€śThe government does not care too much about rumors,â€ť scoffs Zhang, discounting the authoritiesâ€™ stated goal in closing his and other social media accounts. â€śThey fear the truth.â€ťÂ