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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. 

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A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina's Weibo microblogging site in Shanghai, China, May 2012.

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File

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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. 

“The authorities believe that liberal ideology will undermine their rule,” says Murong Xuecun, a famous author and outspoken critic of censorship whose accounts on four Twitter-like platforms disappeared suddenly last Sunday evening. “The space on China’s Internet for public opinion is being narrowed.”

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, “targeting those who create and spread rumors online,” said the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Shadowy purpose

Though Xinhua made reference to bloggers spreading rumors about bird flu, other observers see a darker purpose behind the campaign.

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“The government fears that more and more opinion leaders are gaining recognition by ordinary people and they represent an alternative authority to the government,” 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.

“Some verified accounts with a large number of followers also help lend credence to this wrong information through re-posts,” the Xinhua report said. “These posts severely damage the authority of Internet media and destroy normal communication,” 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.

The conflict

Professor He had nearly half a million followers, making his a “big V” account – a term used to describe heavily followed accounts opened by individuals whose identity has been verified by the platform’s managers. That gives their content added credibility.

Such accounts are at the heart of Sina Weibo’s business model, attracting millions of readers. Closing them “would be bound to have an impact” on the site’s revenue, says David Bandurski, head of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “Sina Weibo is like a party; if it’s no fun people won’t go.” 

Such commercial considerations, though, are trumped by the Chinese government’s determination to regain a measure of control over online debate and comment, Mr. Bandurski argues. “Setting the agenda through media control is a priority to maintain [Communist] party rule,” he says.

Popular commentators such as Lee Kai-Fu, a former head of Google in China who has more than 40 million followers, “can carry sensitive topics to places the government does not want them to go in a matter of minutes” through multiple re-posts, Bandurski points out.

Murong, whose writing and blog posts have made him a widely followed critic of censorship, sees the government’s campaign against rumors as another blow in “the online battle for public opinion” which he believes the Communist Party is losing. “They really want to win back lost ground,” 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. “He said they had got orders from above to shut me down,” Murong recalled, “but he didn’t tell me why.” 

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. 

“There are only about 400 or 500 liberal intellectuals who are really active on Weibo,” he estimates. “If the authorities suspended their accounts it would be very hard for them to make a comeback.”

'It just causes more online protest'

On the other hand, he points out, “whenever they close a Weibo account a lot of people raise their voices against that. It just causes more online protest.” Some of his followers have changed their account names to “Murong Xuecun second generation” in solidarity since he was silenced.

Professor Zhang said he did not bother to ask Sina Weibo why his account had been closed. “The government does not like my opinions” 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 Party’s past mistakes, the privileged class, and judicial independence.

The existence of the “seven don’t talks” memo, as it has become known on the web, has since been confirmed by other professors at other universities.

“The government does not care too much about rumors,” scoffs Zhang, discounting the authorities’ stated goal in closing his and other social media accounts. “They fear the truth.” 


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