Chinese microblogger Dong Rubin mused to his 45,000 followers last month that he might face arrest amid a government crackdown on Internet rumors. On Sept. 10, he was detained for misreporting the worth of his business.
Dong joined a group of people who had gone online to criticize government-sanctioned projects or voice political opinions and wound up in detention on unrelated allegations. This year, Dong opposed plans for an oil refinery in the southern city of Kunming where he lives, a project that spurred street protests.
The crackdown on users of Twitter-like microblogs, along with new punishments for online defamation, reflect a stepped-up Communist Party campaign to rein in a forum that’s challenged China’s censorship regime. As President Xi Jinping asserts his authority before a party plenum this fall, his government is placing new limits on critics and people who may spread online reports of party cadres’ wrongdoing.
“They are going to pour massive resources into managing it,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, the director of Danwei, an Internet and media research firm in Beijing. “They will use a combination of intimidation and technology, and it’s quite effective.”
Even as government officials sign up for microblog accounts and state media praise online whistleblowers, authorities have exerted more control over the Web conversation.
China’s top court issued an interpretation last week saying Web users could face jail time if defamatory rumors they put online are read by more than 5,000 people or reposted more than 500 times.
“So long as Weibo is outing a few bad apples, it’s tolerable,” Andrew Wedeman, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, who has written about corruption in China, said in an e-mail. “When the speculation and fingers start pointing at politically sensitive targets, it becomes dangerous.”
Popular social media platforms include Sina Corp.’s (SINA:US) Weibo service and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s (700) instant messaging app WeChat. Tencent is now the biggest Internet company in Asia.
Liu Qi, a spokesman at Sina, didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment. Jerry Huang, a director of investor relations at Tencent, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail queries on the rules’ effects.
The interpretation is a way to control “Big Vs,” or people with verified microblog accounts and many followers who can direct online debate, said Isaac Mao, director of Hong Kong-based social-networks research center Sharism Lab.
Last month, American-Chinese venture capitalist Charles Xue was detained on charges of soliciting prostitutes. Xue was a Big V who wrote on politically sensitive topics to his 12 million followers.
In reports yesterday, Chinese state media released confessions in which Xue said he behaved irresponsibly for forwarding more comments as his number of followers grew. A report by the official Xinhua News Agency said he became “careless and unscrupulous” in posting unverified rumors.
“Xue warned other Big Vs to stay alert and not to go down his road,” the story said. Xue offered to appear in handcuffs as a “negative example” to publicize the campaign against online rumors, it said.
The crackdown indicates the government is still adjusting its response to information circulated and seen by the nation’s 591 million Web users. In December, the government required real names to sign up for Internet connections. Earlier in 2012, the comment functions on Sina and Tencent’s microblog services were briefly halted after authorities detained six people for spreading rumors of a coup attempt.
“The intention is to deter people who like to criticize the government on Weibo,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University. “It’s a very scary thing.”
Cyberspace isn’t a “lawless haven,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in Beijing today. He said the government rules have “widespread support from Chinese Internet users.”
A Xinhua story last week said a number of people had been detained for allegedly spreading online rumors, adding that Sina Weibo has become an important channel to expose corruption.
In Kunming earlier this year, Dong investigated the planned oil refinery and published his report online. On Weibo, he called for more transparency about the project.
“Weibo makes things transparent -- you can see my followers retweet what I say,” Dong said in a May interview in Kunming. He said the local government has a department that “looks at every Weibo I write.”
Dong said that he had refused government requests to attend group meetings about the planned refinery. Late last month, he wondered on his microblog what crime authorities might bring against him.
“Prostitution, gambling, drug trafficking, tax evasion, picking quarrels, creating rumors, an online Mafia?” he wrote.
In an essay posted online on Sept. 4, Dong said police detained his general manager and confiscated computers after they began the campaign against Big Vs. He was detained Sept. 10, said his lawyer, Xiao Dongzhi.
“They fear people will tell things as they are,” said Zhu Ruifeng, who runs a whistleblowing website called People Supervision Net. “Our hopes in this country are in the Internet. Weibo’s ability to transmit information is too quick.”
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