A crackdown on online rumors that were said to “incite public discontent with the government” is part of a new campaign by the Chinese government to tighten their control over the country’s increasingly influential social media. Earlier this month, numerous Internet celebrities agreed to censor themselves at a meeting hosted by the government. Yesterday, news broke that two grassroot Weibo celebrities have been arrested in Beijing for cooking up rumors and gaining illegal profits. At the same time, another netizen was arrested in Guangzhou for fabricating flood casualty rumors. It was a chilling day for many Chinese netizens.
Many believe that these arrests, especially the two in Beijing, are of great significance to the development of China’s overall online ecosystem, and in particular, Weibo, China’s leading microblog service. Sina Weibo, since opened in 2009, has been an oasis on the Chinese Internet where netizens can enjoy relative freedom to discuss public affairs and social issues. From grassroot charity to corruption exposé, Weibo can be said to be the front line of civil society formation in China.
Will the current crackdown on online rumors be the start of the end of a dynamic Weibo? Many netizens think it’s worse than that. From the Beijing arrest, they see a leftist movement coming.
Beijing police detained 4 employees of an Internet marketing company, two of which are Weibo celebrities under the handles of “Qin Huohuo” and “Li’er cha si. ” It was reported that in order to gain popularity, the two have minted and spread more than 3000 rumors. The company has harvested profits of more than RMB 10 million yuan in 7 years from various online rumors.
In a document shown on CCTV news (Chinese Central Television), several charges were posted against an “online gang” organized by Qin and Xue Manzi, a famous angel investor and popular liberal voice on Weibo.
The charges include cooking up rumors regarding the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train crash and China Red Cross. Most interestingly, other charges also include 1) making up rumors to attack “patriotic” scholars like Kong Qingdong and Si Manan, two of the least liked leftists in China; 2) slandering Mao and the Communist Party of China; 3) beautifying the images of Chiang Kai-shek, head of China’s Nationalist Party who fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war to Mao, and Hu Yaobang, former Party chairman and pro-reform politician in China, as well as the United States.
These charges sound much more like an ideology clash. For example, many netizens are shocked to see that the 3 names of Chiang Kai-shek, Hu Yaobang and the US were put together and categoried as one kind.
The charges make many netizens, especially those who have been vocal about social and political issues in China, feel the chill. 北京厨子, also a popular grassroot celebrity on Weibo, commented: “I was once tricked by rumors fabricated by Qin Huohuo, too. I should be happy about his arrest. But [after reading today’s news,] I feel like I’m at the edge of collapsing.” Another netizen 傲世锋 commented: “This is a turning point for freedom of speech in China. Official media are busy brain-washing. Non-official media are busy spreading rumors. Left or right? Which side to pick?”
Even those who are supportive of Qin’s arrest think that Beijing authorities are simply practicing double standards. After all, as many netizens noted, the Chinese government and its propaganda department are the biggest rumor mill. Many believe that China’s growing appetite for rumors is the result of declining government credibility and a general lack of transparency.
“China’s largest online gang are the troops of 5 mao organized by the government. They have no sense of shame.” Netizen 番茄的橡皮檫 commented.