The arrest of prominent angel investor and vocal micoblogger Charles Xue, better known by his online handle Xue Manzi, is sending a chill through China’s social media world. The detention is part of a recent government crackdown on online rumors, but its implications are much more profound.
The 60-year-old Xue is dubbed “China’s No. 1 angel investor.” He was arrested on Aug. 23 for allegedly soliciting sexual services from a 22-year-old women in Beijing. Official reports said that Xue, as a naturalized US citizen, may face punishment as severe as deportation.
Xue is one of the most popular online celebrities and liberal voices with over 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like micrblog site. He first came to prominence on Weibo when he initiated a grassroot campaign calling netizens’ attention to rescue abducted children. His often very critical commentaries of contemporary social and police issues in China win him a huge number of fans…as well as his detention.
Anyone who thinks that the case is simply about hiring prostitution is very wrong. In the past few days, China’s various official media have been in full gear lashing out reports condemning Xue’s “crime.” Most believed that Xue is used as an example to warn other “big V” status online opinion leaders – kill the chicken to warn the monkeys.
The arrest was made following the arrest of another netizen under the handle of Qin Huohuo who was accused of making illegal profits by fabricating and spreading online rumors. The “online rumor monger” was referred to by CCTV news as an “online gang organized by Qin and Xue Manzi.” It’s the first sign that Xue is in trouble.
Earlier in August, several “big V” status Weibo celebrities were called to join an Internet conference in Beijing aiming to work out a plan to build a favorable online environment. In the meeting, participants agreed on “seven base rules” of self-censorship. Xue was in that meeting, but apparently, Beijing didn’t think he was in line enough with the rules.
The purpose of the current online crackdown, as many netizens noted, is to discipline those “big V” status microbloggers to further tighten control over the Internet. Like one “big V” micrblogger 王瑛006 commented: “We need to look out. Someone is reinforcing people’s fear of talking about politics.”
Will it work? Well…it depends. China is never short of media organizations that are keen on self-censorship to avoid troubles. When it comes to individual online celebrities, the story is the same.
For example, another popular social commentator on Weibo 北京厨子 deleted all his 70,000+ Weibo posts out of fear of further crackdown. “I’m on Weibo for fun. Now it feels like a class war.” He explained. Many of his followers called him a coward. But there were also supporters. “The storm is coming. He is right to prepare early.” One netizen 八根草吖 commented.
Others choose a different tactic to show their compliance. Ren Zhiqiang, real estate tycoon and one of China’s most prominent Weibo celebrities with more than 15 million followers, said on Aug. 26 that he has been paying several thousands of Party membership fees every year, and that he has always believed in communism.
Kai-Fu Lee. former head of Google China and super popular Weibo celebrity with some 51 million followers, also tried hard to stay clear of troubles. “[About Qin Huohuo] I don’t know this guy, and have never worked with him in any way. I’ve never heard of his name before his recent arrest. Someone said I often re-tweet his rumor posts. It’s not true. I checked all my Weibo posts, none is from him.” Kai-Fu Lee explained.
There are, of course, those who insist on fighting. 孙海峰, another “big v” microblogger, commented: “A show of compliance with the government, such as participating in government meetings like Xue did, won’t work. Pacification will only help the evil grow.” “Being fearless is the only way to end a dictatorship. Facing the sun, let’s say no to darkness!” Another “big V” 王瑛006 commented.
The crackdown is raging on. In a recent clip of CCTV News, careful netizens found that the profile of Wang Shi, another real estate tycoon and vocal social commentator online, seemed to be shown as an example of a “promoter of online rumors.” And just earlier this month, Wang Shi openly defended the rights of businessmen like himself to speak up on political issues.
Will more “big V” microbloggers be arrested or disciplined? Will more online opinion leaders self-censor to stay away from troubles? What will Weibo become without dynamic discussions of current social and political issues in China? There is no answer. All we know is that China’s active social media won’t be the same after Xue’s arrest.