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China Social Media Crackdown: 6 Arrested, 16 Websites Closed

News spread through the Chinese Internet as the country woke up to the following on Saturday, March 31, 2012: six people had been arrested and 16 websites closed for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors,” according to China's National Internet Information Office (SIIO) and Beijing police, as official news agency Xinhua reported.

The same report stated that popular Twitter-like microblogging sites Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, where the so-called rumours appeared, had been “criticized and punished accordingly”. What the punishment consists of, there is no way to know, but Chinese netizens soon noticed the results: the two microblogging sites banned users from posting comments from Saturday, March 31, to Tuesday, April 3.

Many foreign media picked up the story, such as BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera or Forbes.

No one can hear your screams here. Have the people duct-taped. From Ministry of Tofu

No one can hear your screams here. Have the people duct-taped. From Ministry of Tofu

Brand new blog Rectified.name posted:

Early last week there was a flood of sensational rumors on Chinese microblogs alleging political unrest and splits among the Party’s top leadership. Last night news broke that the relevant authorities slapped China’s two most influential microblog platforms, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, for not acting strongly enough to suppress the rumors.

Xinhua quoted a SIIO's spokesman who claimed that these rumours (a common euphemism for criticism of the government) were on “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing”. They referred to conversations on a supposed coup attempt and the power struggle at the Chinese Comunist Party (CCP) that took place on the Internet after top official Bo Xilai was removed from his post.

Comments on Bo Xilai and the supposed coup d'état were censored earlier this month on Chinese social media.

Jing Gao, from Ministry of Tofu, wrote:

On the morning of March 31, Sina Weibo users who tried to leave comments received an error message from the system:

“To all Weibo users, recently, comments left by microbloggers have started to contain much illegal and detrimental information, including rumors. In an effort to clean them up in one stroke, comments function of Sina Weibo will be temporarily disabled from 8 a.m. March 31 to 8 a.m. April 3. After the clean-up, we will reopen comments section. Necessary clean-up of information is conducive to providing everyone a better communicating atmosphere. We expect your understanding and consideration. Thank you for your support.”

A Sina Weibo's user: "Sina’s mascot should look like this these days". Image from Ministry of Tofu

A Sina Weibo's user: "Sina’s mascot should look like this these days". Image from Ministry of Tofu

Another statement by SIIO's spokesman quoted by Xinhua points out that an unknown number of people, also accused of disseminating rumours, were “admonished and educated,” but showed “intention to repent”. According to Xinhua, Beijing police stated that rumours “severely disturb the public order, undermine social stability and deserve punishment”.

C. Custer, from Techinasia, stated:

The rumors are referred to as exerting an “evil influence” on society, and those who spread them are called “lawbreakers” who acted “maliciously” and “without reason.” Xinhua is China’s official state wire service, and these words were probably carefully chosen.

The report ends with this sentence: “The two companies [Sina and Tencent] expressed that they would thoroughly implement the relevant regulations, take steps to reform themselves, and increase their supervision [of content].” That is very significant, especially if you’re a weibo user.

China has arguably the most sophisticated Internet censorship system in the world, known as the Great Firewall of China. Yet social media, especially microblogs, are seen by many as the XXI century tool to challenge the Government's control on information.

The Communist Party is well aware of the power of social media. Chinese authorities have increased efforts to control online information last year, after the Arab Spring episodes brought Twitter and Facebook into the limelight as a tool to overthrow governments. Last December, Chinese authorities set up new measures that forced microbloggers to sign up with their real names. There is a widespread feeling, however, that Chinese Internet companies are popular and powerful enough to challenge the Government. The question is: Can anyone in China fool the CCP?

C. Custer, from Techinasia, stated at the end of his post:

If they think Weibo poses a real threat to social stability, they will not hesitate to pull the plug.

But it will never come to that, because Sina and Tencent aren’t stupid. They may have been playing fast-and-loose with the real name regulation rules so far, but they both understand that complying with regulators is the only way a company can do business in China. (Don’t believe me? Ask Google.) So, if you’re on weibo, expect to see significant changes in the months ahead (and maybe don’t retweet those coup rumors unless you’re interested in getting to know your local State Security agents a bit better). Real-name registration hasn’t significantly impacted the discourse on Chinese microblogs yet, but I have the distinct feeling that the music is about to stop.

Control of the Internet is a major issue in China. The power of social media to articulate social and political unrest poses a direct threat to the CCP’s Orwellian harmony and stability. In the face of a cooling economy and in the midst of a leadership transition, the CCP seems to think that cracking down on the Internet is the best way to hold its grip on power.

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