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Censorship, Prosecution Drive Exodus of Opinion Leaders from China's Sina Weibo

Screen capture of Sina Weibo message when the user click open a deleted page.

Screen capture of Sina Weibo message when a user opens a deleted page.

Famous law professor at Peking University He Weifang greeted his followers in the new year on Sina Weibo, China's most popular social media platform, with a goodbye message. The professor, who has often been attacked online for his support of constitution rights, is one of many opinion leaders who have fled the microblogging website since China has upped its censorship and prosecution efforts.

He wrote: 

【祝新年】各位本微博之友:新年来临之际,谨表达真诚的祝福和感谢!三年里,你们给了我很多鼓励,从评论中我也学到不少新知。美好的交流让我在虚拟空间里寻觅到真实的情感。过去一年里,眼看着一个又一个我熟悉的博主从这里消失,心中不免怅然。于我,是将本微博告一段落的时刻了。再见!

[Wish you well in New Year] I express sincere wishes and thanks to Weibo friends with the coming of the new year! You have given me encouragement and I've learned plenty of new knowledge from your comments. Good communication lets me find true feelings in a virtual space. I've felt upset seeing some familiar accounts gradually disappear throughout the past year. So now it’s the time for me to call it quits with Weibo. Goodbye!

Popular citizen lawyer Yuan Yulai pitied He:

2014第一天,贺卫方说要告别微博。但愿只是一时的情绪宣泄。这年头,没微博,就是哑巴。尽量说些真话,是一种社会责任,同时也是一种生理需要。

Professor He said he plans to leave Weibo on the first day in 2014. I wish it’s just a temporary emotional response. Without Weibo, people would be dumber nowadays. Speaking the truth is a social responsibility and a physical need.

Fan Zhongxin, a law teacher, is also considering quitting Weibo:

【是否该休博?】微博敏感词与日俱增,删帖禁言销号日益严重,很多朋友退出微博,微博一片萧条肃杀,温和改良的声音越来越没有人愿意听。我是否也该退出了!新一年了,也许不该再耗时间在微博上费口舌,对国家和社会该做的且实际有益的事情太多了!

[Is it about time to quit Weibo?] Sensitive words are increasing, meanwhile the phenomena of deletion, censorship and banning user accounts are so common. Many friends have quit Weibo and gone silent. The atmosphere on Weibo is so chilling. Meanwhile, moderate voices and discussion of political transformation have received less and less responses. Should I quit Weibo as well? Facing a new year, maybe I shouldn't spend too much time talking on the platform. There are too many more effective things that I should do for the nation and for society.

China's crackdown on online “rumor-mongering”, widely seen as a movement to suppress criticism of the ruling Communist Party (CCP), has effectively silenced Weibo, with high-profile bloggers reining in sensitive posts for fear of detention. Since the launch of the nationwide campaign in August 2013, hundreds of people have been detained across the country on charges of libel or “inciting trouble” for posting unverified or critical information on Weibo.

In addition, China's top court fueled public fear by publishing a judicial interpretation in September that said users can be prosecuted for posting rumors seen by more than 5,000 people, or forwarded more than 500 times. The main target of the crackdown are liberal public opinion leaders, in particular, citizen right lawyers and activists, whose Weibo accounts have been banned or deleted.

Data by Weiboreach, a firm providing social media data analysis, showed the number of posts by influential microbloggers was on average 11.2 percent lower per day in August than it was earlier in the year.

Below is a list of prominent public opinion leaders who have been prosecuted and harassed in the past few months:

- Xu Zhiyong, an anti-corruption campaigner who has called for officials to disclose their wealth, was arrested in August and his account on Weibo was deleted.

- Wang Gongquan, an outspoken venture capitalist, was taken away by police in September on charges of disturbing public order after he helped lead a campaign for the release of another activist.

- Pu Zhiqiang, a citizen right lawyer, has seen his account in Weibo banned and he has to change his account names to publish posts.

Xu, Pu and Wang are all listed on Foreign Policy’s Global 100 Thinkers of 2013.

- Zhu Ruifeng, one of China's most prominent whistleblowers, discovered that authorities had deleted his four microblog accounts in July after he released a video of a district party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing having sex with a mistress.

- Liu Hu, an investigative journalist who has accused deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce of dereliction of duty, was arrested on a charge of defamation in September, and his Weibo account removed.

- Zhang Lifan, a prominent scholar of modern Chinese history and outspoken critic of Mao Zedong, found that all of his microblogs and columns were removed simultaneously without warning or any tip-off on the same day the Third Plenum of the Communist Party ended.

- Zhang Xuezhong, a law associate professor in Shanghai critical of Marxism and excessive political infringement on judiciary, was forced to quit his job and lost his Weibo account.

- Zhang Qianfan, a constitutional law expert at Peking University and one of the leaders of the constitutionalist movement, also found that his account was deleted.

While the ruling party certainly gains an upper hand in the ideological battle, it is also slowly killing Sina Weibo, a tool to build trust among people. Chinese venture capitalist Wang Ran lamented the situation:

和微信上的各种爆料比,微博也快成新闻联播了。

In comparison with breaking news in WeChat, Weibo is turning into Central Television's National News Broadcast Program [party propaganda].

Popular online commentator and Sina Weibo administrator Old Xu proclaimed the coming death of Weibo:

微博成为新闻联播,那就离死不远了!

Weibo would be close to death when it becomes [state-owned] CCTV News!

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