China’s Crackdown on Social Media: Who Is in Danger?

There is a Chinese proverb that says one must kill a chicken to scare the monkeys, which means to punish someone in order to make an example out of them. That is what many believe happened last Sunday when outspoken investor and Internet celebrity Charles Xue was detained by Beijing police on charges of soliciting prostitution.

Charles Xue, seen in a recent Beijing TV news report. Screenshot from Sina Weibo.

With more than 12 million followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, Xue shares tips on entrepreneurship and gives social commentary, often retweeting posts that expose corruption and human trafficking. Thus, the detention, which came at the height of an ongoing government crackdown on “online rumors,” raises the question of whether the government’s real motive was to put tighter controls in place on social media and deter those like Xue, “the monkeys,” from calling attention to social issues.

Though Xue has admitted guilt and called himself a “womanizer” according to Beijing police, netizens speculate that he was set up, linking the incident to a journalist who was detained last Saturday for “spreading rumors” after accusing government officials online. In a Weibo post, Hu Xijin, Editor of the state-run Global Times, said he “cannot rule out the possibility” that the government’s targeting of Xue was intended as a warning of sorts. Hu deleted the post later that day.

Others online criticized Xue’s behavior but said it was a personal matter. Some even drew parallels between his sex scandal and those of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Clinton, and Chen Duxiu, one of the founders of the Communist Party of China. Weibo user @苏小和 wrote, “Common sense first, morals second … When a society uses public resources to attack prostitution, it shows that the society is rotten and has lost its ability to self-examine and self-correct. It has to mask the evil of the system with the immorality of personal matters.” The post was retweeted over 15,500 times.

“Soliciting prostitution as a married man is detestable. Many people don’t even have the basic family and societal morals,” another microblogger, @thomas骆轶航, wrote. “[But] like everyone else, I despise the way the government handled the issue and its motives.”

When “Big Vs” Become “Big Rumor-Mongers”

The popularity of social media has given rise to a great increase in social activism in China, as grassroots information is disseminated rapidly, moving ahead of the censors. Remarkable achievements include the downfall of several prominent officials after independent investigative reports were posted on Weibo and went viral.

Facilitating the spread of information are the “Big Vs,” celebrity microbloggers whose handles are followed by a “V” emblem indicating their verified status. Their retweets can reach millions in a matter of seconds, pressuring the government to step in and investigate. From movie stars to millionaire businessmen, the “Big Vs” have become a de facto trusted source of information for the younger, more tech-savvy generations that have grown increasingly tired of the same old rhetoric on state media.

Social media, however, poses a political challenge for the ruling party, as the unprecedented free flow of information proves hard to manage. In response, the government has recently sharpened its rhetoric against online commentary that “disrupts social order.” President Xi, for example, recently called on cadres to “deepen ideological work” and ordered journalists to take Marxism classes. In an interview with state media, an unidentified official in charge of the Marxism classes stated, “At present, the situation in the ideological field is complex…New patterns of the spread of public opinion are forming, and the Internet has become the main battlefield.”

Last month, China Central Television, the state-run network, held the Forum of Social Responsibilities of Internet Celebrities. Attendees were all powerful voices on the Web, including the later-detained Charles Xue and real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi. The consensus reached among the “Big Vs,” according to state media, was to “follow the bottom line,” meaning strict adherence to the law, the socialist system, morality, and authenticity of information, as well as the protection of national interests, the public’s legal rights and interests, and social order.

The party mouthpiece People’s Daily ran an editorial last Monday entitled “Beware of Big Vs becoming Big Rumor-mongers,” accusing Internet celebrities of “adding invisible wings to the rumors.” Xinwen Lianbo, China’s flagship state-run evening news program, devoted a three-minute segment Thursday night to explaining how the “wings” work. According to the program, the “Big Vs” are paid by public relations firms to retweet certain posts and can receive up to several thousand dollars for a single post, depending on how many followers they have. “That’s the profit chain that’s driving the ‘Big Vs’ to ‘Big Rumor-mongers,’” wrote a party mouthpiece paper, The Guangming Daily.

In addition, police departments at all levels have launched campaigns aimed at cracking down on social media. In the inland province of Henan alone, 131 people have been arrested in the past two months for “starting and spreading rumors,” according to the official Weibo account of the Henan police, which deleted the post shortly after it attracted attention Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday night, a man from Hebei province was held under administrative detention for posting “I heard there was a murder in the town of Louzhuang. Is this true?” Local police said the man was detained for “severely disrupting social order” and “generating fear among the masses.”

Such administrative detentions have also occurred elsewhere in China, sparking both fear and anger online. “This is almost like the White Terror,” wrote Weibo user @光程老顽童.

Killing the Chickens, Scaring the Monkeys

The government’s attempt to rein in public opinion has succeeded. Dozens of arrests and the Charles Xue incident have triggered fear online among the “Big Vs,” many of whom have stopped or cut down on retweeting posts that draw attention to social issues.

Kai-fu Lee, an outspoken investor and the third most-followed Weibo celebrity, posted five statements on Weibo over the course of a week to reaffirm his “neutrality” on all issues and objection to rumors. “I agree that with influence comes responsibility,” Lee said to his 51 million followers on August 22. “I’m against generating rumors and rushing to label people.”

Netizens felt the increasing tension in cyberspace and posted satirical comments about how the “Big Vs” had turned away from social issues and instead retreated to posts about juice cleanses and proper posture.

Pan Shiyi, the real estate tycoon whose recent Weibo posts were mainly about juice cleanses, revealed that the issue was weighing on his mind when he tweeted the following: “Would you say Weibo is a good thing or a bad thing?”

The post has been retweeted over 3,600 times.

Yet the most vulnerable individuals in the ongoing social media crackdown are not the pop stars or businessmen, but instead grassroots microbloggers who have attracted millions of followers online with their funny, satirical, or serious social commentary. These larger-than-life personalities are the most at-risk because their only channel to speak to the world is social media. Neither powerful nor wealthy, these microbloggers become defenseless once they lose contact with their supporters.

Zuoyeben (@作业本), a grassroots microblogger with almost seven million followers, saw his worst fear realized twice this week. His Weibo account was deleted earlier last month, shortly after he tweeted about the politically sensitive Bo Xilai trial. He came back last Saturday night, though all of his previous tweets had been erased. Below are two of his last tweets before his account was removed again last Sunday.

There are certain things I didn’t think were important when I had them. But once you took them away, they became extremely important to me, and I realized I needed to have them at all times, and see them every day, because they are not yours. They are mine. Even if they are worth nothing, they become indispensable once you take them away. I must have them in my possession again, and I will fight you for them with my last breath. (August 24, 11:42pm)

Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid. Don’t go getting scared. Don’t be afraid of it. (August 25, 4.02pm)

Zuoyeben, which means “notebook” in Chinese, finally reappeared on Weibo several hours ago, writing, “I can’t explain any of it, so let’s just start fresh: Hi! I’m Zuoyeben! We met four years ago here. Over the course of four years, I’ve left suddenly three times; each time I disappeared, it was like a funeral no one attended.”

As he wrote, this year’s disappearances are not the first time the popular Weibo celebrity has been silenced. Last year, his account was deleted and he was barred from Weibo for more than two months after he tweeted a picture of Hong Kong’s annual memorial for the Tiananmen Crackdown.

There is a real sense of urgency among such grassroots microbloggers to self-censor. Unlike Kai-fu Lee or Pan Shiyi, they do not enjoy celebrity status in real life and face imminent, tangible threats once they are disassociated from their aliases.

Another such microblogger, @北京厨子, who has more than 349,000 followers, deleted all of his Weibo posts last Monday and tweeted the following:

I came on Weibo to have fun. Now it’s like class struggles. Who knew I was playing with fire? Sigh. [I deleted] over 70,170 Weibo posts. It took me several hours, and I hesitated for an entire day.

Microblogger @假装在纽约, “Pretending to Be in New York,” is another noted commentator with more than 662,000 followers. In a tweet he deleted shortly after he made it on August 26, he wrote:

Can you imagine me going on Weibo with the fear that my account might be banned or even shut down? This is a real sense of fear. And the reason I’m still speaking in trepidation is hope, hope that one day there will be no such fear.