China’s New Leadership Declares War on Social Media | Freedom House

China’s New Leadership Declares War on Social Media

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Over the past several weeks, the Chinese authorities—urged on by President Xi Jinping—have engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on what they consider “harmful information” disseminated via popular microblogging platforms and other social media. The speed of microblogging and the sheer size of the user base have long allowed these media to serve as a rare venue for comparatively open discussion of political and social matters in China, despite heavy censorship. The new campaign threatens to close off this crucial public forum and drive citizens into greater isolation.

Below is a review of recent developments drawn from the latest issue of Freedom House’s China Media Bulletin, a biweekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People’s Republic of China.

New judicial guidelines expand criminalization of online speech

On September 9, China’s highest judicial authorities, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, issued a joint legal interpretation that extends the applicability of existing criminal offenses and penalties to “online rumors” (see CMB No. 92). The interpretation, which took effect on September 10 and came amid an ongoing crackdown on internet users, affects crimes such as defamation, creating disturbances, and illegal business operations, all of which are often invoked to punish human rights activism. Such guidelines from the two judicial bodies often have a wide-ranging impact on how cases are initiated and decided. The new document allows for a Chinese internet user to receive up to three years in prison for writings that are deemed false or defamatory if the circumstances are “serious.” The term “serious” is defined to include cases in which the post in question has been viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times. Chinese and international legal experts and activists criticized these thresholds as extremely low for such a severe punishment, especially given the size of China’s internet user population. The rules also allow prosecutors to file criminal defamation charges when online expression “seriously harms public order or the interests of the state,” even though defamation complaints are typically filed by individuals whose reputation is perceived to be damaged. The document names seven situations that would qualify, including information leading to mass protests, ethnic or religious tensions, damage to the country’s international image, and a catch-all “other” category. One dimension of the legal interpretation that has drawn praise in some circles is its targeting of companies that profit from schemes to delete online messages or intentionally post false information. State media have hailed the rules for helping resolve “unclear sentencing criteria for illegal internet activities,” and a prosecutorial spokesman stressed that the guidelines are not aimed at punishing those who expose corruption. Nonetheless, the vague language and the broad discretion left to law enforcement authorities seem likely to increase arbitrary prosecutions and harsh punishments, both in cases involving political, social, and religious activities, and in the pursuit of personal interests by prosecutors, police, judges, and the officials who oversee them. “This gives every corrupt local official a convenient tool to arrest anyone who criticizes him,” Michael Anti, a prominent blogger and media commentator in Beijing, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and other rights groups view the new interpretation as a dangerous signal that could further erode freedom of speech and the rule of law in China.


Online activists big and small detained

Xu Zhiyong
Photo Credit: Adam Sidman

The Chinese Communist Party in recent weeks has continued its crackdown on outspoken microbloggers, investigating and arresting hundreds of people—ranging from influential “big Vs” with millions of followers to ordinary, low-profile users—in an apparent drive to pare back or even quash online dissent. Among the targeted big Vs was wealthy venture capitalist Wang Gongquan, who was arrested in Beijing on September 13. He was reportedly taken from his home by roughly 20 police officers and accused of “disturbing public order.” Wang, whose deleted Sina Weibo microblog account had more than 1.4 million followers, is a prominent member of the emerging New Citizens Movement, a grassroots campaign calling for political reforms. The group’s founder, Xu Zhiyong, and many of its members have been detained in recent months (see CMB No. 91). According to the Wall Street Journal, Wang had used the popular Chinese mobile-phone messaging platform WeChat to send multiple messages calling for the release of Xu and other activists, which likely led to his detention. On September 17, another well-known blogger who writes under the name “Huazong” was detained in Beijing. His posts had been widely covered by Chinese and foreign media since 2011, when he began compiling and analyzing images of government officials wearing luxury wristwatches whose value exceeded their legal income (see, inter alia, CMB No. 34). He was reportedly held on suspicion of distributing rumors online, blackmail, and extortion, though one of the officials he exposed, Yang Dacai, was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for taking bribes and possession of unexplained assets (see CMB No. 69). Separately, Dong Rubin, a less prominent microblogger with about 50,000 followers, was detained by police in Kunming City, Yunnan Province, on September 10 for allegedly misstating his company’s registered assets, a rarely invoked charge. Dong had campaigned in the past for an investigation into the 2009 death of a young man in police custody, and more recently participated in a movement against plans for a new state-owned petrochemical plant in the city (see CMB No. 88).


State media air contrite statements by leading bloggers

The Chinese authorities have reinforced their current crackdown on online speech by airing confessions and statements of contrition by influential bloggers on state media, prompting comparisons to the coerced self-denunciations of the Mao Zedong era. In a newscast aired by China Central Television (CCTV) on September 15, popular Chinese American microblogger and businessman Charles Xue, who was detained in August for allegedly soliciting prostitutes (see CMB No. 92), was shown handcuffed in a detention center, confessing that his 12 million followers on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform had fueled his ego and made him feel “like an emperor.” Xue, known online as Xue Manzi, warned other prominent bloggers, known as “big Vs,” not to go down his road. According to the official Xinhua news agency, as he gained popularity, Xue had begun to post unverified information and advertisements, and gradually came to see himself as more influential than a government minister. “My irresponsibility in spreading information online was a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream,” Xinhua quoted him as saying. On September 11, CCTV aired an interview with a big V who has not been detained, Chinese real-estate mogul Pan Shiyi. His Weibo account is followed by 16 million users, and he is usually an outspoken and articulate activist on the country’s environmental problems. But he displayed a pronounced stutter in the CCTV appearance as he described the need for online opinion leaders to be more disciplined and socially responsible. The performance drew satirical commentary from internet users. One netizen wrote, “Apparently, Mr. Pan was being interviewed by the police, not a reporter!”


Campaign sends chill through microblog community, investors undeterred

The new judicial interpretation on internet crimes and the growing number of arrests have had a more immediate and profound chilling effect on China’s “microblogosphere” than previous government attempts to enhance control over social media. In online postings and media interviews, microbloggers with even moderately large followings have voiced their fears and observations of the crackdown’s impact. “I am really scared now that any whistleblowing might lead to an arrest,” said Zhou Ze, a rights lawyer with more than 165,000 followers on Sina Weibo. He continued, “We all have to talk less, and more carefully. If rumors can lead to detention or arrest, everyone will fear for themselves and become particularly scared about criticizing officials, which we are seeing less of on the internet.” Data provided by Weiboreach, a social-media analysis firm, to Reuters and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reinforce anecdotal evidence of reduced traffic and political discussion online. The two news outlets reported that the number of posts by a random sample of 4,500 influential microbloggers was on average 11 percent lower in August than in January, and that writers from the government and academia, who are more likely to discuss politics, had higher rates of deletion in August than those in entertainment-related occupations. By contrast, a sample of 100,000 microblogs with fewer followers showed the number of posts rising, highlighting the way in which the crackdown has disproportionately silenced prominent “big V” writers. In some cases, high-profile users have not only reduced their level of activity, but may also be deleting their own previous posts. Weiboreach found that over 2,500 posts had disappeared from the account of one Beijing-based liberal professor, though the scholar refused to confirm that he had deleted the posts himself. Despite the increased self-censorship and reduced usage, as well as the moral and human rights dilemmas raised by the clampdown, investors appear undeterred. Bloomberg reports that Sina’s share price is up 50 percent since the first signs of a pending crackdown emerged in April, while rival Tencent’s market capitalization value passed the $100 billion mark on September 16. In a required U.S. regulatory filing linked to its American-listed shares, Sina had warned in April 2012 that increased regulatory and law enforcement efforts from Beijing could seriously dampen user traffic (see CMB No. 56).


Observers speculate on leadership’s motives

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese and foreign analysts have struggled to identify the reasons for the intensified assault on social media and influential online commentators. Some pressure on prominent microbloggers to restrain their writings was already apparent by mid-August, as reflected in a government-sponsored conference’s release of “seven base lines” for a “healthy online environment” (see CMB No. 92). However, an August 19 speech by President Xi Jinping at a national meeting of propaganda department leaders seems to have catalyzed the more aggressive tactics currently being employed to curtail online speech. According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Xi used militaristic language common to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) political campaigns. One source cited by the paper said Xi insisted that “the Communist Party should be combative, instead of passive, and it should wage a war to win over public opinion,” while ordering the propaganda apparatus to “form a strong internet army to seize the ground of new media.” Subsequent speeches and commentary by officials like Lu Wei, director of the State Council Information Office, and Zhang Xiaolian, director of Heilongjiang Province’s propaganda department, have echoed such language. Some observers, such as political analyst Zhang Lifan, speculate that the campaign reflects Xi’s efforts to consolidate his grip on power ahead of an important party conclave in November and amid an atmosphere of internal party debate. Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, says the clampdown is a sign that Xi believes CCP rule to be under threat. Xi has displayed a broader affinity for Mao-era tactics, as with the “mass line” party rectification campaign initiated in June (see CMB No. 89). Historically, the CCP has engaged in periodic cycles of repression in response to new forces of openness in Chinese society, especially targeting outspoken individuals who have begun to gain the trust of a large public following or build networks of like-minded people outside state or party control. According to novelist Hao Qun, who blogs as Murong Xuecun, the authorities “want to sever those relationships and make the relationship on Weibo atomized, just like relations in Chinese society, where everyone is just a solitary atom.”

Photo Credit: South China Morning Post

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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