As China's Social Media Takes off, Beijing's Censorship Campaign Heats Up

By Ford, Peter | The Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

As China's Social Media Takes off, Beijing's Censorship Campaign Heats Up


Ford, Peter, The Christian Science Monitor


Chinese government censors are silencing influential opponents by shutting down their social media accounts on the pretext of a campaign against online rumors, victims of the practice say.

"The authorities believe that liberal ideology will undermine their rule," says Murong Xuecun, a famous author and outspoken critic of censorship whose accounts on four Twitter-like platforms disappeared suddenly last Sunday evening. "The space on China's Internet for public opinion is being narrowed."

Social media sites such as Sina Weibo, which has 300 million users, have become forums for unprecedented freewheeling discussion and news-sharing. Despite being subject to careful censorship, they have expanded the range for self-expression beyond recognition throughout the past five years.

Particularly striking has been the role of a few well-regarded intellectuals who have drawn millions of followers with often- barbed comments on current affairs that are seldom sympathetic to the Communist Party or the government.

They appear to be among the first to be affected by a campaign by the State Internet Information Office, launched two weeks ago, "targeting those who create and spread rumors online," said the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Shadowy purpose

Though Xinhua made reference to bloggers spreading rumors about bird flu, other observers see a darker purpose behind the campaign.

"The government fears that more and more opinion leaders are gaining recognition by ordinary people and they represent an alternative authority to the government," argues Zhang Xuezhong, a lawyer whose own Sina Weibo account was mysteriously closed on Monday.

Such opinion leaders are a focus of the official crackdown on rumors.

"Some verified accounts with a large number of followers also help lend credence to this wrong information through re-posts," the Xinhua report said. "These posts severely damage the authority of Internet media and destroy normal communication," the agency added.

Mr. Murong, who says he had 8.5 million followers on his four accounts, suspects they were shut down because he had used them to post a message from a friend, law professor He Bing, whose own account had been closed earlier after he relayed a post about a young man stabbing a government Internet regulator.

The conflict

Professor He had nearly half a million followers, making his a "big V" account - a term used to describe heavily followed accounts opened by individuals whose identity has been verified by the platform's managers. That gives their content added credibility.

Such accounts are at the heart of Sina Weibo's business model, attracting millions of readers. Closing them "would be bound to have an impact" on the site's revenue, says David Bandurski, head of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "Sina Weibo is like a party; if it's no fun people won't go."

Such commercial considerations, though, are trumped by the Chinese government's determination to regain a measure of control over online debate and comment, Mr. …

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