Political Rumors Spur Online Crackdown in China

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In the days after Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai was removed from office, the Chinese Internet, particularly microblogs like Sina Weibo, were filled with rumors of high-level political machinations. The talk included far-fetched suggestions of a coup in Beijing, but the fact that such a discussion was tolerated prompted further speculation. Sina Weibo, for instance, allowed searches for zhengbian, the Chinese phrase for coup, for days after the rumors began appearing two weeks ago. Was China enjoying a Beijing Spring of online free speech? Most likely not. Several names, like Wang Lijun — the onetime Bo deputy whose sudden appearance at a U.S. consulate in February precipitated his former boss’s fall — were blocked from searches. Instead, the relative freedom of writing and searching for phrases like coup was seen by some analysts as possibly a tool for furthering some unseen political objective. 

Now another explanation has offered itself: the censors were simply slow to the switch. That possibility has grown more plausible after this weekend, when Beijing authorities arrested six people and shuttered 16 websites for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors.” In addition, the commenting function has been disabled for Sina Weibo and a rival service provided by Tencent from March 31 through April 3. “Recently, individuals on the Internet, particularly on microblogs, fabricated and spread the so-called ‘military vehicles have entered Beijing, something has happened in Beijing’ rumors, which has caused an adverse social impact,” the state-run Xinhua news service said in announcing the crackdown. (Xinhua’s Chinese story is here.) Update: On Tuesday morning Sina and Tencent ended the three-day commenting ban on their microblog sites.

(MORE: Bo Xilai Controversy: U.K. Asks China to Investigate Death of Briton Linked to Politician)

Twitter-like services like Sina Weibo have always enjoyed short windows of free speech, particularly when it comes to discussion of breaking news. While some historic events — like the bloody crackdown on Beijing protesters in 1989 — have long been blocked, news can be discussed with some openness, at least until propaganda officials issue directives to curtail online discussion. Censorship in China relies heavily on media companies to regulate themselves, with postpublication punishments for outlets that allow too much sensitive content to be disseminated. In a quickly changing situation, the reaction of cautious officials can be to do nothing. As a result, it can take time before propaganda authorities and the Internet outlets they regulate clamp down on sensitive discussions. “One possibility is that because of this discord, in the top of the propaganda system a lot of people didn’t know what to do,” says Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent analyst who closely follows the Chinese Internet. “If you don’t know what to do, sometimes you do nothing. Maybe people were being careful.”

The Weibo rumors flourished during a period when microblog companies were supposed to be implementing a system of real-name registration, which was seen as a tool for clamping down on online rumormongering and the discussion of sensitive political topics. But the registration, at least in its initial phase, was rather lax, with many users told that the phone numbers they used to originally register their accounts satisfied their identification requirement. Given the free-flowing discussion on Weibo last month, authorities will likely move to enforce more stringent real-name registration requirements, says Bishop. That’s a reflection of one truth that has clearly emerged amid the torrent of Weibo rumors: microblogs have become one of the most important outlets for communication in China. “There is a realization that Weibo is as powerful a medium as [state-run China Central Television] or daily print media,” says Bishop. “It is a political tool and has been used as such over the past few weeks.”

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