The Latest Internet Crackdown

We have in previous blogs (see here, here, and here) discussed how the Chinese government tries to both use and control new information and communication technologies. With some 500 million users weibo has since 2009 developed into an important site for Chinese citizens to share news, debate hot topics, and network, and as such a site that the government keeps a close eye on. The Chinese government has long worried about and tried to contain what they describe as rumours on-line. Reports from China the past month has revealed a renewed effort by the government to rein in and crackdown on discussions on the Internet, especially on weibo, through various means such as adopting a new judicial interpretation of the Criminal Law regarding rumours and defamation, and a campaign attacking and detaining those accused of spreading rumours, especially targeting the Big Vs who are verified users with large followings and thus have a big impact on public debates.

Since last month, police across the country from Guangzhou in the South to Inner Mongolia in the North have detained hundreds of Internet users on charges of spreading rumours. Southern Weekend on 5 September published an article that discussed the policies and logic behind this new campaign.

Those arrested include many ordinary citizens as well as more famous people and opinion leaders. One of the more famous targets is Charles Xue, an investor with 12 million followers on weibo, who writes about social issues and often re-tweet posts about corruption. In late August he was detained accused of having had sex with a prostitute. However, the Chinese media has made more of his Big V status than his alleged crime. On 15 September CCTV for example broadcast a 10 minutes long interview with him where the focus is on his use of weibo and development to a Big V. The interview reveals some interesting aspects of his life as a Big V, but it is also obvious that the interview is used to show the problems and the necessity of the new judicial interpretation that Xue now express his support of. Many commentators see the charges against him as part of the general attack on people who have become too influential on social media. Xue’s arrest was only the latest development in a campaign against rumours and for on-line civil behaviour that now for the first time especially target the Big Vs. Throughout August the rationale and content of the crackdown on rumours were laid down in meetings and editorials in important state media. At a high-level meeting arranged by CCTV, Internet celebrities were for example summoned to discuss their social responsibility, whereas People’s Daily  ran an editorial with the telling title “Beware of Big Vs becoming Big Rumor-mongers.” The  ideological mouthpiece Red Flag also ran a spate of articles outlining the danger of rumours.

Last week a judicial interpretation of the Criminal Law was adopted aiming to define and specify punishment for online rumours. The new judicial interpretation by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (in Chinese here and in a rough translation here) expands criminal liability under the Criminal Law to include a number of online activities. Rumours are to be punished when they “seriously harm public order or the interests of the state,” which are further defined as for example leading to mass protests, public chaos, ethnic or religious clashes, adverse social impact, and damage to the nation’s image. A person found guilty of posting rumours could thus face up to three years in prison if his/her statements are widely reposted.

This move shows a willingness by the government to increasingly formalise control of on-line speech through legal provisions. This development and the whole anti-rumour campaign is in line with the Chinese government’s long held ideas regarding Internet governance (see the Internet in China white paper from 2010) that most recently were spelled out by Lu Wei, Minister of the State Internet Information Office, at the China-UK Internet Roundtable in early September. Lu Wei especially pointed out the need for a law-based governance of the Internet, a civilized and harmonious Internet order, and an Internet that helps maintains security and prevents threats to the state. Security rather than freedom of expression is the centre-piece of the Chinese Internet policy, or as Lu Wei put it: “Liberty means order.”

Although the new interpretation seems to provide some protection for netizens who accuse officials of corruption, it has created a scare among weibo users and led to critique from Chinese lawyers and citizens and from human rights organizations who all fear that the interpretation will simply be used to curb speech online.

Whether and how this interpretation and the on-going campaign will affect people’s willingness to continue to discuss social issues and criticise officials on weibo (and the Internet more generally) remains to be seen. South China Morning Post recently  commissioned Weiboreach to do a study that showed a decline in postings by influential weibo users. However, as the newspaper also pointed out, there has already been a general decline of weibo with the increasing competition from WeChat another social media platform. We will continue to follow these developments on our blog.

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