It has emerged that the Chinese government has closed 16 websites and detained six people for “fabricating or disseminating online rumours” in recent weeks.
On 19 March, rumours began spreading on Chinese microblogs that claimed “military vehicles” had entered Beijing, and that the Chinese capital was the centre of a coup attempt.
The rumours focus on internal political upheaval: the sacking of Bo Xilai, the popular former Chongqing Communist Party chief. Rumours began to spread after his deputy and police head Wang Lijun sought political asylum at the American Embassy.
Xinhua reports that the closed websites included meizhou.net, xn528.com and cndy.com.cn. These small websites do not affect everyday life in China, but then on the morning of 31 March, users of the country’s most popular microblog, Sina Weibo, woke up to find that they could not comment on any posts. Users of another large microblog, Tencent’s t.qq.com faced the same issues.
And on Friday 7 April, a well-known Maoist website, Utopia, was closed down along several other less well-known leftist websites.
China’s latest censorship tactics underscore Beijing’s nervousness ahead of the leadership transition later this year, with Bo’s ousting also giving rise to speculation about top-level infighting. Combined, these two factors are making China’s leaders all the more anxious about online discussion.
Having microblog comments shut off riled netizens. Sina put up the following notice:
Lately there have been a lot of unlawful and harmful content appearing in the comments section of microblogs, so from 8AM on March 31 to 8AM on April 3 our comment function will be suspended temporarily. After we have finished this round of regulation, we will re-open it again.
Han Han, China’s foremost blogger and a recent Index on Censorship award nominee, chose the second day of this three-day shutdown period to speak up. He wrote:
Flowers lose their petals in the winter, and then bloom again in spring. Some people go, some people come.
The oblique post attracted hundreds of thousands of reposts.
After commenting had been restored, users such media worker Vic speculated rote on Sina that the microblogs censors were working overtime:
Ever since microblog commenting had been restored, the moderating at Sina is obviously stronger than it had been. They have over the last couple of days set a string of posts by me under the category “only seen by me.” Little Secretary [the nickname for web censors on the microblog], you’ve worked hard!
One of the replies to Vic’s post was by Linglingfa, the head of technology at internet web forum giant Maopu. He said:
I know everyone needs at least two accounts: one for normal use, and the other to monitor whether we can use the other one normally [i.e. what gets taken down and what doesn’t]… I now understand what a great way this is for Sina to expand the number of registered users!
On the morning of 7 April, commenting on the microblogs had already returned for a couple of days, and most people were buzzing about the loss of Utopia. The Guardian reported that the leftist website was shut down because of its support of “Red” messages such as those espoused by Bo Xilai, who had initiated new classes studying the works of Mao. After reportedly being told to close for a month, the website put up a notice that said:
Our staff asked for a list of articles that they thought violated the constitution and said we would certainly co-operate and deal with these problems. They did not have any specific articles or evidence. In the end, the conversation was cut short and rudely ended.
On the Sina microblog, a link to a Tianya post that had the following statement written by a fan of the website was re-posted over 60 times. The fan had in part written:
I heard that when it started, Utopia was a last effort to restore the glory days of the Cultural Revolution, but I never saw this myself. Naturally, they posted stuff, sang Red Songs, gave speeches, went travelling, and deleted those with a different view to them, burnt some magazines that have different views, destroyed lecture venues. Though some believed in it, no-one thought it would come to this.