The latest chapter in Government takeover of Cyberspace Freedom is happening right now in China. China has stepped up its campaign to clamp down on the Internet, which has emerged as a virtual town square for exchanging information about the Bo Xilai scandal and the nation’s biggest political upheaval in years.
The popular Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo on Tuesday deleted the accounts of several users, including that of Li Delin, a senior editor of the Chinese business magazine Capital Week, whose March 19 post helped fuel rumors of a coup in Beijing. The service announced the move to many of its more than 300 million user accounts, thereby turning it into a public lesson in the consequences of rumor mongering.
The mysterious death of Neil Heywood in the Chinese city of Chongqing last year is emerging as a key element in the drama surrounding Bo Xilai.
“Recently, criminal elements have used Sina Weibo to create and spread malicious political rumors online for no reason, producing a terrible effect on society,” the notice said. It said the deleted users have “already been dealt with by public security organs according to the law.”
In his March 19 post, Mr. Li told his thousands of online followers that he had hit an unusual amount of traffic on Beijing’s roads. “There are military vehicles everywhere. Chang’an Avenue is under complete control,” he wrote. “There are plainclothes police at every corner. Some intersections have even been fenced off.”
His post, which has since been deleted, came just days after Mr. Bo was removed as party chief of the city of Chongqinq. It helped fuel rumors that a coup was under way, a story that spread across the globe and prompted a media crackdown by the government reminiscent of its response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Mr. Li has since been detained, according to people familiar with the matter.
The episode demonstrated both the power of China’s new digital media and the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly iron-fisted effort to control it. In the wake of the coup rumors, authorities announced the detention of six people in relation to the rumors and the arrest of more than 1,000 others for what the authorities said were Internet crimes.
Media insiders describe a heavy hand at the nation’s newspapers, with the government at times giving strict instructions on what stories about Mr. Bo could run. Discussion of the matter nonetheless has continued, fueled in part by social media and independent news websites outside of Beijing’s control.
It is unclear whether the Sina notice was ordered by government authorities, who require Sina and other Chinese websites to police their own content, or if Sina itself issued the warning. But it is the most direct warning yet to Internet users to rein in the freewheeling discussion for which Sina Weibo is known.
The Chinese public’s unprecedented participation, through unofficial news and social-media sites, in distributing information about Mr. Bo’s saga represents a direct challenge to the Communist Party’s monopoly on information. Years ago, turmoil within China’s top leadership would likely have been kept secret.
Mr. Bo, a telegenic politician, was in part a product of new media, which helped him build a national reputation from his post in Chongqing. He was widely considered to be a candidate for a top party office in a leadership change expected to begin later this year.
His downfall began in February, when Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun went to the U.S. consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu to seek asylum. Among the allegations he made to U.S. officials was that a British national named Neil Heywood may have been fatally poisoned in Chongqing in November after a falling out with Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai.
In March, Mr. Bo was ousted as Chongqing party chief. On April 10, authorities said he is under investigation for alleged violations of party discipline, and that Ms. Gu is a suspect in Mr. Heywood’s death, which they characterized as an “intentional homicide.”
China’s social media has followed each step—and sometimes has been a step ahead. In February, when police surrounded the Chongqing consulate, passersby turned to the Internet to report that something strange was going on.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Yang’s Sina Weibo account was deleted, though the company didn’t issue a notice. In an interview, Mr. Yang confirmed the deletion and said he had more than 247,000 followers before the account was closed. This week’s crackdown shows it is “more and more dangerous” to write about the incident, he said.
Compare this with the new CISPA Bill in Congress that will allow companies to report “subversive” cyber-activities to the government. do you think that the U.S. may be not that far behind China in trying to control the Internet? think about it!
Thanks to LORETTA CHAO And JOSH CHIN and the Wall Street Journal, and
Thanks for “listening”
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