Weibo Comments Suspended in Coup Rumour Aftermath (Updated)

Following rumours of a coup by allies of dethroned Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, Xinhua reported on Saturday that authorities have taken action against a number of websites and individuals involved in the rumours’ spread:

Chinese authorities closed 16 websites and detained six people responsible for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors,” the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) and Beijing police said Friday ….

An undisclosed number of people who had disseminated similar rumors on the Internet were also “admonished and educated,” who have shown intention to repent, the police said.

The SIIO spokesman also said with regard to a number of rumors having appeared on weibo.com [Sina Weibo] and t.qq.com [Tencent Weibo], the two popular microblogging sites have been “criticized and punished accordingly” by Internet information administration authorities in Beijing and Guangdong respectively.

The spokesman did not elaborate what the punishment was, but said the two websites had pledged to “strengthen the management.”

Part of their punishment now appears to be a three-day suspension of comments on both Sina and Tencent Weibo (making them “more like Twitter for 72 hours”, in the words of Baidu’s Kaiser Kuo). From The Wall Street Journal:

In notices on their websites, Sina and Tencent said the commenting shutdown would last until Tuesday morning, though they will still allow users to make original posts and to repost the posts of others. The companies didn’t say whether the government was involved in the matter. A Sina public-relations representative said the action was taken in response to a growing number of rumors and illegal information on its site recently, not because of a specific incident.

The Economist recently described China’s current approach to online rumour management as a blend of two historical examples:

In the year 15AD, during the short-lived Xin dynasty, a rumour spread that a yellow dragon, a symbol of the emperor, had inauspiciously crashed into a temple in the mountains of central China and died. Ten thousand people rushed to the site. The emperor Wang Mang, aggrieved by such seditious gossip, ordered arrests and interrogations to quash the rumour, but never found the source. He was dethroned and killed eight years later, and Han-dynasty rule was restored.

The next ruler, Emperor Guangwu, took a different approach, studying rumours as a barometer of public sentiment, according to a recent book “Rumours in the Han Dynasty” by Lu Zongli, a historian. Guangwu’s government compiled a “Rumours Report”, cataloguing people’s complaints about local officials, and making assessments that were passed to the emperor. The early Eastern Han dynasty became known for officials who were less corrupt and more attuned to the people.

The recent spate of rumours has shifted the balance further towards the more draconian policies. But new China superblog Rectified.name argued that the crackdown may prove counterproductive:

Once again, the reaction has become the news. Just when it seemed like crazy rumors of a possible coup in the capital were mostly a jape, easily traced back to a certain heavy-breathing religious society based in the US, the CCP leadership has taken direct aim at the tops of their imported Italian loafers and pulled the trigger. The story had already largely played itself out in the foreign press.

There are also specific doubts about the effectiveness of the comment suspension. From Ministry of Tofu:

Pan Shiyi (@潘石屹), chairman of SOHO China, the country’s biggest property developer, asked, “In order to prevent circulation of rumors, they disabled ‘comment’, but not ‘repost/share’? Is this an adequate remedy for the disease?” Pan boasts 9.5 million fans ….

Jeremy Goldkorn, Beijing-based media personality and founder of the popular China media website Danwei.org, shared Pan Shiyi’s post and added, “Disabling comments is not a remedy to treat the disease, but a way to remind you who your grandfather (slang for boss) is.”

Tea Leaf Nation surveyed Sina Weibo users’ reactions to the rumour crackdown (before the comment suspension was announced):

Netizens responded with anger and typical irreverence. @下流社会上等人 fumed, “This isn’t fair. Time was SARS was called a rumor, and it turned out to be true.” @下流社会上等人 complained, “Everything in China is backwards. Rumors aren’t shut down, and what’s true is shut down.” But @帝都二货 defended the government, tweeting, “It’s okay to seek democracy, freedom, and criticize the government. But you can’t spread rumors!”

@高超_ offered a humorous take, writing that shutting down websites spreading falsehoods “means that we’ll discover tomorrow that Xinhua and CCTV.com aren’t reachable.”

How and why are Sina and Tencent still breathing after today’s maelstrom? Perhaps @绅士豪情 put it best, tweeting, “Other sites have been shut but Sina is still there, this shows how formidable they are.”

Size and popularity may indeed offer the two giants some measure of protection from the authorities, but the comment suspension demonstrates that it has limits. There was already widespread speculation of looming trouble for Sina Weibo over its perhaps half-hearted enforcement of government-mandated real name registration. Critics such as Chinese Human Rights Defenders had called the requirement’s announcement “the most alarming development in 2011″ in terms of online controls, but it appeared to have little immediate chilling effect, with apparent registration numbers well below the 60% Sina claimed to expect.

In a postscript to his guide to circumventing the real-name requirement, Charles Custer mused at Tech In Asia: “It’s interesting that Sina’s real-name system continues to be so easily avoided. Obviously, this benefits Sina, but could it put the company in danger if regulators interpret the laxness as Sina not taking their orders seriously? Only time will tell.” After the announcement of unspecified punishment on Saturday, he elaborated:

… People who suggest the government wouldn’t shut down weibo because it’s too popular may be forgetting that just a few years ago, the government turned off basically the entire internet in Xinjiang, a province with over twenty million inhabitants, for months after unrest occurred there. If they think weibo poses a real threat to social stability, they will not hesitate to pull the plug.

But it will never come to that, because Sina and Tencent aren’t stupid. They may have been playing fast-and-loose with the real name regulation rules so far, but they both understand that complying with regulators is the only way a company can do business in China. (Don’t believe me? Ask Google.) So, if you’re on weibo, expect to see significant changes in the months ahead (and maybe don’t retweet those coup rumors unless you’re interested in getting to know your local State Security agents a bit better).

Update: Xinhua summarised a Saturday People’s Daily op-ed which urged readers not to be confused by rumours, saying that China would need “clear head and a firm stand” if it was to avoid “distraction”:

Only by being fearless of risks, undisturbed by external noise and unconfused by gossip and rumors can China solidly “seek progress while ensuring stability,” according to a commentary carried by the Saturday edition of the People’s Daily ….

“Adhering to the overall tone of seeking progress while ensuring stability and the outlook of a scientific development, China is certain to realize longer lasting development,” the article was quoted as saying.

Historically, “stability” can produce a scientific and enduring progress, said the commentary, noting the country’s “splendid achievements” in the past “steady” 33 years.

But Columbia University’s Guobin Yang pointed out that the spread of rumours was partly a result of the government’s own opacity and manipulation, tweeting that “of course rumors thrive for lack of reliable information channels“. China Media Project’s David Bandurski told The New York Times that “the whole idea of rumors and interest in accuracy is a ruse. It’s a moniker for control.”

Xinhua also reported the results of another online spring cleaning campaign (link now broken): 1,065 arrests and over 208,000 “harmful” messages deleted. The original report was soon deleted as well, but for now remains accessible at China Radio International:

The operators of more than 3,117 websites have received related warnings, a spokesman from the city police’s cybersecurity department said Saturday, adding that 70 Internet companies that defied the warnings have received administrative punishments, including forced closures.

The spokesman said the campaign, dubbed “Spring Breeze,” mainly targets the dissemination of information related to smuggling firearms, drugs and toxic chemicals, as well as the sale of human organs, the counterfeiting certificates and invoices and trade in personal information.

The crackdown is meant to address prominent public complaints about Internet-related crimes, the spokesman said, adding that reports about Internet-related crimes have gone down 50 percent since the campaign was launched on Feb. 14.

Finally: