China Intensifies Social-Media Crackdown

Takes Toll on Public Debate, Popular Platform

Updated September 19, 2013, 3:40 p.m. ET


BEIJING—A forceful campaign of
intimidation against China's most influential Internet users has cast a chill
over public debate in the country and called into question the long-term
viability of its most vibrant social-media platform.

In an offensive that some critics have
likened to the political purges of the Mao era, Beijing has recently detained
or interrogated several high-profile social-media figures, issued warnings to
others to watch what they say and expanded criminal laws to make it easier to
prosecute people for their online activity—all part of what one top propaganda
official described on Tuesday as “the purification of the online

State media have reported more than two
dozen detentions on charges of spreading rumors and related offenses since
China's newest generation of leaders officially took power in March.
Authorities have launched similar antirumor campaigns in the past, but the
difference with the current campaign is its focus on high-profile figures.

The crackdown has touched some of the
biggest personalities on 
SinaCorp.'s SINA -3.31% popular Weibo microblogging service,
perhaps most notably Charles Xue, a Chinese-American venture capitalist with
more than 12 million followers on the site.

In an indication of the power of these
users, after Mr. Xue picked up a post on July 12 that criticized toxic food,
high prices, low wages and other issues and said, “We have all become
'people who tolerate,' ” it was reposted by his followers more than 17,000
times and got more than 2,000 comments.

China's new censorship laws are part of a
renewed effort by authorities to control the Internet. The WSJ's Maya
Pope-Chappell speaks with social-media consultant and author Jay Oatway about
ways bloggers circumvent the censors and keep the conversations alive.

Known online by his pen name Xue Manzi,
he was arrested on charges of soliciting a prostitute in late August, in what
many Internet users interpreted as a warning to other social-media stars.

Over the weekend, China Central
Television showed Mr. Xue handcuffed and unshaven but eerily cheerful in a
Beijing detention center, confessing to having been nonchalant about the
veracity of information he spread online.

“Freedom of speech cannot override
the law,” he said. Mr. Xue remains in detention on the solicitation
charge, and hasn't been charged with anything related to his online activities.

It isn't the first battle for control of
expression on China's Internet, but the current campaign is wider, more
systematic and more strident. In play is the future of public discourse in
China and the commercial environment for its Internet firms.

A chokehold on political discussion on
Sina Weibo threatens to scatter users away from the country's most vibrant
venue for public discourse into smaller virtual meeting places.

The crackdown is quickening a move of
users from Weibo to more private exchanges on 
Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s TCEHY -2.25% mobile messaging app WeChat, which has
drawn less oversight from authorities. Longer term it could turn Sina into a
company more focused on the buying and selling of goods and as a forum to keep
up with celebrities and post travel logs rather than one centered on public

Still, some activists who use the service
say they have been tracked. In January, an activist who took part in protests
against the censorship of Southern Weekly, a popular newspaper known for its
hard-hitting investigation into social issues, told The Wall Street Journal he
believed he had been tracked by his activities on WeChat. The man said he was
detained by police for a day at a location not near the protests after
discussing his plans to join the protest over WeChat. He said his only activity
online that morning was communicating with his friends via WeChat.

The newspaper dispute stemmed from
allegations by editors that propaganda officials switched out an editorial
calling for greater protection of legal rights for one lauding the government's
achievements. Guangdong authorities later agreed to no longer directly
interfere in content before publication, a Southern Weekly editor said.

A handful of other users at the time also
reported the service was blocking terms related to the protests. At the time,
prominent dissident Hu Jia posted to his Twitter account an image of his own
unsuccessful attempt to send a message using Southern Weekly's Chinese name. In
the post, he called WeChat a “monitoring weapon in your pocket.”
Since the protests, others have reported the blockage of sensitive terms or
posts on the service.

Inklings of Beijing's intention to target
Sina Weibo's most influential users appeared as far back as February, when Lu
Wei, one of China's top officials in charge of Internet monitoring and
censorship, invited a number of so-called Big V's—influential Weibo users with
verified accounts—out to dinner at Capital M, a posh Western-style restaurant
located just south of Tiananmen Square, people with knowledge of the dinner

A similar dinner followed in May. The
atmosphere at both gatherings was congenial and Mr. Lu seemed intent on making
friends with his guests, these people said.

The mood changed in the following months
as propaganda officials began to talk more frequently about the need to quell
online rumors. In mid-August, Mr. Lu convened a “Forum on Social
Responsibilities of Internet Celebrities,” where he warned a group of Big
V's to be “more positive and constructive” in what they write online,
according to an account of the event by the official Xinhua news agency.

That was followed by a series of
detentions and interrogations, including that of Mr. Xue on Aug. 29.

In early September, China's highest court
published an expanded interpretation of the criminal law that made social-media
users subject to defamation charges and possible three-year prison terms if
they spread rumors or posted slanderous content that attracted more than 5,000
hits or was reposted more than 500 times.

The campaign spread fear online, with a
number of Weibo users speculating about who would be detained next. Real-estate
Pan Shiyi, who boasts
more than 16 million followers on Weibo and is well known for his posts calling
for cleaner air in China, highlighted the depths of that fear in September when
he stuttered his way through a question on the responsibility of influential
microbloggers during an interview on . “I feel that Big V's—people
with lots of fans—should have even higher requirements of themselves, should
have more discipline,” he said, his voice wavering every few words.

The spectacle of Messrs. Pan and Xue toeing
the party line on state television has led many observers to draw parallels
with the political campaigns launched under Mao Zedong.

“In the 1950s and '60s,
intellectuals often appeared in the official media admitting to their mistakes
and saying the government was right to criticize them. This is a long Chinese
tradition,” said Hu Yong, an Internet scholar at Beijing University.

Multiple Big V's have said in interviews
that they feel tremendous pressure as a result of the campaign. Some have said
friends have advised them to lie low, or even leave China.

Weibo has weathered crackdowns in the
past, including when rumors of a coup ricocheted through the site last year and
led to the temporary shutdown of the commenting function both on Weibo and a
rival service run by Tencent. But the severity of the current environment has
some users and analysts questioning whether the service will emerge intact.

“In the past, [the crackdowns] were
localized. This time it's national,” said Qiao Mu, director of the Center
for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
He said past crackdowns were focused on specific incidents and individual
posts. Now, “they're detaining people all over the country,” he said.

“Sina Weibo is almost dead,” said
Hao Qun, a popular novelist better known by his pen name Murong Xuecun who said
he has had multiple Weibo accounts deleted by Sina in the past year. “The
activity and attractiveness of Weibo has fallen massively.”

Data provided by analytics firm Weiboreach
suggest that influential Weibo users are posting less often than they did in
the past. The data, based on a random sample of 4,500 Sina Weibo accounts with
more than 50,000 followers, show a 20% drop in aggregate monthly posts from
January to August.

Despite signs that the service is losing
some of its former luster, however, investors have been betting that Sina will
be more valuable as a platform for e-commerce than as a town square. Reflecting
that bet, Sina's share price is up almost 40% since the end of April, when
Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba Group said it would acquire an 18% stake in
Weibo for $586 million and drove anticipation of an integration of Alibaba's
online shopping services into Weibo.

Sina, which hasn't commented publicly on
the crackdown, didn't respond to requests to comment.

“[Sina] will no longer be so much a
public opinion-driven platform…that era is over,” said Bing-Sheng Teng,
associate dean at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

—Kersten Zhang 
contributed to this article.



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