Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Year in Review: A Chronicle of China's Social Media Crackdown

In August 2013, President Xi Jinping issued a call for for less negative speech online. By October, after a propaganda campaign against popular online personalities, a new law, and dozens of detentions, the People's Daily reported that their surveys showed that there was less negative speech online.

Below is a chronology of the events that lead the People's Daily to declare the "end of era" for public participation in online discourse in China.

April 10: Future SCIO Deputy Director Calls on Government to “Silence Those Who Need Silencing”


Red Flag Journal, a magazine published by the Communist Party's flagship magazine Seeking Truth, publishes an article entitled "Target the Two Venues of Public Discourse, Solidify the Positive Energy of Society." The article was authored by Ren Xianliang who, at the time of publication was acting vice-minister of Shaanxi province’s propaganda department. Several months following the publication he would be appointed deputy director of the State Council Information Office. Some excerpts:
The abrupt rise of the Internet and other new media, especially the appearance of blogs and weibos and other forms of personal media, has in fact undermined policies that banned private media and prohibited cross-border oversight. Certain VIP weibo users frequently have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, even millions, of followers, and go so far as to launch micro-magazines and micro-television channels.
. . . .
When it comes to control, it is necessary to boldly confront all obstacles, even those powerful media outlets, famous web sites, bloggers, and micro-bloggers. Warn those who need warning, ban those who need banning, and silence those who need silencing. As soon as there is any violation of law, rules, or discipline, resolutely handle it in accordance with the law, and show no mercy. It is only by using the law to manage new media formats, including the Internet, in the same manner as is done with real-world society, that we can turn it to our own ends and not be subject to external threats.
. . . .
Online "opinion leaders" represent the aspirations of a sizable portion of the crowd. They are the focus of much public attention, and hold great sway over users' moods and online opinion. Administrative agencies must adopt many different methods to transform, foster, and cultivate "opinion leaders" who understand, approve of, and praise the general and specific policies of the Party and the government, and use them to influence Internet users and guide public opinion.
The following day, the state-sponsored Southern Metropolitan Daily drew attention to Ren's piece by publishing an article entitled "Shaanxi Official: Some Online Discourse is Being Manipulated, When It Comes to the Big V's On Weibo, Silence Those Who Need Silencing" (陕西官员:一些网络舆论被操纵 微博大V该关就关). These screenshots show that the article, originally available here - http://ndnews.oeeee.com/html/201304/11/46487.html - was quickly deleted.

These screenshots were taken on April 12, and show that Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo were censoring searches for "Ren Xianliang."

These screenshots were taken on April 13, and show that Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo were censoring searches for "Silence Those Who Need Silencing."

Context: http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/04/chinas-weibos-censor-discussion-about.html

August 10: Online Opinion Leaders Agree on “Seven Bottom Lines”


Well-known online personalities gather at CCTV's headquarters in Beijing and reach an agreement that are seven bottom lines that they would observe when posting on social media:
  1. Legal
  2. Social
  3. National Interest
  4. Citizens' Legal Rights and Interests
  5. Social Order
  6. Moral
  7. Factual
Although "National Interest" was listed third, China's state run media reported:
The national interest is to be placed above all others, because without the nation we have nothing. That is the way of the physical world, and so it is even more so in the online world. We must forge an online patriotic culture, with the soul of online culture resting on the national interest.”

August 16: Flagship Party Magazine Says China Cannot Survive Losing Control Over Public Opinion


On August 16, 2013, the Chinese Communist Party's flagship magazine, Seeking Truth, publishes an editorial entitled "Take Up the Cause of Insisting on a Marxist Approach to News." Some excerpts:
At its current stage, China could not endure the consequences of losing control over public opinion. . . . The overall quality of government agency administration and the ranks of Party officials is not high enough, and they are finding it very difficult to adapt to the challenges posted by excessively open public opinion. Excessively critical public opinion will damage popular trust in government and jeopardize government administration.
Context: http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/08/communist-party-magazine-china-could.html

August 19: Xi Jinping Says Bad Online Opinion Leaders Must Be Restrained


Xi Jinping gives a speech to the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference. Some excerpts:
No newspaper, no magazine, no public forum, no meeting room, no television, no movie, no stage shall provide space for any malicious speech that would attack the Party's leaders, attack the socialist system, distort Party or national history, or spread rumors to create trouble. No newspaper, no magazine, no mobile video, no cell phone media, no SMS, no WeChat, no blog, no podcast, no microblog, no online forum, no new media of any sort shall provide such speech with any convenience. . . . Those who would spread rumors to cause trouble must be punished in accordance with the law . . . .
A little less negative speech on the Internet can only help, and not hurt, China's social development and social stability, and the peace and contentment of its people. . . .
With respect to those online opinion leaders, we must strengthen our education and guidance. The good ones should be encouraged. The bad ones should be restrained.
These screenshots were taken on November 7, and shows that Sina Weibo was censoring searches for "Xi Jinping August 19 Speech," but not for "Xi Jinping August 19."

Context: http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/12/sina-weibo-censors-searches-for-xi.html

August 19: The Detentions Begin


Beijing police detain Qin Zhihui (known online as Qin Huohuo) and Yang Xiuyu (known online as Lier Chaisi) on suspicion of provoking quarrels and running an illegal business.

August 20: A Strike Hard Campaign is Launched


According to China's state run media, law enforcement agencies around the country "pull back the curtain" on a nationwide campaign to attack organized online rumor mongering.

August 21: A Propaganda Campaign is Launched


Two of Beijing's major local newspapers, the Beijing News and the Beijing Times, carry front page headlines and multi-page articles outlining the allegations against Qin Huohuo and Yang Xiuyu. Allegations against Qin published in China's state run media included:
  • In July 2011, Qin posted on Sina Weibo that the Chinese government had paid 200 million yuan (US$32.7 million) in compensation to a foreign passenger after two trains collided in Wenzhou, Zhejiang. The police claimed “The micro blog was forwarded about 12,000 times within two hours, creating public anger at the government.”
  • In April 2013, Qin posted on Sina Weibo that the Communist Party's poster-boy Lei Feng, “bought himself an entirely new top-grade wardrobe, including an extra jacket, wollen pants, and black leather shoes. The total price of the jacket, wollen pants, and black leather shoes was about 90 yuan. But at that time Lei Feng's monthly salary was only 6 yuan."
The company operated by Qin and Yang, Erma Interactive Sales Strategies Limited, is accused of astroturfing and spreading thousands of rumors. The three "illustrative cases" provided in China's state run media to illustrate the duo's guilt dated from 2011 and 2012.
The Beijing Times and Beijing News on Qin Huohuo's Detention

August 23: Detentions in Beijing, Chongqing, Zhejiang, and Anhui


Beijing police travel to Chongqing and detain journalist Liu Hu a week after he reposted a a post blowing the whistle on a government official. The detention notice said he was suspected of having committed the offense of “provoking quarrels.”

Police detain a Mr. Ma after a traffic accident occurred in Shangyu, Zhejiang because he posted posted on a local forum that "nine people died.” According to official figures there were only seven fatalities. The police said that "within 20 minutes 454 people viewed it and it was reposted 15 times,” and on that basis subjected him to five days of administrative detention for "fabricating facts and disrupting public order.”

Police detain a 17 year old Anhui student surnamed Wu three days after he posted on Baidu’s PostBar (Tieba 贴吧) forum that a farmer caught three children stealing watermelon. He tied them to a tree and went off to play majiang. Upon returning he discovered the children were all dead, after which the farmer committed suicide. The post was commented on hundreds of times and “created something of a stir.” The police therefore “criticized and educated” Wu, who subsequently made another post on the forum to clear up the matter.

According to an August 29 Xinhua report:
Police in Beijing have captured 27 people after they were found to have been involved in prostitution, including Chinese-American Xue Charles Bi-Chuen, according to the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.

Xue, 60, an investor and prolific microblogger with more than 12 million followers, was arrested in the Chaoyang District of Beijing last Friday, police said.

Xue was accused of group licentiousness for participating in group sex parties, according to police, adding that among the detainees nine were male and 18 were female, who were captured in late August.

Investigation found Xue, whose Chinese name was "Xue Biqun" and was verified as "Xue Manzi" in Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like service, came to China in 2007 and had engaged in licentious activities with more than ten female sex workers since May this year.
A Global Times editorial framed the issues relating to Xue this way:
On Weibo, [Xue Manzi] is eager to show an image of righteousness by calling for the Western political system to be promoted in China and voicing support for many mass incidents. But his involvement in soliciting prostitutes, to the surprise of many, exposes his personal virtue.
. . . .
Some celebrity microbloggers wonder why it is so "troublesome" for them to have "freedom of speech." We hope this is just naivety that will ultimately fade away as they learn to deal with their discourse power in a more responsible and sincere way.

August 25: A Detention in Shanghai


Police in Shanghai detain Fu Xuesheng, president of Shanghai LabInfo Technologies Ltd, on allegations that he spread false rumors that:
  • a female executive at State-owned oil giant Sinopec accepted sexual favors as a bribe from a US supplier, and that the supplier subsequently blackmailed her;
  • a police chief accepted more than 2 billion yuan ($327 million) in bribes and murdered an entrepreneur.
Police claimed that Fu “rented an office in the Lujiazui area in Shanghai and surfed foreign websites there. He initially released the false information on overseas forums and then forwarded it to domestic ones.”

August 26: Detentions and Fines in Henan, Hebei, and Zhejiang


Police in Jili, Henan fine a Mr. Zhang 500 yuan for posting on Baidu's PostBar (Tieba) that "It is said that a few days ago in Beichen a woman was dissected and her organs were taken away." According to the police, this post caused a "mass panic."

Police in Qinghe, Hebei, detain a Mr. Zhao for posting on Baidu’s PostBar (Tieba) that "I heard that a murder took place in Louzhuang, does anyone know what actually happened?" According to the police, this post caused a “mass panic.”

An unnamed Internet user posts on Sina Weibo that 16 people died in a car accident in Dangshan, Zhejiang. Police subsequently announce on their Weibo that they had arrested him and sentenced him to 5 days administrative detention on the grounds that the actual figure was 10 dead and 5 wounded.

August 27: A Detention in Liaoning


Police in Liaoning arrested a Mr. Zhang and subjected him to administrative detention for posting on Sina Weibo that “I’m going to blow up the Pingdu police station.” According to the police, this post caused a “mass panic.”

August 29: Detentions in Guangzhou and Liaoning


Police in Yuexiu, Guangzhou subject an Internet user to seven days of administrative detention for posting the following:
The five heroes of Langya Mountain were in fact some 8th Army irregulars, and after fleeing to Langya Mountain they used their guns to suppress local villagers, with the result that the local villagers resented them. Afterwards the villagers told the Japanese army of the five's whereabouts, which led the five to flee down a blind alley.
Police in Liaoning detain an Internet user posting under the name “Geilixiaowei” for posting that 1,000 had died and an unknown number were missing following floods. The police said this caused a “malicious social influence.”

Liaoning police also claim that, over the preceding three days, they had investigated 25 cases of Internet rumors, leading to 4 arrests and 20 fines.

August 30: A Detention in Hebei


Police in Shidu, Hebei detain a Mr. Li for posting “Two people have died from the heat in Yun county.” They fine him 200 yuan.

September 2: State Media Cautions Against Abusive Implementation of the Anti-Rumor Campaign


Xinhua publishes an editorial entitled "We Must Guard Against the Crackdown on 'Online Rumor's Going Off the Rails.'" Some excerpts:
It is true that it is somewhat inappropriate for Internet users failing to undertake verification and publish inaccurate casualty figures for a traffic accident. Nevertheless, if there is no evidence indicating that there was malicious intent, then it may not rise to the level of "intentionally fabricating and spreading rumors."
. . . .
The original intent of attacking online rumors is good, but we cannot label as rumor every voice we hear that we don't like. We must find a balance between attacking online rumors and protecting the public's rights to know, participate, express, and oversee. We must rely strictly on facts, take the law as our standard, and avoid acting arbitrarily.

Everyone applauds how attacking Internet rumors is conducive to cleansing online spaces and channeling positive energy. But at the same time, we must guard against abusive and deviant implementation in a few places. The path to resolution must first and foremost be built on comprehensive laws and regulations in the relevant areas. And law enforcement in particular must take the lead in abiding by the law. Only then can we build a healthy online environment.

September 5: Newspaper Questions Anti-Rumor Campaign, Gets Censored


The state sponsored Southern Weekend publishes an article entitled "Will Attacking Rumors With the Long Arm of the Law Lead to a World Without Rumors?" An excerpt:
Legal scholars are concerned that, by extending the crime of provoking and quarreling to online spaces we run the risk of making it a "catchall crime," which will create new problems, in particular how to prevent certain leading cadres from utilizing this to exact revenge on whistleblowers where their speech relates to government officials.
As these screenshots show, it was deleted on September 6.

Context: http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/09/southern-weekend-article-questions.htm

September 6: State Media Defends the Anti-Rumor Campaign


Global Times publishes an op-ed entitled "Is Chinese Public Opinion Really Constricting?" Some excerpts:
Given today's Internet environment, any move toward social governance will almost inevitably be met with debate and consternation. There is nothing at all odd about this. But the fact is that this does not in any way mean that the development of online opinion in China is being subjected to restrictions. On the contrary, this is a step toward "normalization" of online opinion in China, and it is laying the foundation for a flourishing and dynamic Internet for China.
. . . .
First, there is a lack of control over online rumors and malicious behavior which has allowed evildoers to take over, and they are increasingly running rampant. Second, many rumor mongers are using the virtual influence of astroturfers to seize prestige and power, and are employing Big V's reposts to exert influence, building their rants and ulterior motives on a foundation of certain irrational emotional currents in our society, and go on to wantonly attack those with whom they disagree, using rumors and lies to attack others and society. Rumor mongers are generally anonymous, and do not bear any responsibility. Those who repost what they say also avoid responsibility.

September 9: Government Specifies Criminal Penalties for Defamatory Posts Viewed More Than 5,000 Times


The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate publish their “Explanations Regarding Certain Issues Relating to the Application of Laws When Handling Defamation and Other Criminal Cases Involving Information Networks.” The Explanations, which had been passed on September 2 and which would go into effect on September 10, include a provision stating that any online post containing defamatory information would be considered a “serious offense” under the Criminal Law if it received more than 5,000 views or was reposted more than 500 times.

September 13: Wang Gongquan Detained


Police in Beijing detain venture capitalist Wang Gongquan.

These screenshots show that Baidu's "Dinghui Investments Wang Gongquan" PostBar (Tieba) forum was operating at least as recently as May, 2013, but that users searching for that forum on September 14 are told: "Apologies, in accordance with relevant laws, rules, and regulations, this Bar cannot be opened."

Context: http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/09/baidu-sina-and-tencent-censor-searches.html

September 15: Xue Manzi Apologizes on National Television For His Online Behavior


CCTV airs a jailhouse interview with Xue Manzi. During the interview Xue says “My irresponsibility in spreading information online was a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream,” and "freedom of speech cannot override the law.” The China Daily noted: “His sober demeanor was different from the arrogance of two weeks ago when he was taken into detention.”

September 17: Middle School Student is Detained


Police in Gansu detain a 16 year-old surnamed Zhang at his middle school for "provoking trouble" after suggesting on Sina Weibo that an investigation by local police into a man's death was problematic, and claiming that man had been murdered when police had ruled his death a suicide. Authorities subsequently subjected him to seven days of administrative detention.

September 18: Anti-Corruption Crusader is Detained


Police order well-known Weibo personality "Boss Hua Lost the Monkey King's Golden Cudgel” to appear for questioning. Boss Hua gained notoriety for exposing local officials wearing luxury wristwatches.

These screenshots were taken on September 19, 2013, and show that both Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo were censoring searches for "Boss Hua" (花总 Hua Zong).


Context: http://blog.feichangdao.com/2013/09/weibo-user-boss-hua-questioned-by.html

September 29: China’s Web Sites Sign a Pledge


China's major web sites, including Baidu, Tencent, Sina, Qihoo, Phoenix, People's Daily, Xinhua, and the China Daily, sign a pledge entitled "Established a Green Internet and Carry Forward the Positive Energy of the Youth." In the Pledge the committed to "propagandize the strength and prosperity of the nation and promote the glorious China dream of its people," and hold the "Seven Bottom Lines."

October 11: People’s Daily Official Declares the Era of Big V’s is Over


The People’s Daily web site publishes an op-ed by Zhu Huaxin, director of the People’s Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit. Some excepts:
On the morning of September 10, the well-known Yunnan Internet user "Frontier Man" was arrested by police on suspicion of filing a false registered capital report. "Frontier Man" played an active role in the Elude the Cat and the Elementary School Sex-for-Sale Online Scandals. After the "Elude the Cat" incident in early 2009, the Yunnan Propaganda Department organized Internet users to investigate, and the curtain was raised on an era of "Online Questioning of the Government." Unlike those big city Big V's, "Frontier Man" did not engage in ideological pontification, and sought to find the truth underlying those scandals.

The detention of "Frontier Man" symbolizes the end of an era.

For the past several years, the watchwords of the online world were "online questioning of the government" and salvaging "lost voices." In order to change how government worked the standard operating procedure online was one of "surround" and criticize. Then "Government Affairs Weibos" emerged on the scene, and strove to respond to the "concerns of Internet users."

Beginning at the end of August, the online world has been written over with these keywords: rumor mongering, picking quarrels, exposing Big V's, imposing administrative punishments, crminally detaining. Government has moved from reactive to proactive, calling for the launch of an online" struggle for public opinion," daring to "unsheath swords," and firmly grasping the rights to "lead, manage, and speak out."
. . . .
Public power has begun exert its force, exerting itself with ferocity, allowing many leading cadres to recapture the excite of regaining "lost ground," while simultaneously catching unawares those Internet users who had grown accustomed to the "vomitorium," especially those  "opinion leaders" who had for several years held themselves in such high regard, posting on Weibo as if they were "reciting memorials to the Emperor on his throne."
. . . .
The force of Online Questioning of the Government must fit within the broader context of the state and social management system. Even if it has given rise to new broadcasting technologies, the Internet cannot become some kind of "island" divorced from from the continent of the State's society, culture, and politics. China's 591 million Internet users, in particular those Internet users who are intellectuals who often voice their views on public affairs, have had fortune smile on them in the form of the nation's informatization strategy. But the Chinese who first rose on the crest of this "wave" shouldn't develop any illusions about the state of nation and its administrative system, and mistakenly believe that China's weibos are England's Hyde Park.

The changes to the Internet since August have ruthlessly wrestled back to earth those Internet users who for many years were held aloft by the storm that was public discourse. Those who once believed they had built a Tower of Babylon have suddenly come to discover that we are still scaling the difficult slopes of modernization.
. . . .
While the methods have been somewhat crude, from a certain perspective, the mass exodus undertaken by the current affairs Big V's is not necessarily a forced compression of the "public discourse bubble.” A small number of Internet users are intellectuals who are prone to wallowing in romanticism, restlessness, and extremism. They need to consider how to push society towards a smooth transformation. Otherwise, it is very dangerous to attempt to force online opinion and government policies.

October 16: Political Cartoonist is Interrogated


Police summon political cartoonist Wang Limin (who publishes under the pen name “Perverse Pepper”) and interrogate him for 24 hours about a post he made on Sina Weibo. The post in question related to claims that an infant had died of starvation in Yuyao after a typhoon struck the city.

Context:

October 21: Five Arrests in Hunan


Police in Hunan arrest five men on charges of fabricating online rumors, blackmailing others, and provoking quarrels. Their victims included Communist Party cadres.

October 30: The Party Declares Victory


A report released by the Public Opinion Monitoring Center under the People's Daily and China.com states that following the campaign launched in August, "the government and Party have suddenly come to dominate online spaces” and “the amount of critical posts and emotional language has dropped precipitously.” Specifically:
  • the number of microblogs posted by mainstream media and government agencies has surpassed those of "opinion leaders.”
  • the number of posts on Sina Weibo declined over 10 percent compared with the previous two months.
  • there has been a clear drop in the number of corruptions cases being reported through non-government operated web sites.
Zhu Huaxin, secretary-general of the People's Daily Online public opinion monitoring center stated:
The public opinion data shows that the Internet, the main battlefield of propaganda, is not lost. The Internet is manageable and controllable, and the Party and the government have taken the first step to take the initiative on this battlefield of public opinion.

November 13: Sina Reports It Has Shut Down Over 1,000 Weibo Accounts During the Anti-Rumor Campaign


Sina reports that, as part of its campaign to enforce the “Seven Bottom Lines,” it had shut down 1,030 Weibo accounts for publishing false information.