Authorities show determination to control burgeoning culture of social media by closing accounts of writers and intellectuals
- The Guardian, Wednesday 15 May 2013
China has launched a new drive to tame its boisterous microblogging culture by closing influential accounts belonging to writers and intellectuals who have used them to highlight social injustice.
The strict censorship of mainstream media in China has made social media an essential forum for public debate, but authorities have shown increasing determination to control it. Previous campaigns have warned the public against spreading rumours – a theme that has recurred in this crackdown – and ordered users to register with their real names.
Now attention has turned to the country’s opinion formers. A recent commentary in the state-run Global Times newspaper warned that “Big Vs” – meaning verified accounts with millions of followers – had become “relay stations for online rumours” and accused them of “harming the dignity of the law”.
State news agency Xinhua said the account of He Bing, a well known professor, was suspended because he had “purposely spread rumours”. Other intellectuals have seen accounts deleted outright.
In a powerful essay for the Guardian published on Wednesday, novelist Murong Xuecun – the most high-profile figure to have his account cancelled – compares the atmosphere to the periods before major campaigns against intellectuals in the Maoist era and in 1989, when the crushing of the Tiananmen Square student protests ended the brief flourishing of discussion and debate.
The author, whose real name is Hao Qun, writes: “As in 1957, 1966 and 1989, Chinese intellectuals are feeling more or less the same fear as one does before an approaching mountain storm. The scariest [fear] of all is not being silenced or sent to prison; it is the sense of powerlessness and uncertainty about what comes next … It’s as if you are walking into a minefield blindfolded.”
The drive appears to be part of a wider ideological campaign by the new leadership. While many hope that President Xi Jinping and his colleagues will introduce financial and economic reforms, few anticipate significant political reforms.
The party has instructed officials to tackle “dangerous” western values and other potential ideological threats and “cut off at the source channels for disseminating erroneous currents of thought”.
The South China Morning Post reported last week that universities had been told not to tackle seven subjects in their teaching, including universal values, civil rights and the mistakes of the Communist party.
Mainstream media had already been warned not to use foreign news content without authorisation in a directive from China’s media regulator. It also told them that tips from “news informants, freelancers, NGOs and commercial organisations” should not be published without full verification.
David Bandurski of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University said the current mood was strikingly reminiscent of a decade ago, when a new leadership under Hu Jintao attempted to curb the burgeoning commercial media.
Media controls “are at the very centre of maintaining social stability and power as a party,” he added. But he argued: “The reason there is a flow of rumour and irrational discussion online is because there are news controls and no professional competitors that can go and verify or deny rumours.
“Media that are capable of doing good, hard, in-depth news are stopped from doing it … There’s a vacuum of good information.”
Zhang Lifan, a well-known historian, said the increasing crackdown on freedom of speech showed authorities’ lack of confidence, although he added that it was not clear whether everyone supported the approach. He added: “Citizens have freedom of speech, and the freedom to make mistakes in their speech as well, as long as they correct them afterwards. The official media also ‘spread rumours’, then they correct the ‘rumour’. If they want to punish rumour-mongers, they should punish the state media, too.”
If Weibo (microblogging) controls were further tightened, he warned, “people won’t talk on the internet, but will pass the information on the street. If nobody talks, people will take action.”