China puts a gag on social media and makes arrests for coup rumors
March 31, 2012Jing Gao25 CommentsBo Xilai, Chongqing, coup, Internet censorship, Jeremy Goldkorn, online rumor mill, Pan Shiyi, Politburo, rumors, sensitive words, SOHO China Limited, Tencent Weibo, Wang Lijun
China has shut down 16 websites, placed a blanket comment ban on two microblogging services, and apprehended six people as punishment for their “concocting and/or disseminating” coup rumors.
On the morning of March 31, Sina Weibo users who tried to leave comments received an error message from the system,
“To all Weibo users, recently, comments left by microbloggers have started to contain much illegal and detrimental information, including rumors. In an effort to clean them up in one stroke, commenting function of Sina Weibo will be temporarily disabled from 8 a.m. March 31 to 8 a.m. April 3. After the clean-up, we will reopen comments section. Necessary clean-up of information is conducive to providing everyone a better communicating atmosphere. We expect your understanding and consideration. Thank your for your support.”
Tencent Weibo has a similar announcement on its website. But both microblogging services have kept their post and repost function intact.
The decision to muzzle social media users came from the Chinese authorities after Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, two of the country’s most popular Twitter-like services, kept spilling out rumors about a coup d’état in the pipeline masterminded by Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai’s political allies, after Bo, a political wonder boy and flamboyant demagogue, was suddenly ousted from his post as the party boss of Chongqing, China’s most populous directly-controlled city.
Many netizens said they saw tanks roll into the capital. Some even claimed they heard gunshots fired.
The ouster of Bo Xilai, a political hopeful aiming for a seat in the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee, the stratosphere of Chinese politics, as a result of split with protégé Wang Lijun, who sought political asylum from the United States, is a political scandal redolent of mystery-looking and drama-filled Hollywood films that piqued the curiosity of Chinese netizens, who, thanks to the social media, are able to steal a peek.
At first, moderators, particularly those at Sina Weibo, blocked key words such as ‘Bo Xilai’, ‘Zhou Yongkang’ (Bo’s ally and strongest supporter in the Politburo Standing Committee), and ‘Chongqing’, so that any discussion containing these “sensitive words” will automatically trigger the censoring apparatus and be disabled. However, netizens one-upped censors by inventing imaginative and humorous substitute words to get around the restriction. For example, they called Bo Xilai The Prince in the West, and Zhou has been nicknamed for a popular brand of instant noodles.
Just as the online rumor mill stopped churning out wild stories and the sand settled, the blanket comment ban has stirred up another storm. Many personalities and influential microbloggers, who have millions of fans (followers) on Sina Weibo, expressed their objection to the ban and its chilling effect .
@作业本 (lit. Notebook), an anonymous Weibo user who has garnered a fan base of 2.2 million for his wisecracks, wrote, “Scrutiny of books, review of films, control of the Internet, restrictions on publications, management of speech, censorship of newspapers, maintenance of stability in the public opinion, closing of comments…These idiotic measures are exactly proof that He is increasingly similar to North Korea. If you don’t live every day as if it were April Fools’ Day, He will cut off power supply and internet access and make sure you live April Fools’ Day…In fact, as long as you were born in the specific country, you have to live April Fools’ Day every day.”
In a separate post, he also quipped, “I will reward any one that leaves a comment on my post or anyone else’s post after 10 a.m. March 31 and before 8 a.m., April 3, a million US dollars, a hundred iPhones, iPads, a top-level sports car, a sugar daddy belt…In all, I will give you whatever you want. Note: please notice the rule of the game and the expiration date. P.S. Sina’s Little Secretary, don’t you fool me! Don’t you dare reopen comment section ahead of time!!”
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,
Zhang Xin (@张欣), CEO of SOHO China and wife of Pan Shiyi, wrote to her 3.3 million fans, “Will Weibo without comments function really stop ‘rumors’? What is the best way to stop ‘rumors’? It is transparency and openness. The more speech is discouraged, the more rumors there will be.”
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.”
More posts about the closing of comments
@青媒素：Soil where flow of information is obstructed is the ideal hotbed for rumors…
@深圳老崔 ：A reporter interviewed a deaf and mute man in the street, “Do you have anything to say about disabling of Sina Weibo’s comments function?” Man: “…………” Reporter, “Oh, so did you try to say, ‘Creating a harmonious society is a job of yours, mine and his?’”
@郑插插：Sina’s mascot should look like this these days:
(The speech bubble says, “Uh…”)
(No one can hear your screams here. Have the people duct-taped.)