Outspoken celebrity blogger’s arrest triggers online debate
The detention of an outspoken social media celebrity on Friday has triggered fears among supporters that the bust was a government attempt to discredit him amid a campaign to rein in public opinion.
Beijing police on Sunday said venture capitalist Charles Xue, 60, had confessed to involvement in prostitution after he was caught with a 22-year-old woman at a Beijing residential compound.
The son of a former deputy mayor of Beijing and a naturalised American citizen, Xue, one of China’s best-known bloggers, posts dozens of messages every day and has over 12 million followers on his Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblog service.
Xue’s arrest comes amid an ongoing Communist Party crackdown on online rumours that has already seen several suspected rumour-mongers arrested. The party is concerned that these rumours could mar the government’s image and hamper the Communist Party’s control of public opinion online.
Although there is no evidence to show a clear link between the two events, many online users have suggested that Xu could be a victim of entrapment in an attempt by the authorities to discredit and intimidate leading liberals.
The idea of a conspiracy theory has been fuelled by the fact that Kong Qingdong, a Peking University professor known for his leftist views was the first member of the public to know of Xue’s detention.
“I heard Xue has been detained for involvement in prostitution,” Kong posted on his Weibo account early on Sunday morning, hours before Singtao Daily confirmed it with Beijing police.
Other online celebrities have displayed their support for Xue.
Internet entrepreneur Kai-fu Lee, who is also an avid Weibo user in China known for his liberal remarks, showed his stance in a widely circulated post published on Monday.
Citing a passage from the Bible, he wrote, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” referring to remarks made by Jesus as to whether a women accused of adultery ought to be stoned.
Some even compared the charges against Xue to the FBI’s smear campaign against African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Others said even if the allegations were true, it was a personal matter.
“I couldn’t believe it when I first heard about it,” said Liao Dan, who made headlines last year for evading hospital expenses for his sick wife. Xue helped him to raise 500,000 yuan to pay for his wife’s medical costs. “Nonetheless I still think Xue is a decent guy,” he added.
Online rumours are rife in China’s cyberspace. Among them, one widely circulated message claimed the Chinese government was planning to pay 200 million yuan compensation for every foreign casualty in a major train crash, triggering public outrage.
Another rumour claimed that salt provided protection against radiation, causing panic buying in coastal cities after Japan’s 2011 nuclear crisis.
A lack of government transparency and low public confidence in government are widely seen as creating a rumour-prone environment in cyberspace.
While the government’s recent anti-rumour campaign has received support from pro-government internet users, many others have voiced concerns that it could be used to dismiss reports of official misconduct.
When a senior editor of a magazine made public a series of wrongdoings by the former bureau chief of the National Energy Administration, the administration’s spokesman accused the editor of conducting a smear campaign. And it was not until several months later when the bureau chief was sacked from all his posts that the accusations were proved to be true.
And just last week another incident occurred in Ningxia, where the local police force accused a truck driver of making up a story about being assaulted by traffic police. But several days later, a video clip surfaced that clearly showed the assault and forced local authorites to recognise the truck driver's claim as true, leading to the sacking of the four police officers involved in the scandal.
At the same time, Communist Party mouthpieces are continuing to write opinion pieces blaming the spread of rumours on “big Vs", meaning celebrity bloggers with large numbers of followers.
A commentary in the People’s Daily, the communist party’s flagship newspaper, blamed popular microblog users for creating social panic after they “incautiously retweeted” messages from “rumour-mongers”. It called on the online celebrities to “deliver more positive and constructive messages” and “promote virtue and trust”.
“Xue Manzi is a well-known internet celebrity who has countless fans … but today’s fact just proves he is nothing more than an internet hypocrite,” read another commentary on gmw.cn, a website affiliated to party mouthpiece Guangming Daily. “Sooner or later, all internet hypocrites will reveal their true natures of clowns … they will eventually vanish from cyberspace.”
The article warns online users against “blindly adoring online celebrities who only care about satisfying their own selfish desires.”
A commentator on state-owned CCTV said, “Some popular Weibo celebrities were encouraging the spread of rumours.” He warned them against becoming catalysts of social conflict.
Qiushi, another Communist Party publication, went further suggesting that “some people with ulterior motives orchestrated by foreign hostile forces were viciously fabricating internet rumours to undermine the party and the government in order to attract attention.”
In an odd twist, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of conservative nationalist paper The Global Times, chimed in with, surprisingly, some unflattering comments about the authorities.
“It cannot be ruled out that the authorities were using the prostitution charge to frame Xue Manzi,” Hu wrote on his weibo microblog at noon. “It is a universal ruse by governments around the world to use sex scandals to frame political rivals.”
“I would also urge the government to make sure the evidence it gathers is accurate, and the procedure flawless, or the end results will be the opposite of those desired."
However, his post was later removed from his Weibo.
The newspaper that Hu oversees ran a commentary on Monday saying that “Even if there is a ‘selective element’ in Xue’s capture, he will have to live with it, as he is a public figure and faces a higher risk from a prostitution scandal. The article also warned political dissidents in China to “keep their butts clean” if they wanted to challenge authority.