To many, Ge Qiwei is a young and enterprising freelance journalist, but to police in Hunan, he is a cold-blooded fraudster exploiting his prominence to profit from smear campaigns.
The 29-year-old journalism graduate with a goatee was formally arrested on Monday in the province’s second-largest city of Hengyang, almost two months after he was detained in his home on suspicion of “stirring rumours and causing troubles”.
Police said they found a forged journalist ID card at his home, along with cameras, hidden recording devices and receipts for “advertisement fees”, income from companies which police allege paid him to smear competitors online.
Police say they have since detained five “accomplices” in Beijing and Hunan. The Hunan Daily, the party’s main newspaper in the province, said police are investigating 31 cases of online extortion across 13 provinces amounting to 3.3 million yuan (HK$4.17 million).
The arrest of Ge, who had changed his name from Zhou Bo, comes three months into a crackdown on prominent critical voices in Chinese social media. Ge has more than 630,000 followers on his Tencent microblog, making him one of the most followed weibo users in his province.
Over the last weeks, other so-called “Big-Vs” have been detained on similar charges and paraded on national television.
Likewise on Monday evening, China’s nationally syndicated news broadcast featured Ge, showing him being questioned and items seized at his home. Ge “has stirred the masses’ discontent,” the news anchor said. “He has impacted the local economic and social development.”
He was detained a day after Beijing police detained Liu Hu, a journalist with the Shenzhen-based Modern Express, at his home in Chongqing. Liu was arrested on charges of defamation in September. In early August, Zhou Lubao, another freelance journalist was detained in Beijing, by Jiangsu police and has since been charged.
The most prominent “Big-V” microblogger in police custody so far is Charles Xue Biqun, who has 12 million weibo followers.