Charles Xue

Beijing aims to silence influential social media voices

Humiliation of Charles Xue and arrest of bloggers and journalists seen as a warning to popular microbloggers to tone down criticism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 3:53am

Beijing's clampdown on "rumour-mongers" in recent weeks has led to the detention of commentators from all walks of mainland social media - but it is the influential voices among them that the government wants to silence in order to stem the spread of liberal views.

On Friday, state media stepped up its already extensive coverage of the detention of Charles Xue. The Chinese-American venture capitalist, who has more than 12 million followers on popular micro blogging platform Sina Weibo, is one of the most prominent liberal voices on Chinese social media.

Xue "confessed to contracting a bad habit of soliciting prostitution while he was living abroad to satisfy his peculiar desires and fetishes", a news anchor read in a broadcast syndicated to television stations throughout the country. "When he moved to China he continued to frequently solicit prostitutes and almost became obsessed with prostitution and orgies," the broadcast said.

His public humiliation comes shortly after several others were arrested, accused of spreading misinformation on social media. In one case, which caused a public outcry, a microblogger claimed the railways ministry paid higher compensation to foreign victims of train crashes than to Chinese victims.

By Friday, several hundred people had been detained on charges of "spreading rumours" and "causing trouble".

On the surface the crackdown is aimed at protecting citizens' privacy online, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

But in reality, influential Weibo voices such as Xue "have created an alternative hierarchy of news and therefore challenged a party monopoly", he said."This is an attempt to roll back the space won by the Chinese citizenry over the years in terms of debating and criticising the government."

"The party thinks that it shouldn't keep this growth unchecked," he said.

Whistle-blower Zhou Lubao and Modern Express journalist Liu Hu were detained last week after posting corruption exposés online.

On Thursday, the prominent independent journalist Ge Qiwei was detained for "causing trouble".

Many have interpreted the public humiliation of Xue and the series of detentions as a warning to other so-called Big-Vs, popular microbloggers whose identities have been verified by Sina, to tone down their often critical posts on corruption, crime and social injustice.

Han Han, a renowned writer and racing car driver with 19 million followers, called on the so-called Big Vs to be cautious. "Big Vs, don't speak out, be careful when you appear, or in the end you'll have to pick up the soap," he wrote in a recent microblog post, alluding to possible prison sentences.

Li Chengpeng, a writer and prominent soccer commentator, has been banned from posting messages on Sina Weibo.

Such gagging orders, coupled with the public humiliation of Xue, seem to be working; several Big Vs declined to comment when contacted by the South China Morning Post yesterday.

For Bequelin, Xue's humiliation is akin to fear tactics. "Within the party system there is no downside to cracking down on dissident voices. Nobody is going to spend political capital on saying, 'Maybe we've gone too far'," he said.