Beijing police have detained four employees of an internet marketing company for allegedly creating and spreading thousands of online "rumours" against the government, national "role models" and celebrities, official media reported yesterday.
Stories allegedly concocted by Erma, a Beijing-based firm where the four were previously employed, included attacks against the former Ministry of Railways and the propaganda icon Lei Feng, and creating internet "stars" Guo Meimei and Luo Yufeng, police said.
Police have previously detained individuals for spreading rumours online, including terrorist hoaxes, but Erma is the first company to face such accusations.
Police said their investigation would extend to some internet celebrities, who one of the detained said had reached an agreement with him on forwarding each others' posts, the Beijing Evening News reported.
Some fear the move is a warning to outspoken celebrities on the web after a government-sponsored conference last week asked them to abide by "seven bottom lines" on the use of social media to avoid harm to the economy, the state or individuals.
Rumours spread by Erma employees over the last few years have been widely shared by well-known "public intellectuals" and liberal commentators.
Qin Zhihui, one of the four detained on Tuesday, had allegedly been previously employed by a company founded by a friend of Xue Biqun, a venture capitalist and prominent liberal internet commentator. Better known as "Xue Manzi" with more than 12 million followers on the popular social media platform Weibo, the billionaire venture capitalist invested in the company in 2010.
Xue didn't respond to the alleged connection with Qin yesterday, but he forwarded a Weibo post by the company's founder, Du Zijian, which claimed Qin had questionable moral integrity. Du posted that Qin worked for him in 2005, but was fired a short time later.
"Lao Du had a bottom line," he wrote, referring to himself.
Other Weibo celebrities have also drawn a line between themselves and the detained. Lawyer Chen Youxi , who was one of many Weibo celebrities who once forwarded Qin's posts, wrote on Weibo yesterday: "I support cleaning up the internet; those who live on creating or stirring up public opinion should be handled firmly."
Yuan Yulai, a lawyer with more than a million Weibo followers, told the South China Morning Post that it was "excessive" to crack down on online rumours with such fanfare.
"This is not necessary, unless the authorities fear some truth will be exposed," he said. "This initiative itself is damaging the government's image."
In a lengthy feature, the Beijing Times quoted police as saying the four detainees were suspected of "making trouble and operating an illegal business". Erma was "a typical online criminal organisation with underworld characteristics", it said.
According to Qin, whose education ended after high school, he made up the rumours in the hope of becoming famous and to "publish books and make money", the newspaper claimed.
Erma was credited with sparking the rumour that the former Ministry of Railways was offering 200 million yuan (HK$250 million) to the three foreign victims of the Wenzhou train crash two years ago, the Beijing Times said. That rumour sparked a nationwide outcry over the government's preferential treatment of foreigners.
The company also put out Guo Meimei, the young woman whose online exhibition of luxury cars hurt the reputation of the Chinese Red Cross and nearly ruined philanthropy on the mainland, the newspaper said.
It attempted to smear the reputation of role models such as retired major general Luo Yuan, and Zhang Haidi, a campaigner for the rights of disabled people.