Vilification of blogger Wu Gan a new turn in silencing dissent

The tone of an astonishing personal attack on a detained popular online activist is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 May, 2015, 4:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 12:43am

When an activist is detained on the mainland, the news usually emerges through social media or websites hosted abroad. Overseas media then pick up the story and confirm it through lawyers, relatives or fellow activists.

State media tend to keep quiet, as if nothing happened.

This week, however, state media led by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, Xinhua and Central China Television, was awash with news of the criminal detention of rights campaigner and celebrity blogger Wu Gan, also known as "Super Vulgar Butcher".

On Thursday, in an article headlined "Revealing the true face of Super Vulgar Butcher", the top half of the political news page of People's Daily was dedicated to news that Wu had been detained by police in his home province of Fujian on the criminal charges of defamation and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" - a blanket charge often levelled at activists and dissidents.

The article assailed Wu's character, listing his flamboyant protests that had upset officials. It quoted people supposedly from his home town talking about his flawed character, broken family and failed marriage.

Wu cannot respond to any of these accusations because he is now in police custody.

Before his detention, Wu, who has 60,900 followers on Twitter, said on his account that he was in Jiangxi to join a protest by four lawyers over a rape and murder case, which allegedly involved the torture and jailing of four innocent people.

The People's Daily article was carried by other state media outlets, including China News Service, and pro-Beijing Hong Kong media including Phoenix TV and Wen Wei Po.

State-run Beijing News and Xinhua had similar stories on Wu, while CCTV and Beijing Television carried lengthy reports showing footage of Wu's loud protests.

Compared with the usual practice of steering clear of news deemed too sensitive to be reported, this time state media did not shy from reporting the detention of the online celebrity.

The authorities appear to have realised that they should take the lead and present the official side of the story. The all-out personal attack, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, looks like a coordinated campaign to ensure Wu will not be elevated to hero status by his supporters.

Wu made his name in 2009 when he reached out to meet Deng Yujiao, a pedicurist who was arrested on murder charges for stabbing to death a government official who was trying to molest her. The outrage generated online turned her case into a national cause celebre and she was eventually released.

It now seems that the authorities are keen to avoid past mistakes and decided that People's Daily should set the tone with a negative spin for other media outlets to follow.

This trend appears to be part of President Xi Jinping's two-year-long ideological campaign to bring intellectuals and media into line.

In a speech in August 2013, Xi stressed that "work in the ideological sphere is an extremely important task".

Various party edicts during the past two years have emphasised the importance of “firmly grasping the lead” in media and propaganda work.

A People's Daily article in November 2013 described the importance of maintaining the party's "unshakable" control of the media. It stated the need "to march onto the battleground of the internet, to push all sorts of propaganda efforts onto the internet, to voice out on the internet and to radiate positive energy there".

In recent years, influential figures such as veteran journalist Gao Yu have been paraded on state television confessing their supposed crimes. But the sight of a grass-roots-level activist like Wu being denounced across state media in what appears to be a well-planned campaign is unusual. This may show that the authorities are broadening their suppression of government critics to those who pillory only local cadres and not directly challenge the authority of the Communist Party.

In Beijing Television’s footage, Wu was seen posting leaflets chastising the head of the Jiangxi Higher People's Court outside the courthouse while saying: “I will mobilise internet users to post this everywhere.”

The treatment of Wu perhaps reveals authorities' anxiety over the influence of bloggers who can galvanise their followers into action, and that making an example of Wu shows that even grass-roots-level campaigns will not be tolerated.