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A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina's Weibo microblogging site in Shanghai on May 29, 2012. Weibo’s former marketing and PR director has been arrested for allegedly accepting bribes, the company said in an internal memo, which did not reveal details about the case. Photo: Reuters

Weibo public relations executive arrested on bribery charges as China takes aim at online opinion manipulation

  • The former marketing and PR director for the Twitter-like Weibo platform was arrested for allegedly accepting bribes, according to an internal company memo
  • Employees at China’s biggest tech giants, including Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu, have been involved in several corruption cases in recent years
The former marketing and public relations director for social media giant Weibo, known as China’s Twitter, was recently arrested on bribery charges, the latest in a string of corruption cases to hit China‘s technology companies in recent years.

Mao Taotao, who started working for Weibo in 2010, has been arrested and was fired, according to an internal memo dated August 10 seen by the South China Morning Post and confirmed by two employees. Mao will never be employed by Weibo again, the memo said, as he “has seriously harmed the interests of the company”.

Mao is accused of accepting bribes, but no other details of his case have been disclosed because it is still under investigation by public security authorities. Mao could not be reached for comment.

Beijing targets fan clubs to remove opinion manipulation in China’s cyberspace

“As the director of an important unit, Mao failed to set a good example, and in the face of temptation, he lost his principles and fell below the [ethical] baseline, which is sad and regrettable,” Weibo said in the memo. “The handling of this case once again reflects the group’s ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards fraud.”

The wording in the memo suggests the case could be related to the manipulation of online opinions for commercial interest, which has come under scrutiny in China. State censors have long kept a close watch on social media platforms to weed out accounts that are considered disagreeable, but authorities have grown increasingly intolerant of the role commercial interests play in shaping the content on platforms, where followers, comments and likes are put up for sale.

In one recent crackdown, the government ordered Weibo to stop publishing its “Star Power Ranking List”, which encouraged fan communities to compete to raise their idols’ rankings.
China’s Great Firewall prevents most Chinese netizens from accessing the biggest overseas social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, so domestic platforms, including Weibo with more than 500 million monthly active users, have huge sway over online views. This has led to a grey market for “influence buying”.

China’s culture ministry seeks to expand control over online influencers

Rooting out internal corruption has also been an ongoing concern at Chinese tech companies in recent years. Between 2015 and June of 2020, there were 360 such cases across 27 internet companies in the country, according to the Chinese newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily. In 2019 alone, there were 190 corruption cases reported across 18 tech firms.

Tencent Holdings said that it fired more than 100 employees allegedly involved in about 60 corruption cases between October 2019 and February 2021. In 2018, Yang Weidong, the head of Alibaba Group Holding’s Youku video streaming platform, was arrested on suspicion of accepting improper payments. Alibaba is the owner of the Post.

Last year, former Baidu vice-president Wei Fang and Zhao Danyang, former vice-president of short video giant Kuaishou, were also arrested on corruption charges.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Weibo executive held in bribery case