Troubling future for China’s Internet

 20 Sep 2013 - 3:07

By Adam Minter

At some point after his August 23 arrest for allegedly soliciting a prostitute, Chinese Internet celebrity Charles Xue began losing his 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblogging site. The abandonment of Xue, a billionaire investor and online activist, has been subtle but unmistakable: At 12:36pm on Monday in China, he had 12,054,441 followers; 10 seconds later, he had 12,054,435; after another 10 seconds, he was down to 12,054,430. In five minutes, 50 followers had cut their online ties.

In the drip-by-drip desertion of a man once (and possibly still) counted among the most influential voices on China’s microblogs, we can also see the vibrant life draining out of the Chinese Internet, and Sina Weibo in particular. Since its 2009 launch, the service has acquired more than 500 million registered accounts and become the nation’s virtual town square, fostering discussion, driving change and relentlessly pursuing transparency — all while unnerving a government accustomed to holding a monopoly on the business of shaping public opinion.

At the time of his arrest, few believed Charles Xue was targeted for his immoral interests. This has become even more apparent in the last few days, as Chinese television has broadcast, over and over, an interview and confession in which Xue does not speak of his bedroom behaviour but rather denounces his Internet activities in favour of new online rules — including specific guidelines to reign in rumour-mongering (and perhaps a great deal more) — that could land bloggers like him in jail for up to three years. As viewers, and followers, seem to understand, these days it’s probably safer not to even be virtually linked to Xue.

The recent crackdown, which has brought with it other suspicious detainments and humiliating televised interviews, has specifically targeted Big V’s, an influential group of a few hundred extremely prominent microblogging accounts. Like Xue, many Big V’s are highly successful businessmen who, in money- obsessed China, enjoy credibility that the scandal-tainted Communist Party lost long ago. For the average Web user, these events leave a clear message: In contemporary China, nothing, not even wealth, can protect you from the consequences of your words. It’s a troubling notion for the future of the once- raucous, and ever-expanding, Chinese Internet.

While regulating speech isn’t popular in China (or anywhere else, for that matter), regulating rumour potentially holds some appeal, particularly on China’s gossipy Internet. So the government has cleverly justified its crackdown under the guise of rumour control. On September 13, the prolific commentator Li Zhonghua, writing for the website of the Guangming Daily, a state-owned newspaper with deep connections to China’s top leadership circles, showed how this works rhetorically: “Faced with sudden access to online speech, some netizens transgress the boundaries of free speech. Rumours, personal attack and blackmailing are common occurrences. Therefore, regulating behaviours online is a consensus of the majority of citizens.” For all of the recent trouble faced by China’s Internet celebrities, the biggest loser in the current crackdown is the average microblogger who relied upon the representative command of these wealthier, more powerful voices. If China’s most prominent are now muzzled, then there’s little hope for its middle classes to speak up in their place.

Meanwhile, Charles Xue continues to lose followers. For President Xi Jinping’s government, this must feel like a victory. Yet it’s a Pyrrhic one at best: Who, after all, is going to follow the man and the party that’s censoring them?

WP-BLOOMBERG

By Adam Minter

At some point after his August 23 arrest for allegedly soliciting a prostitute, Chinese Internet celebrity Charles Xue began losing his 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblogging site. The abandonment of Xue, a billionaire investor and online activist, has been subtle but unmistakable: At 12:36pm on Monday in China, he had 12,054,441 followers; 10 seconds later, he had 12,054,435; after another 10 seconds, he was down to 12,054,430. In five minutes, 50 followers had cut their online ties.

In the drip-by-drip desertion of a man once (and possibly still) counted among the most influential voices on China’s microblogs, we can also see the vibrant life draining out of the Chinese Internet, and Sina Weibo in particular. Since its 2009 launch, the service has acquired more than 500 million registered accounts and become the nation’s virtual town square, fostering discussion, driving change and relentlessly pursuing transparency — all while unnerving a government accustomed to holding a monopoly on the business of shaping public opinion.

At the time of his arrest, few believed Charles Xue was targeted for his immoral interests. This has become even more apparent in the last few days, as Chinese television has broadcast, over and over, an interview and confession in which Xue does not speak of his bedroom behaviour but rather denounces his Internet activities in favour of new online rules — including specific guidelines to reign in rumour-mongering (and perhaps a great deal more) — that could land bloggers like him in jail for up to three years. As viewers, and followers, seem to understand, these days it’s probably safer not to even be virtually linked to Xue.

The recent crackdown, which has brought with it other suspicious detainments and humiliating televised interviews, has specifically targeted Big V’s, an influential group of a few hundred extremely prominent microblogging accounts. Like Xue, many Big V’s are highly successful businessmen who, in money- obsessed China, enjoy credibility that the scandal-tainted Communist Party lost long ago. For the average Web user, these events leave a clear message: In contemporary China, nothing, not even wealth, can protect you from the consequences of your words. It’s a troubling notion for the future of the once- raucous, and ever-expanding, Chinese Internet.

While regulating speech isn’t popular in China (or anywhere else, for that matter), regulating rumour potentially holds some appeal, particularly on China’s gossipy Internet. So the government has cleverly justified its crackdown under the guise of rumour control. On September 13, the prolific commentator Li Zhonghua, writing for the website of the Guangming Daily, a state-owned newspaper with deep connections to China’s top leadership circles, showed how this works rhetorically: “Faced with sudden access to online speech, some netizens transgress the boundaries of free speech. Rumours, personal attack and blackmailing are common occurrences. Therefore, regulating behaviours online is a consensus of the majority of citizens.” For all of the recent trouble faced by China’s Internet celebrities, the biggest loser in the current crackdown is the average microblogger who relied upon the representative command of these wealthier, more powerful voices. If China’s most prominent are now muzzled, then there’s little hope for its middle classes to speak up in their place.

Meanwhile, Charles Xue continues to lose followers. For President Xi Jinping’s government, this must feel like a victory. Yet it’s a Pyrrhic one at best: Who, after all, is going to follow the man and the party that’s censoring them?

WP-BLOOMBERG