China Reins in Popular Online Voices With New Microblog Controls

China Reins in Popular Online Voices With New Microblog Controls

Chinese microblogger Dong Rubin mused to his 45,000 followers last month that he might face arrest amid a government crackdown on Internet rumors. On Sept. 10, he was detained for misreporting the worth of his business. Dong joined a group of people who had gone online to criticize government-sanctioned projects or voice political opinions and wound up in detention on unrelated allegations. This year, Dong opposed plans for an oil refinery in the southern city of Kunming where he lives, a project that spurred street protests.The crackdown on users of Twitter-like microblogs, along with new punishments for online defamation, reflect a stepped-up Communist Party campaign to rein in a forum that’s challenged China’s censorship regime. As President Xi Jinping asserts his authority before a party plenum this fall, his government is placing new limits on critics and people who may spread online reports of party cadres’ wrongdoing.

“They are going to pour massive resources into managing it,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, the director of Danwei, an Internet and media research firm in Beijing. “They will use a combination of intimidation and technology, and it’s quite effective.”

Even as government officials get for microblog accounts and state media praise online whistleblowers, authorities have exerted more control over the Web conversation.

Legal Interpretation

China’s top court issued an interpretation last week saying Web users could face jail time if defamatory rumors they put online are read by more than 5,000 people or reposted more than 500 times.

Popular social media platforms include Sina Corp.’s (SINA) Weibo service and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s (700) instant messaging app WeChat. Tencent is now the biggest Internet company in Asia.

Liu Qi, a spokesman at Sina, didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment. Jerry Huang, a director of investor relations at Tencent, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail queries on the rules’ effects.

The interpretation is a way to control “Big Vs,” or people with verified microblog accounts and many followers who can direct online debate, said Isaac Mao, director of Hong Kong-based social-networks research center Sharism Lab.

Last month, American-Chinese venture capitalist Charles Xue was detained on charges of soliciting prostitutes. In a story on the official Xinhua News Agency yesterday, Xue, who had commented on social topics to his 12 million online followers, was quoted as saying he was irresponsible for spreading rumors.

His Road

“Xue warned other big Vs to stay alert and not to go down his road,” the story said.

The crackdown indicates the government is still adjusting its response to information circulated and seen by the nation’s 591 million Web users. In December, the government required real names to sign up for Internet connections. Earlier in 2012, the comment functions on Sina and Tencent’s microblog services were briefly halted after authorities detained six people for spreading rumors of a coup attempt.

“The intention is to deter people who like to criticize the government on Weibo,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University. “It’s a very scary thing.”

Power Abuse

China’s State Council Information Office didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment Sept. 13 on the crackdown. A Xinhua story last week said a number of people had been detained for allegedly spreading online rumors, adding that Sina Weibo has become an important channel to expose corruption.

In Kunming earlier this year, Dong investigated the planned oil refinery and published his report online. On Weibo, he called for more transparency about the project.

Dong said in a May interview he refused government requests to attend group meetings about the planned refinery. Late last month, he wondered on his microblog what crime authorities might bring against him.

“Prostitution, gambling, drug trafficking, tax evasion, picking quarrels, creating rumors, an online Mafia?” he wrote.

In an essay posted online on Sept. 4, Dong said police detained his general manager and confiscated computers after they began the campaign against Big Vs. He was detained Sept. 10, said his lawyer, Xiao Dongzhi.

“They fear people will tell things as they are,” said Zhu Ruifeng, who runs a whistleblowing website called People Supervision Net. “Our hopes in this country are in the Internet. Weibo’s ability to transmit information is too quick.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Henry Sanderson in Beijing at hsanderson@bloomberg.net; Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at ychen447@bloomberg.net

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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