Numerous websites remained shut down Sunday as the Communist government sought to penalise popular social media sites for circulating rumours of a coup.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency said Beijing police questioned and admonished an unspecified number of Internet users and detained six people for “fabricating or spreading” online rumours.
The government shut down 16 websites, including two Twitter-like services that have more than 250 million users.
The microblogging services — known as weibo in Chinese — Sina and Tencent had their comment functions disabled to “clean up” rumours that included talk of “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing,” the state Internet Information Office told Xinhua.
Twitter, like Facebook and YouTube, is banned because the Chinese government wanted more control over the services.
The Chinese websites went wild with rumours after the unexplained dismissal March 15 of Bo Xilai, the party chief of Chongqing city, who was rising high within the party ranks but has not been seen in public since then.
The ambitious son of a revolutionary Maoist leader, Bo had hopes, now dashed, of an appointment this year to China’s top decision-making body, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.
His fall came soon after a scandal made unusually public by Chinese Internet users: the attempted flight of Bo’s onetime police chief. Wang Lijun spent a night in a US Consulate in Chengdu in March but was refused asylum and handed over to China’s feared state security. Wang, who built a reputation for busting organised crime, also disappeared. The Chinese government said he left his job to relieve “stress.”
The government’s actions this weekend indicate its difficulty operating with its traditional secrecy because of the explosion of Internet and cellular use in China.
Internet users top half a billion, and mobile phone accounts now exceed 1 billion, according to government data.
For the tomb-sweeping festival this week, some Chinese will even place paper replicas of Apple’s iPad and iPhone at the graves of dead relatives for use in the afterlife.
Chinese authorities shut 16 websites for spreading rumours of troop movements and gunshots around the Communist leadership’s Zhongnanhai compound in central Beijing last month. Words such as “coup” were quickly blocked by China’s Internet censors, who filter out sensitive subjects.
The Internet crackdown sparked criticism and even cartoons over the weekend, as the Internet, while heavily policed, remains China’s freest public space. Although comment sections were shut down, people are still able to make original postings and forward others’ postings. Some of the postings called boldly for more openness from the government.
“What is the best way to stop ‘rumours?’ ” Zhang Xin, one of China’s most prominent real estate developers, asked the 3 million-plus followers of her Sina weibo account. “It is transparency and openness. The more you don’t allow speech, the more rumours there will be.”
This Internet age “is an era where the leaders perform, and the people are the audience,” posted Guo Weiqing, a professor of public policy at Sun Yat-sen University in south China’s Guangzhou city.
“You messed up the play on stage; how can you still order theater manager to muffle the audiences’ mouths? It’s too ridiculous,” Guo said.
The clampdown on Sina and Tencent is “not an extreme act of censorship but reminds everybody of who is in charge; it sends a signal to the Internet companies and users that the government is watching you,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei.com, a website focused on Chinese media and Internet.
China’s Internet today “is the freest platform of public expression ever, but there is also a constant effort by the government to rein it in. Since 2008, there has been a consistent policy of control, and nothing is going to change in the next couple of years,” he said.
Some users appear little aware of controls dubbed “the Great Firewall” and said they understood why the government blocks comments critical of its actions.
Others took a more critical line. “This incident today reminds us again how important, how urgent and how remote is the use of law to rule China,” Wang Ran, chief executive of an investment bank, wrote on his popular microblog. “If we don’t move towards the rule of law, we not only can’t avoid danger, but also absurdity.”