September 16, 2013 12:07 pm

China intensifies internet crackdown

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The Chinese government has intensified its crackdown on the internet, describing online criticism of the ruling Communist party as illegal and airing a televised confession from one of the country’s most popular online commentators.

An article in Monday’s edition of the influential party journal “Seeking Truth” described online criticism of the party and government as “defamation”, while Chinese-American investor and internet personality Charles Xue appeared on state television in handcuffs on Sunday to praise new legislation that in effect criminalises online dissent.

The moves are part of a wider campaign launched in recent weeks by newly installed President Xi Jinping to stifle calls for political reform in China and assert control over the country’s unruly internet.

Mr Xue, who boasts 12m followers on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, was arrested in August for allegedly hiring prostitutes for group sex sessions, but most analysts and even senior officials say his arrest was intended as a warning to other prominent internet personalities.

There was no mention of the prostitute allegations in a 10-minute segment aired on China Central Television on Sunday, during which a chastened Mr Xue described how he had contributed to an “illegal and immoral” atmosphere on the Chinese internet.

“I felt like the emperor of the internet,” Mr Xue said when describing the thrill of speaking directly to more than 12m followers. “How do you think that felt? Awesome.”

The shackled Mr Xue also praised a legal interpretation issued by China’s judicial authorities last week, which allows people to be prosecuted for defamation or “spreading online rumours” if their posts are viewed by more than 5,000 internet users or forwarded more than 500 times.

The latest internet regulations are intended to “achieve the good social effect of attacking the extremely small minority and educating the large majority” to “standardise their online words and deeds”, the government said last week.

Those found guilty of online “rumour-mongering” can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

Defenders of the rules say they are necessary to protect individuals from libel and to stop the spread of false rumours that can lead to public panic.

One prominent example came after the 2011 Japanese tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, when shops across China sold out of salt after internet users had falsely claimed that the iodine it contained could guard against radiation.

The most important target of the current internet crackdown, however, appears to be criticism of the government and the Communist party.

“The use of information networks to commit provocation and other such crimes has created grave destruction of social and public order,” Chinese judicial authorities said in an online explanation of the new rules. “Acts of jeering and stirring up trouble easily lead to mass incidents and create grave upsets of public order.”

Criminal defamation cases can be brought against internet users even when there is no plaintiff, as long as the authorities decide that online content “gravely harms social order or national interests”.

The vague and broad definition of online criminality includes “triggering upsets of public order”, “causing vile social influence”, “causing vile international influence” and “harming the country’s image”, according to the new interpretation.

In practice, the crime of “stirring up trouble” has often been used to silence political activists and critics of the Communist party or individual leaders.

“With this legislation the party is trying to regain ownership over public discourse,” said one normally outspoken professor of politics at one of China’s top universities, who asked not to be named because of fear of reprisal. “It is equally important to the party to control both public opinion and the barrel of the gun.”

The arrest of Mr Xue and the new regulations have had a pronounced chilling effect on online debate in recent weeks, with a number of high-profile commentators either absent or publicly stating their support for the revised online rules.

Pan Shiyi, founder of top real estate developer Soho China, appeared in a nervous television interview last week in which he said he wholeheartedly supported the new internet regulations.

Mr Pan boasts 16m followers on Weibo and has been an outspoken and passionate advocate for a variety of causes as well as a critic of some government policies.

The latest moves to rein in online debate are stricter than any in recent years and come after Mr Xi urged the propaganda apparatus in August to form a strong “internet army,” to “seize the ground of new media,” according to Chinese media reports.

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