China has launched its toughest censorship move since the rise of social media as the ruling Communist party tries to prevent an internal power struggle weakening its grip on society.

Sina Corp and Tencent, the companies operating China’s most popular Twitter equivalents, temporarily barred users from commenting on other posts on Saturday morning.

The move followed a government announcement that six people had been detained and 16 websites closed for spreading rumours about a military coup in Beijing, and government criticism of the microblogs for failing to stop the spread of such rumours.

“Recently, many rumours and other illegal and harmful information have appeared in comments on Weibo,” said Sina Corp, the owner of Sina Weibo, and Tencent, which owns the Tencent QQ site, in identical statements released separately. The two companies said their comment functions would be suspended from Saturday morning to Tuesday morning to allow a “centralised clean-up”.

The blocking became one of the hottest topics on Weibo on Saturday. A search on Sina Weibo for “comments suspended” found more than 23,000 posts.

Many users expressed frustration, and some remonstrated with the authorities for the lack of freedom of speech. “No commenting – I feel so lonely!!!” said one post. Another said: “Did we really need to be reminded that they can shut us up anytime?”

A further 1,065 people have been arrested since mid-February and more than 208,000 “harmful” online messages have been deleted as part of an internet “cleansing” campaign dubbed “spring breeze”.

Beijing police told state media they had issued warnings to 3,117 websites across the country and that they had punished 70 internet companies, including through forced closures.

The report said the campaign was mainly aimed at websites providing illegal information on subjects such as drugs, the sale of human organs and counterfeiting.

But at least some of the punishments were handed out for “spreading rumours” or “harmful information”, which can include writings critical of the Communist party and the political system.

Last week, following the purge of Bo Xilai, the ambitious but controversial party secretary of Chongqing, Beijing was shaken by reports, posted by microblog users, that military vehicles had entered the city, gunfire had been heard in the capital and Zhou Yongkang, the leadership’s security chief, had staged a coup to rescue Mr Bo.

The disappearance of Mr Bo and fierce debate in wider party circles about the correct ideological line and the country’s future have highlighted deep fissures in the party, triggered debate over the limits of its development concept, and raised questions over the stability of a regime many had come to accept as stable.

The problems have also called into question the assumption that the party had established a reliable mechanism for an orderly and peaceful leadership succession. The party is preparing to choose a nine-member politburo standing committee this year, which would form its leadership for the next decade.

Mr Bo’s downfall and the apparent power struggle at the top have been the main topic of conversation even among those Chinese who normally avoid open discussion of such taboo subjects. A retired government official in Henan province said his family had recently installed virtual private networks on their computers so they could get news reports from outside China, which are normally blocked.

“Everyone is confused and worried because apparently they are fighting at the top,” he said.

Several Chinese journalists said they had been barred from reporting the coup rumours and other information about the power struggle, but some mouthpieces, such as the People’s Daily newspaper, have been trying to debunk the rumours in commentaries during the past week.

The social sites sometimes allow for information suppressed in traditional media to spread and create a debate critical of the government. This was most prominent when a high-speed rail crash last July triggered a flood of criticism of the government’s handling of the accident and more broadly of China’s overall development model.

Since then, the propaganda authorities have stepped up censorship of the microblogs. A broad range of measures taken by Sina and other companies hosting blogs have throttled some of the debate, but censors are unable to prevent all sensitive information from spreading because technology used on the sites moves too fast for them to keep up.

Beijing is reluctant to abolish social media because it sees them as a useful channel for people to vent frustration and as a tool allowing the party to better understand public sentiment.

Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

Get alerts on Chinese politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article