A Troubling Future for China’s Once-Raucous Internet
At some point after his Aug. 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 12:36 p.m. 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 sexual 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 behavior but rather denounces his Internet activities in favor of new online rules -- including specific guidelines to reign in rumor-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 rumor potentially holds some appeal, particularly on China’s gossipy Internet. So the government has cleverly justified its crackdown under the guise of rumor control. On Sept. 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. Rumors, personal attack and blackmailing are common occurrences. Therefore, regulating behaviors online is a consensus of the majority of citizens.”
A blunter explanation was offered in an undated photo -- posted by the Tea Leaf Nation blog -- of what one presumes is a banner hung by the government. It reads: “Don’t believe rumors, don’t spread rumors. The government’s opinion is the only basis for proof.”
Truth in China has always been the prerogative of the Communist Party. The Internet may have made the enforcement of that prerogative more difficult, but the will to enforce it has never been steadier, especially in the face of figures like Charles Xue. Using his online persona, Xue Manzi, he not only heightened his own profile, but he also raised awareness for several causes, most notably child trafficking. In doing so, he tacitly embarrassed a Chinese government that did not, or was not able to, similarly rally public opinion. More seriously, he highlighted public corruption. Rarely does a day go by that China’s state-owned news media doesn’t do the same, but as a high-profile investor with no connection to the party, Xue’s often-mocking tone constituted a rhetorical threat to a government historically unaccustomed to domestic critics it couldn’t control.
Insofar as Xue’s arrest on charges of prostitution was a ruse, it gave way this weekend. Though he was jailed on charges of solicitation, recent reports indicate he’s also under investigation for his alleged behavior online. And on Sunday, China’s Central Television first broadcast an astonishing interview with Xue, which, in form at least, looked like a Cultural Revolution-era public confession. Appearing in prison garb and handcuffs, the microblogger took the opportunity to testify that his popularity on Sina Weibo made him feel like an “emperor.” Meanwhile, in keeping with his new reputation as an illicit-rumor-monger, he conceded that he often did not verify the facts that he tweeted. “I overlooked the social responsibility that comes with being a ‘Big V’ and harmed society,” he testified. Xue went out of his way to praise the government’s campaign. “The internet is a virtual reality, but it needs order,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post’s translation. “A mature cyberspace needs law to keep it in check.”
CCTV provides no explanation for Xue’s sudden enthusiasm for government-regulated speech (an enthusiasm shared by real-estate mogul Pan Shiyi in another awkward state-conducted interview). But any doubt of his commitment is dispelled near the end of the interview, when Xue volunteers himself for public service. As reported by Xinhua, China’s state-owned newswire: “He offered to appear handcuffed as a negative example to publicize the online rumors crackdown.”
That is, of course, what he is already doing in the video. It’s turnabout as dramatic and perverse as when, at the end of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Winston Smith concedes under torture that the four fingers held in front of him are actually five. In both cases, acceptance of the party’s truth is defeat and humiliation. For Xue, though, there’s an added embarrassment: the slow and steady evaporation of his followers, those same people who once made him feel like an emperor. In China, there’s only one emperor, and he’s a jealous one.
That jealousy has already begun to result in a less interesting Chinese Internet, where -- just as in nonvirtual Chinese life -- people withhold speech for fear of its possible costs. In recent days, other Big V’s have tweeted ominous, though nonspecific, messages. “A dark night,” wrote Ren Zhiqiang, a Big V real-estate tycoon with more than 15 million Sina Weibo followers, on Saturday. “And a gust of wind blew out the candle that brought light.” An equally somber, if more direct, tweet from Pan Shiyi on Friday night, days after his awkward interview: “Bad news today.” The reason, widely agreed upon, was the detainment of Wang Gongquan, another Big V, whose microblogging account had been suspended last year.
But one could also apply their words to the future of Chinese discourse online. 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?
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org