The Communist party has begun a new offensive in its battle to control the internet, arresting rumour-mongers, whistleblowers and journalists and even toppling one of China’s most influential tweeters.
Even as it trumpets how the live tweeting of the Bo Xilai trial is a “watershed” moment, the Party has warned it intends to further restrict internet freedom and has made five major arrests in the last four days.
Perhaps the biggest victim is 60-year-old Charles Xue, an internet entrepreneur, an American citizen, the wealthy son of a former deputy mayor of Beijing, and one of China’s most outspoken tweeters with 12 million followers on the Sina Weibo microblog.
Mr Xue was detained in a residential compound in northern Beijing, apparently in the company of a 22-year-old woman.
“After questioning, the duo confessed to facts of involvement in prostitution. The police department has by law placed the two under administrative detention,” the police said, in a tweet.
Mr Xue’s detention immediately raised eyebrows, with even the editor of a patriotic state-run newspaper suggesting he had fallen victim to the political campaign.
“I remind all the people who are determined to have a political confrontation that if you choose this path, please wipe your bum clean,” he added. “I also sincerely suggest to the government that the sin you expose must be perfectly accurate.”
Others suggested it was unlikely that Mr Xue was soliciting sex, given his treatment for rectal cancer in 2011. One lawyer pointed out that while the state media rarely publish a suspect’s name in this kind of case, Mr Xue had been instantly exposed.
Meanwhile two whistleblowers were arrested on Friday, Zhou Lubao, who helped expose the mayor of Lanzhou for corruption, and Liu Hu, a journalist in Chongqing who had called for the investigation of the city’s former vice mayor, Ma Zhengqi.
On Tuesday, two men were detained on criminal charges of “starting quarrels and provoking trouble”, by using the internet to spin scandals and spread rumours.
Qin Zhihui and Yang Xiuyu ran a company that had seeded stories on the web that subsequently went viral, usually in order to create publicity. Some examples included a tale that the family of an Italian killed in a train crash had received far more compensation, 30 million euros, than Chinese victims, and that a senior manager of the Red Cross had showered his girlfriend, Guo Meimei, with a Maserati sports car.
“I do not think this campaign will affect me because I check the facts of every report I post online or even repost from others,” said Zhu Ruifeng, another famous Chinese whistle-blower.