Monday, September 9, 2013

No Distiction Between Big and Small as China Cracksdown on Internet Dissent

Charles Xue (Courtesy The Economist)

The Bo Xilai trial in China has not only exposed the Beijing government’s desperate attempts to obfuscate deep-seated fissures within the ruling elite, but that the internet has become as decisive a battleground in the contest between the regime and pro-democracy activists as physical space.

Although there was brief optimism that permitting selected journalists to cover court proceedings in the trial of the disgraced former party boss of the Chongqin city-province demonstrated a new openness of recently-elected President Xi’s drive to fight corruption, such views are amazingly naïve.

The Economist in a recent article quoted the Legal Evening News saying that the police “consider the online world as much a public space as the real one.” The crackdown has targeted two types of internet activists The Economist said – those it describes as “small fry” and the really important ones – “the Big Vs.”



“‘Big Vs,’ (are) popular microbloggers … who have been verified not to be writing under a pseudonym (and so have a V beside their name). Many Big Vs have millions of followers and some write provocatively about sensitive social and political issues. On August 23rd Beijing police detained one Big V, Charles Xue, and later accused him of holding group sex parties with prostitutes. Mr Xue, who is a naturalised American, is a wealthy businessman with 12m followers,” The Economist said.

The Economist said that Chinese authorities have been both courting and intimidating the Big Vs in an effort to control information. However, the detention of Xue is interpreted by as Beijing’s message that not even foreign passport holders and wealthy businessmen like him are safe. Another Big V with a big fan club (50 million followers on Sina Weibo) is Taiwanese Kai-Fu Lee who was also arrested, said The Economist.

But interestingly, examining the way the Big Vs operate is a window into many issues deemed important as the social media takes over as the formal media in politically repressive societies remain shackled by the government. The Economist says that the Big Vs have “business interests to protect.” The question of how to navigate the thin line between running a media organisation as commercial enterprise while at the same time providing news, which is a public service, offers a challenge even in liberal democracies. It can be only more daunting in one-party dominated plutocracy like present-day China.

Beijing’s has also put into operation the other method of silencing dissent – by co-opting dissidents. The Eonomis says the Big V were part of a “forum to promote social responsibility among microbloggers. Lu Wei, chief of the State Internet Information Office, declared that microbloggers with large followings had a particular responsibility to tell the truth, protect state interests and social order, and uphold the law and ‘socialist’ ideals and morals.”
  
The Big V had apparently agreed to the strictures, which some among them had endorsed as reasonable. These strictures are known as the “seven bottom lines” the red line that should not be crossed.

Meanwhile, the “small fry” referred to with derision by The Economist who were arrested in police swoops between the August 20th and 23rd remain a cause for concern. Among them is Liu Hu, a journalist with the daily Xin Kuai Bao, who was arrested on August 23, for “spreading false rumours.” Apparently he had asked that an official of the Chongquin chamber of commerce be investigated for negligence.

The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said his house was searched, seized his laptop and computer and closed his Weibo account.

RSF says the charge of spreading false rumours is frequently used by Chinese authorities to arrest internet activists and netizens citing that Yang Xiuyu and Qin Zhihui (Qin Huohuo), were also arrested on this charge in Beijing on August 22.

“The charge of spreading false rumours brought against Liu Hu is very disturbing,” RSF said in a statement on August 26. “It shows that, although the Bo Xilai trial is supposed to send a message that the party is waging an all-out fight against internal corruption, in fact the authorities continue to persecute news providers who cover corruption cases.”

Meanwhile, actions of Chinese authorities go to show they had turned the Bo Xilai trial into a corruption case to prevent it exposing the fissures within the CCP. They refused to allow Bo’s final statement referring to those issues from appearing in court transcripts. “The discussion appeared to have been kept from public view because officials overseeing the trial and party leaders wanted to prevent any mention of infighting among party elites, said a person briefed on the court proceedings,” wrote Edward Wong in the New York Times on August 29.

Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese dissident wrote on the larger implications of releasing censored versions of the trial in a commentary to Bloomberg on August 27. “[b]y presenting a censored account, officials raised more questions than they answered. The public knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, and could only speculate on what major pieces of the story remained hidden. Even their reactions were censored: Within a day, the Jinan court received more than 4,000 comments on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, but only 22 were allowed to be shown,” said Ai Weiwei.

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