The arrest of investor and prominent online commentator Charles Xue for soliciting prostitutes in August was thought to be a veiled warning to Internet celebrities. More recently, authorities have been more direct in cracking down on his and others’ online activities in what may be a move to gain greater control over Weibo, China’s popular Twitter-like microblogging platform. The multi-pronged campaign, which includes making public examples of certain celebrities and also moving to restrict more grassroots expression, may change the way that Chinese use the Internet to comment on public affairs.
Recent developments, including Charles Xue’s detention, are extensions of a broader campaign, ostensibly against rumor spreading online. On August 10, China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s state-run network, hosted a forum on Internet celebrities’ social responsibility. The celebrities, known as ‘Big Vs’ because of the “V” following their handle which indicates verified status, spoke about the responsibility high-profile Weibo users had to ensure the information they spread was true. Since then, Big Vs whose activities have not met government-defined standards of social responsibility have become targets.
Charles Xue, who took part in that forum, has since been arrested and placed under investigation by the authorities. Initially, CCTV broadcast his arrest and confession for soliciting prostitutes. Last week, CCTV also highlighted another confession by Charles Xue, in which he repented for his carless use of Weibo. Both Xue’s words and the way they have been promoted by state-run media draw parallels to the self-criticisms and public shaming that occurred during periods of ideological fervor like the Anti-Rightest Movement and Cultural Revolution in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Wrote popular Weibo user @作家-天佑, a Weibo celebrity and social commentator, “Charles Xue was detained for group sex and soliciting prostitutes, and then made a desperate ‘self-criticism’ on CCTV about how he became a Big V. What is up with this? What was he really detained for?@薛蛮子 因聚众淫乱和嫖娼被拘，却在央视拼命检讨自己成为大V的心路历程。这是什么节奏？他到底是因为啥被拘的？”
Another user, @南云楼-, wrote “Charles Xue has been trotted out once more on CCTV to serve as ‘negative teaching material.’ Add that up with the righteous-seeming, mighty-sounding host of the program, and such a meek, docile, Colonel Sanders-looking old man, and it really makes my heart ache. CCTV, be kind to your captive!薛蛮子再度被送上央视作为全国人民的反面教材示众，伴着主持人满脸正义的神情与腔调，看到这样一个须发具白肯德基爷爷一般的老人如此服软、乖顺，不由一阵心酸。呼吁央视善待俘虏！”
Charles Xue is not the only microblogger who has been made into an example: billionaire businessman and outspoken supporter of human rights, Wang Gongquan, has also been detained for “disturbing public order.” China University of Politics and Law Associate Professor Wang Jianxun wrote of these incidents, “A variety of signs seem to show that a kind of White Terror is approaching. In human history, the greatest form of terrorism is the use of a violent apparatus to infringe upon citizens’ freedom and rights. Don’t forget, everyone will become a victim of this kind of terrorism, including those who perpetrate the violence.种种迹象似乎表明，一种白色恐怖正袭来。在人类历史上，最大的恐怖主义就是，利用暴力机器践踏公民的自由和权利。别忘了，所有人都将成为这种恐怖主义的受害者，包括那些施暴者。”
The words used to describe these recent happenings, “self-criticism,” “negative teaching material,” and “White Terror,” are throwbacks to the early days of the People’s Republic of China, when Mao Zedong and others sought to ensure ideological purity by encouraging cadres to self-criticize and labeling certain books, movies, and examples “negative teaching material,” or examples of what not to do. Such parallels are unsettling to many Chinese, some of whom have lived through periods of intense political persecution.
Big Vs are not the only targets of these scare tactics. Authorities have also rolled out a new law that could land a Weibo user in prison for three years for retweeting rumors, provided their initial post is retweeted 500 times or clicked on more than 5,000 times. The line between rumor and truth is difficult to determine, especially when traditional media is ultimately controlled by government authorities. On Weibo, rumors initially denied by government sources have proven more than once to be truth that state-run media and officials have not wanted exposed. As a public forum where authorities’ versions of events may be questioned, Weibo has played a role in exposing corrupt officials and failures of the justice system. The new law may reduce the number of unverified rumors floating around Weibo, but it will also deter individuals from commenting on public affairs, for fear that they may fall on the wrong side of that unclear line.
The combination of these top-down and bottom-up approaches leaves no Weibo user entirely free to speculate, challenge, or voice opinions that cannot be proven to authorities’ satisfaction. By encouraging self-censorship, this campaign represents yet another move by the government in what commentators have called the ‘cat and mouse’ battle between netizens and censors. These new laws and publicity campaigns may indeed be effective in deterring Weibo users from spreading ‘rumors,’ but as with previous attempts to control public opinion, they are also likely to have unintended consequences. Just as the censorship of certain words and phrases has resulted in a more creative use of language by Chinese netizens in order to bypass filters, this attempt to regulate the public sphere has only moved the battle, not ended it.