Big Vs and bottom lines
Authorities move against some of China’s most vocal microbloggers
Aug 31st 2013 | BEIJING |From the print edition
BETWEEN August 20th and 23rd Beijing police arrested several microbloggers on a charge normally reserved for rabble-rousers on the streets: that of “creating a disturbance”. They were nabbed, police claim, for spreading false rumours. Earlier in the month two influential microblogging activists were also arrested in east-central China. Each had accused officials of wrongdoing. An online crackdown is under way on those who do not follow the Communist Party’s line.
Yet those arrested are small fry. Of greater concern to authorities are the so-called “Big Vs”, popular microbloggers on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, the two leading microblogs, 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.
Many assume that Mr Xue’s arrest is a message to the rest of the Big Vs, including holders of foreign passports, that no one is too big to be touched. They hardly needed warning. The authorities have by turns been courting and intimidating the Big Vs in their efforts to control the virtual public square. Arresting or silencing the biggest ones comes with risks for the government, because of the stir it would cause: Kai-Fu Lee, a Taiwanese tech celebrity living in China, has more than 50m followers on Sina Weibo. On the other hand, many microbloggers with foreign passports have good cause to be compliant. They often have business interests and Chinese family members to protect.
On August 10th Mr Xue and more than a dozen other Big Vs attended a forum, portions of which were later shown on state television, 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 Vs publicly affirmed the wisdom of these strictures, known as the “seven bottom lines”. One Big V, Pan Shiyi, a property developer with 16m followers, posted a short video in which he compared the seven bottom lines to traffic rules, suggesting they are reasonable and should be obeyed.
Authorities have since made clear that microbloggers who break the strictures can be treated just as if they were causing a real-world ruckus. On August 21st Legal Evening News reported that Beijing police now consider the online world as much a public space as the real one. It was a “judicial breakthrough” that appears to be the legal basis for some recent detentions.
Zhang Qianfan, a professor of law at Peking University, recently wrote a critique of this legal approach, suggesting that order cannot be maintained on the internet, nor should it be. By nature, he wrote, the internet is a noisy place. “The government should step aside. Once it interferes with the internet, we will soon find it becomes the biggest rumour-monger.”