Chinese authorities said on Saturday they had detained six people and closed down 16 websites for spreading rumours on the Internet of an attempted coup in Beijing earlier this month. They also announced new restrictions to “punish” two popular Twitter-like microblogging services.
The 16 websites were shut down for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors” of “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing”, the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) said in a statement reported by the official Xinhua news agency.
Six microbloggers were also detained for spreading this information online, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Public Security, the police authority, said, adding that “an undisclosed number of people who had disseminated similar rumours on the Internet were also admonished and educated”.
China’s two most popular Twitter-like microblogging services, Sina and Tencent weibo which boast more than three hundred million users, were abuzz with rumours of political infighting among China’s leaders for much of the past month, sparked by the political scandal surrounding the ousting of Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai.
With the central government releasing little information on Mr. Bo’s fate following the brief one-line sentence announcing his removal on March 15, rumours proliferated.
The online speculation reached fever-pitch on the night of March 19, when U.S.-based newspapers linked to the banned Falun Gong group reported of an attempted coup and gunshots being heard in central Beijing. This was followed by some Chinese microbloggers posting pictures on weibo of military vehicles on Beijing's main avenues. The photographs were later found to have been taken from rehearsals for a military parade in 2010, while the normalcy of life in the Chinese capital and President Hu Jintao leaving on overseas visits shortly thereafter suggested that the speculation was without basis.
The SIIO said the rumours had “a very bad influence on the public” and the websites were closed “in accordance with laws” for failing to stop their spread. Sina and Tencent weibo, on which most of the rumours spread, had been “criticised and punished accordingly” by the authorities, the statement said.
Both microblogging services on Saturday suspended commenting functions that allow users to leave their own comments on others’ posts, a feature that is popular on both microblogs but not offered on Twitter.
The move was an apparent attempt to curb online discussions and send a warning to both services.
Tencent said in a statement that it would suspend the commenting function until April 3 “to clean up rumours and other illegal information”, while Sina released a similar statement also announcing it would suspend comments for the same period of time.
Beijing police authorities also warned Internet users in a statement on Friday “to abide by laws and be vigilant against online rumours”.
The authorities’ response to clamp down on rumours brought wide criticism from many microbloggers on Saturday, with calls for an approach that provided more transparency and access to information rather than imposed further restrictions.
“Can you stop rumours by blocking comments?,” Zhang Xin, the CEO of SOHO China, one of the country’s biggest real estate developers, wrote to her more than 3.25 million followers on Sina Weibo.
“The best way to prevent rumours is to have openness and transparency,” she said. “The more you stop the news, the more rumours you will have.” Within hours, the message was forwarded by more than 11,000 people.
Keywords: China coup rumours