Amid the whirlwind of Bo Xilai news elsewhere in the world, China is going after gossipers on the popular social networking hub Weibo.
Yang Xiuyu, founder of Erma Interactive Marketing and Planning Co, was arrested by Beijing authorities this week along with one of his employees, Qin Zhihui. Four other employees are currently under investigation.
At their best, Erma was an advantageous conspiracy theorist drumming up Weibo followers, a "Black PR" firm. But, even if one frames the conversation in terms of free speech, China's web users are glad to be rid of them.
The firm's founder Yang Xiuyu–known as Lierchaisi on Weibo–had his last post on Weibo mobbed by nearly 3,000 comments, many poking fun at his situation but others sincerely glad this rumor mill had been shut down. Many say he deserved to be caught. Others simply posted things like "Go to hell, scum"
Erma was a big, easy target in China’s crackdown on false online rumors.
The culprits have accumulated some pretty damning social networking faux pas, with the police claiming the company has spread 3,000 rumors online. Some of their most memorable transgressions include: claiming that foreign victims of the Wenzhou train collision received more compensation from the government, starting rumors about China's beleaguered Red Cross, and slandering (in the eyes of some) the head of China's Disabled Persons' Federation by falsely claiming he was of Japanese ancestry.
So, what brought these online rumormongers to their knees? The answer is Lei Feng, the Communist Party's propaganda poster boy from the early Chairman Mao years. According to the police, they were alerted to the firm after people complained that their microblog had posts claiming Lei Feng lived a life of luxury.
The irony of the fact that the two were arrested for posting lies about someone who is considered–outside of China–to be almost certainly fictional was not lost on all. Veteran China journalist and blogger Charlie Custer said on Tech in Asia, "…shouldn’t the police also be investigating the people in the propaganda department?"
There are two ways interpret Beijing's wanton crackdown on social media rumors. On the face, one might see it as another example of the authorities quashing upstarts, an idea expressed by many; but the Chinese media's ability to oust crooked party members is practically nonexistent compared to Weibo. Until China's press somehow manages to gnaw off its muzzle, Weibo is the new central government's best chance at rooting out corruption officials at every level of government. As Liu Shengjun, a columnist at ftchinese.com put it, America’s free media is “why corrupt officials are rarely exposed through Facebook in the U.S."
Though the world and China are used to hearing about people getting harangued for their Weibo posts, it's usually the political troublemakers, not “big fat liars.” Rather than issuing a media blackout about the arrest as is typical when political troublemakers are arrested, the Chinese authorities have been shouting their most catch from the mountaintop. Of course, China's propaganda outlets have long been strong supporters of the crackdown on online rumors. Concerning Erma's takedown, they ping-pong between general disgust of the firm and reassurances that China respects freedom of speech.
The ever-nationalistic Global Times said, "We hope this is a turning point for the Internet to abide by law and morality." Xinhua–the government's official press agency–added to their coverage of the arrests: "Government authorities said netizens should bear in mind basic moral principles and deter false information to create a sound Internet realm." That might be a tad idealistic for publications that accidentally published snuff porn as an actual U.S. execution on their websites, to say nothing of the many times they’ve been duped by political satire. But, of course, China's state media has played its own role in this rumormonger's game of "Black PR".
After all, one of the rumors Yang Xiuyu supposedly spread was of the Guo Meimei Red Cross scandal in 2011. And that story was then picked up by nearly all Chinese media outlets, including China's official Xinhua and the party's pit bull Global Times. Though they didn't outright accuse Guo and Red Cross, they added to the rumor mill. This raises the somewhat tangential question: can China's official media meet the standards it demands web users adhere too?
China's social media world has never had it easy, with international social media blocked, domestic ones censored, celebrities agreeing to censor themselves, and even getting blamed for the eventual fall of China. Rumors are the least of netizens' worries.
Tyler Roney is a Beijing-based columnist for China Power and an editor of the magazine, The World of Chinese.