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Outcry as government blocks comment function on popular microblogs

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Shu Qi: she may agree with the government on this one...

“My girlfriend said in order for her to marry me I have to comment ‘I love you’ in every one of her weibo posts for 100 consecutive days. It’s been 99 days and yet I woke up this morning to find that weibo has disabled the comment function…” one netizen wrote on Sina Weibo on March 31.

It was a joke, but of the satirical variety.

He wasn’t the only one to find the commenting function suddenly disabled on the microblog service. As it turns out, Beijing had ordered China’s two most popular microblogging platforms, operated by Sina and Tencent, to impose a three-day ban on one of their most popular user functions – the ability to comment on other posts (each service has more than 300 million registered users.)

On Sina Weibo, users who tried to comment on posts after 8am on Saturday, March 31 were greeted with a message saying that microblogs contained “many rumours and illegal, destructive information”. The shutdown was necessary, the notice said, “to carry out a concentrated cleanup”.

The comment blackout was initiated after wild rumours over the last two weeks about a failed military coup in Beijing in the aftermath of the ousting of former party secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai (see page 7). Netizens were claiming to have seen tanks roll into the capital, and have heard gunshots.

But Xinhua denounced the rumours, saying they were a fabrication of “lawless people”. Authorities then announced that they’d arrested six microbloggers and closed 16 websites for “disseminating online rumours”.

Industry observers say the shutting down of the comment function was a clear warning from regulators. “It is a punishment,” Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the popular media website, agreed. The government had decided “to make it very clear that there’s a line that shall not be crossed. It makes you remember who your boss is.”

China’s biggest blogger and race car driver Han Han, agrees: “[Disabling comments] has nothing to do with cleaning up rumours, it’s about showing off state power and serving a warning: if I can make comments disappear for three days, I can also make you lose your little weibo altogether,” he wrote on his own weibo page.

The root of the problem, Han reckons, is that Chinese people have no critical thinking skills. “Authorities educate the masses to believe whatever they see, and listen to whoever is speaking, without asking that extra question and without thinking one level deeper. The natural outcome is a proliferation of rumours, and everyone is hurt.” (Needless to say, his post was quickly deleted a few hours later, but not before it had been reposted more than 60,000 times.)

Users of Twitter-like services like Sina Weibo have enjoyed small windows of unrestricted speech, particularly when it comes to the discussion of breaking news. The Wenzhou high-speed train crash came to public attention via weibo rather than the state media, for example.

But officials are now attempting to manage weibo more aggressively. Late last year the government announced that users were required to register under their real names, a measure that was supposed to be enforced by the middle of March. If successful, the policy should mean that rumour-mongers can be more easily traced.

The problem for the authorities is that the campaign comes at a time when the internet is abuzz with excitement over the Bo Xilai affair.

“Now I understand why the government is campaigning to crack down on internet rumours – because they all turn out to be true,” one internet user wrote.

Clearly, Bo’s demise has the internet police working overtime, especially in deleting commentary related to his sacking.

But others are questioning publicly whether Beijing will be able to control weibo quite as it plans.

“When a door opens and the people inside come to know the scenery outside – and get used to having it there – whoever tries to close the door again will find it difficult,” Wang Lifen, a former CCTV host, wrote on his own weibo.

“Maybe you can temporarily force it closed, but at a certain point it will open even wider. This is the law of the development of things. Everyone knows the consequence when you violate the laws of common sense.”

But actress Shu Qi probably wishes that the comment function will be banned for good. In late March the starlet shut down her own Sina Weibo account after being caught up in a bitter online feud which resulted in pictures from her early days as a soft-porn star circulating in cyberspace.

It all started when Shu stumbled into a heated row between two stars Donnie Yen and Zhao Wenzhuo, who were filming the action movie Special Identity. In a weibo post, Shu sided with Yen, praising his work ethic and professionalism. But her act of friendship irked Zhao’s fans. To retaliate, they circulated Shu’s nude photos online and flooded her microblog with abusive comments.

The actress, who had over 10 million followers, chose to delete her account, disappearing entirely from the service.

But for millions of other weibo users, there was better news. After the three day hiatus, the comment section on weibo was turned on again, and services soon seemed to be up-and-running once more.

No doubt the online regulators will be watching closely to see if any lessons have been learned.

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