China's tragic crackdown on social media activism
This OpEd first appeared on Fortune. Click here for the original post.
FORTUNE -- Social media in China, which has nearly 600 million users, has long been recognized as a political game-changer. In a country where a one-party regime maintains tight censorship over traditional media, the relative freedom of expression available via Chinese social media, particularly Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), has made it a powerful platform for rallying public opinion.
In the past few years, Weibo has been credited for exposing corrupt officials, mobilizing the public against social injustices, and forcing local governments to abandon plans for building hazardous plants in densely populated areas.
The demonstrated potency of China's emerging social media has left many wondering whether the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue to tolerate it.
Judging by the recent ferocious crackdown launched by the Chinese government, the answer is clear: The new leadership, which has been in office for 10 months, is implementing a comprehensive plan to eliminate the threat represented by China's social media.
So far, the campaign has resulted in the arrests of several leading online commentators, each of whom used to have tens of millions of loyal followers on Weibo. On August 21, police in Beijing detained Qin Huohuo and Yang Qiuyu, two well-known Big-Vs (online commentators with verified large followings), on charges of rumormongering and defamation. Two days later, police in Suzhou arrested Zhou Lubao, another online muckraker famous for spotting an expensive watch worn by a smiling official inspecting the site of a horrendous traffic accident a years ago (ironically, Zhou's arrest coincided with the trial of the corrupt official). Zhou was accused of blackmail and rumormongering.
Then, on August 25, the Chinese government dropped a real bombshell. Its police arrested Charles Xue, a wealthy Chinese-American investor with more than 12 million online fans. Xue, an outspoken crusader against corruption and social injustice in China, was allegedly caught with a prostitute in Beijing.
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Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.