China has arrested six people and shut down 16 websites for spreading rumours that the military was preparing to launch a coup.
Bo Xilai rose to inspire Chongqing, only to fall foul of Communist leaders (AP)
By David Eimer, Beijing
8:22AM BST 31 Mar 2012
The arrests are a sign of the ruling communist party's (CCP) extreme nervousness in the wake of an extraordinary few weeks in which an unusually public power struggle amongst the party elite has seen the one-time politburo contender Bo Xilai deposed.
Rumours that a coup was imminent began spreading after Mr Bo was removed from his position as CCP chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing two weeks ago. Posts on microblogs claimed that armoured personnel carriers and tanks had been seen on the streets of Beijing.
China's state news agency Xinhua reported late on Friday that six people are under arrest for "fabricating or disseminating online rumours".
Sixteen websites have been closed for posting reports of "military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing". An unknown number of people were "admonished and educated" for their part in spreading the rumours, according to police in Beijing.
"The rumours have "caused a very bad effect on the public," said a spokesman for the State internet Information Office, while the websites were shut down for not acting to stop their spread. Two of China's most popular microblogging sites, weibo.com and qq.com, were also "criticised and punished accordingly" for their failure to prevent the rumours circulating said the spokesman.
Mr Bo's spectacular fall from grace at a time when he was being tipped for a place on the all-powerful nine man politburo in the forthcoming October reshuffle of the CCP leadership has created feverish speculation in China.
Anonymous sources continue to insist that Mr Bo's removal from his post is connected to the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in his hotel room in Chongqing last November.
Those sources claim that the old Harrovian had business dealings with Mr Bo's wife Gu Kailai and that Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing, had told Mr Bo that he believed Mr Heywood's death was suspicious. It was Mr Wang's attempt to seek asylum in the US consulate in Chongqing in February and subsequent arrest that precipitated Mr Bo's downfall.
Mr Heywood's family however say that the 41-year-old chain smoker died of natural causes. Suspicions remain too that Mr Bo is the target of a smear campaign from rivals in the CCP unhappy at his high public profile and position as the leader of the party's leftist faction.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people use social media websites, despite strict censorship. [Reuters]
China has shut down websites, made hundreds of arrests and punished two popular microblogging sites for "fabricating or disseminating online rumours" seemingly linked to a major political drama that led to the fall of a rising star. Authorities closed 16 websites for spreading rumours of "military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing," state internet authorities and Beijing police said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The crackdown underscores the government's anxieties over a public that is wired to the internet and eager to discuss political events despite strict censorship and threats of punishment. "The root cause [of the censorship measures] is the lack of transparency of Chinese politics," Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera. "People do not believe what they get from the official media, which is strictly censored and controlled." Xinhua reported that Beijing police had questioned and admonished an unspecified number of internet users and detained six people who were not identified. Since mid-February, Beijing police have arrested 1,065 suspects, issued warnings to the operators of more than 3,000 websites and deleted more than 208,000 "harmful" online messages during a crackdown on internet-related crime since mid-February, Xinhua said. Aside from the 16 websites shutdown, two Twitter-like services run by Sina Corporation and Tencent Holdings, which each have more than 300 million users, said they would disable their comment functions for three days in a "necessary cleanup". "Rumours and illegal, harmful information spread via microblogs have had a negative social impact and the comments contain a large amount of harmful information," said a message on Tencent's website. "From March 31, 8:00 am to April 3, 8:00 am, Weibo's comment function will be temporarily suspended," said Sina, whose Weibo service is China's most popular.
Rumours of a 'coup' The latest crackdown follows a surge in online rumours about a coup attempt which swirled following the Marchdismissal of rising political star Bo Xilai, the populist former leader of the mega-city of Chongqing "Internet rumours and lies packaged as 'facts' will turn conjecture into 'reality', stir up trouble online and disturb people's minds," the party's People's Daily newspaper said in a commentary accompanying the announcement of the crackdown. "If allowed to run amok, they will seriously disrupt social order, affect social stability and harm social integrity."
Yet to be fully explained, Bo's dismissal came after a top aide fled temporarily to a US consulate, apparently to seek asylum and in violation of party rules. "This will, in the short term, stop people from building rumours, but it will add to the sense of anxiety and the sense of political speculation on the part of the public," Cheng said. "The chinese authorities certainly are not dealing with the problem head on. These measures tend to reinforce the problem." It also came as the Communist Party's senior leadership gears up for a handover of power to a younger generation of leaders later in the year, which is always a period of intense bargaining. Politically minded Chinese saw the removal of Bo, considered a contender for a top job only months ago, as a sign of divisive infighting.