BEIJING – Several influential Chinese bloggers, activists and even a popular cartoonist have had their online microblogging accounts shut down in recent days, belying the hopes of many here that the country’s new Communist Party leaders might begin to relax strict controls over the Internet and free expression.
Instead, the latest moves against “weibo,” the wildly-popular Twitter-like microblogging sites, appear to suggest that the party’s new leaders, led by General Secretary Xi Jinping, may be more intent on reforming the country’s economy than opening up space in the political sphere.
Among those whose weibo accounts were disabled in December were journalists Shi Feike, an investigative reporter, and Cheng Yizhong, founder and former chief editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily. Also blocked were Sichuan blogger and activist Ran Yunfei, and Xiao Han, an associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law.
Shi had done in-depth reporting on the corruption and abuse of power in Chongqing that led to the purge and arrest of former Politburo member Bo Xilai. Ran, who has frequently run afoul of Chinese authorities in the past for his outspokenness, said he was chatting with friends via weibo on Dec. 24, when he discovered his messages were no longer going through. He said he never received a notice from the hosting company, Sina Weibo, and still has no explanation as to why his account was closed.
Ran said he “posted some messages satirizing the so-called new governance” of Xi Jinping and Prime Minister-designate Li Keqiang, and the recent Internet crackdown. Having his account shut, Ran said, “only proves that what I said was right.”
Another microblogger who uses satire to tackle sensitive topics is the cartoonist Kuang Biao, who said he publishes most of his work online. Kuang also found his weibo account closed, at 7 p.m. Friday.
“I guess my political cartoons made them unhappy,” Kuang said. “I just can’t figure out why they are even afraid of cartoons. They lack confidence and don’t have any sense of humor.” Kuang said his cartoons mainly satirized official policy pronouncements and the well-documented misbehavior of some Communist Party officials.
The closures come just days after the government imposed new regulations requiring weibo users to register with their real names, which Internet freedom advocates said would lead to a stifling of the current free-wheeling debate allowed, within limits, on weibo. The government has said the new requirement was aimed at preventing online fraud and protecting private information from Internet scammers.
Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, said fears that the restrictions would stifle the Internet were “an insult to the courage of today's Chinese Internet users, who are both more aware of free speech and braver in expressing themselves, whether anonymously or not.”
In a signed Dec. 28 article, Xinhua said the new rules “are quite moderate, as they mainly require Internet users to use their real names when signing web access agreements with service providers.” Xinhua called the new policy “the first major effort by Chinese authorities to protect users' personal information online via forceful legal tools.”
“And it is unlikely to be the last,” the Xinhua article added.
Also in recent weeks, the government censorship apparatus, known as the Great Firewall, has begun more aggressively blocking the virtual private networks, or VPNs, that many Chinese and foreign residents routinely use to access blocked Web sites such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The apparent Internet clampdown seems to contradict the expectation here by many that Xi and the new leadership might be more tolerant of weibo’s burgeoning free speech forum, as they try to cultivate a more popular image for a party buffeted by corruption scandals and tales of power abuses at the highest levels.
“The hope for that kind of openness was less based on any kind of evidence and more based on hope,” said Bill Bishop, a longtime China resident who publishes the Sinocism online newsletter on current political, economic and social news.
Despite the new leaders’ recent remarks about economic reform, Bishop said, “there’s nothing in there about loosening their restrictions on the Internet.”
“I do think you’re going to see some pretty aggressive measures on economic reform,” Bishop said. “You’ve got a party that believes in pursuing economic reform without comparable political reform.”
Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.