And the reaction becomes the story…
Early last week there was a flood of sensational rumors on Chinese microblogs alleging political unrest and splits among the Party’s top leadership. Last night news broke that the relevant authorities slapped China’s two most influential microblog platforms, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, for not acting strongly enough to suppress the rumors. Today, attempts at commenting on Sina’s popular Weibo site receive the following message: “3月31日8时至4月3日8时，微博评论功能暂停使用，给您带来的不便深表歉意.” (From 8:00 March 31 until 8:00 April 3, the Weibo commenting function has been temporarily suspended, we deeply apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you.”)
More ominously, the BBC reports this morning that six people have been arrested for spreading false rumors relating to the ‘coup’ in Beijing.
As journalist Adam Minter said on Twitter, “Well, if there were any weibo users who didn’t know about the coup rumors before, they surely do now.” Other Chinese and foreign journalists are also commenting online and the Wall Street Journal has already run a story.
Once again, the reaction has become the news. Just when it seemed like crazy rumors of a possible coup in the capital were mostly a jape, easily traced back to a certain heavy-breathing religious society based in the US, the CCP leadership has taken direct aim at the tops of their imported Italian loafers and pulled the trigger. The story had already largely played itself out in the foreign press. Even the tantalizing threads of scandal emerging on a near daily basis from Chongqing had started to run their course as journalists who traveled there found it nearly impossible to confirm any of the wild and tawdry tales being told about Bo, his wife, the corpse, and the cop. This is sure to keep those stories going for (at least) another week.
Moreover, Chinese Weibo users are now having their Brave New Weibo World disrupted: “What do you mean I can’t tell my friend that her funny cat picture is soooo cute? Why?”
Singer Faye Wong’s Weibo account offers a nice capsule summary of the reaction — and a glimpse at what the big story of the day would have been if not for the comment freeze:
A cod reworking of a famous Meng Haoran poem — “I slept the spring night away, not noticing the dawn / And tossed and turned all night and didn’t get a good sleep / There was a big old wind at night / So bundle up today!” — about the sandstorm that hit Beijing overnight.
Wong is an extremely — not to say pathologically — active Weibo user, and apparently sat there in her jammies refreshing her Weibo page to see if anyone had commented for thirteen minutes before realizing that something was amiss:
“Huh? I didn’t turn off comments. What’s going on? Am I ‘sensitive’ all of a sudden?”
The ‘forwarding’ function for Weibo (similar to Twitter’s RT) still works, and Weibo users are now rapid-forwarding theories and jokes about the shutdown, with one Weibo follower of YJ writing, ”Why do you say there are rumors? We have freedom of speech and didn’t violate any laws.”*
The Weibo platforms have been flirting with a showdown with the government for some time. Time will tell if this is a one-off lesson, or the beginning of some very trying days for Sina and Tencent.
*We have a screenshot but in light of recent events are not posting it here or identifying the user.