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China purges coup rumours from social media

Six arrested, sites shuttered, after reports of Beijing coup spread online

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Two of China’s biggest social media companies, Tencent and Sina, have reportedly been punished by the government and forced to temporarily suspend comments on their micro-blogging sites, after the authorities clamped down in response to unsubstantiated online rumours of a coup in Beijing last month.

Rumours started to swirl a fortnight ago around the country’s hugely popular Twitter-like services including Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo. They suggesting a power struggle at the heart of the Communist Party had been ignited after populist politician and Politburo member Bo Xilai was deposed.

Some tweeted to say they had seen military vehicles on the streets of Beijing and that they heard shots near the Party compound of Zhongnanhai.

However, the spreading of so-called ‘rumours’ online has been illegal in China since the government issued strict new guidelines last November in a bid to cement its authority and prevent the mobilisation of any kind of political opposition movement.

True to form, the authorities have now come down hard on those it believes were responsible for the rumours.

State-run news agency Xinhua reported late on Friday that six people have been arrested for spreading rumours online, while Tencent and Sina were singled out for failing to police content rigorously enough on their respective weibo platforms.

The sites were “severely criticised” and punished “accordingly”, according to the report, although there was no further information on exactly what this punishment entailed.

They were also reportedly forced to block all users from commenting on the sites for three days while the pages are purged of any ‘harmful’ content.

A further 16 web sites were shut down by the authorities in retaliation for the fabrication or spreading of rumours.

Tencent and Sina may between them have over 500 million users of their weibo platforms but the government would have no qualms in shutting down the services altogether if they were judged to be wilfully ignoring Party rules.

Recent regulations requiring users to register for social sites with their real names were unpopular with firms such as Sina who complained they might put a serious dent in subscriber numbers.

Possibly as a result some firms were pretty slow to enforce the rules and users found ways to circumvent the requirements.

However, the weekend’s happenings have given the authorities another opportunity to get tough on censorship.

With a once in a decade transfer of power set to take place at the top of the Party next year, the government is likely to put an increased focus on what is being said online to make sure social order is maintained. ®

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