In the Chinese regime’s clampdown on internet speech, authorities have been targeting the “Big Vs”: social media influencers with more than 500,000 followers on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform that’s similar to Twitter, according to a series of government documents recently obtained by The Epoch Times from a trusted source.
At the same time, authorities have been creating its own group of online influencers to spread its propaganda, manipulate public opinion, and crack down on “internet rumors.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping was criticized by netizens for saying “the media must serve the [Chinese Communist] Party” during a public appearance in February 2016.
Consequently, Chinese authorities censored all comments on social media that questioned the idea that the media should serve the CCP and not the people. The Epoch Times recently obtained a government document from Luoyang city, Henan Province that showed local authorities carried out such an order.
Luoyang’s Cyberspace Administration issued a report on Aug. 9, 2016 to clamp down on social media influencers—an order from their superiors at the Henan Provincial Propaganda Department. The document is titled, “Report on the Investigation of Internet ‘Big Vs’ Who Question ‘the Media Must Serve the Party’ and Other Politically Harmful Remarks.” The “V” refers to the check mark sign that platforms issue to users with large followings.
The report revealed that before 2014, Luoyang’s social media influencers had been active and often posted comments that were critical of the CCP. In 2014, the city’s Cyberspace Administration and the police bureau launched a special punitive campaign, affixing criminal charges such as “extortion” and “blackmailing” on well-known social media influencers, including Zhang Wenhao (his online moniker is “Strange Stone Naughty Boy”) and Zhao Zhihui (known as “Wolf Returning in Windy Snowy Night”).
According to the report, the Luoyang Cyberspace Administration compiled a list of key individuals and their social media accounts that were being monitored. There were on-duty personnel to conduct daily screening of social media posts and delete “sensitive” comments in real time. Influential users who do not post political comments on a regular basis would be generally monitored, but active users who have been found to post critical comments would be included on the watchlist.
The report also revealed that the Cyberspace Administration maintained 24-hour contact with the propaganda and internet surveillance departments of the local public security bureau (Chinese police) through instant messaging platforms such as QQ groups and WeChat groups to monitor netizens’ online comments.
The report concludes that, as of August 2016, Luoyang succeeded in clamping down on its “Big Vs” and no “negative and extreme remarks” directed at Xi’s statement (“the media must serve the party”) were found online.
Cultivating ‘Red’ Social Media Influencers
Public data published in May 2020 shows that the number of mainland internet users has reached 854 million, and the internet coverage rate reached 61.2 percent. The CCP has invested a lot of resources to monitor and control public opinion online.
The Epoch Times reported that in recent years, the CCP has recruited popular social media influencers, referred to as “red” influencers, to manipulate public opinion and toe the Party line.
Government documents from Henan Province obtained by The Epoch Times reveal that the task of cultivating “red” influencers is considered one of the main priorities and has been incorporated in the performance evaluations of CCP officials.
A leaked document, dated 2016, reveals that Luoyang’s municipal government departments are required to cultivate at least five “red” influencers. The report laid out a three-year action plan to cultivate “red” influencers among the political, intellectual, cultural, and media circles.
Examples of ‘Red’ Influencers
Leaked government documents from Zhumadian city of Henan Province revealed the background of some of these “red” influencers.
For example, a worker surnamed Zhang from the Shangcai County police bureau was recruited as a “red” influencer by local authorities.
Since Zhang registered his Weibo account on March 3, 2014, he has posted 18,383 comments promoting the CCP. He uses the name “Fast Catcher of Tianzhong” and claims to be a video blogger and writer. He has 557,916 followers as of Oct. 7.
Zhang tried to rein in netizens after they criticized a team of experts from Beijing who visited Henan on Sept. 28 to conduct an inspection on new corn varieties. The group was led by Dai Jingrui, an academician of China’s Academy of Engineering and a professor at China Agricultural University. The images taken by state media showed that the group walked on a red carpet as they did their inspection tour, which triggered ridicule and criticism on the internet. In response to this, “Fast Catcher of Tianzhong” posted several comments on Weibo, claiming that the incident didn’t happen and accused netizens of spreading rumors. He then wrote a long article to defend the experts and the red carpet reception, in a bid to minimize the impact of the netizens’ comments on public opinion.
High-Profile CCP Critic: ‘Big Cannon Ren’
Ren Zhiqiang, nicknamed “Big Cannon Ren,” was a former real estate tycoon and an outspoken critic of the CCP and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. On Sept. 22, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for “corruption, bribery, misappropriation of public funds, and abuse of power.”
Ren, 69, is the former chairman of Beijing Huayuan Group. He is one of the Party’s “princelings”: he is the son of a former senior CCP official. Ren had 37 million followers on Weibo before his account was shut down in 2016.
In early March, Ren published an online article, calling Xi “a clown who insists on being an emperor.” He criticized the CCP for concealing the truth about the spread of the CCP virus, which led to a global pandemic. He was then placed under investigation in April for “serious violations of discipline and the law.”
In February 2016, Ren criticized Xi for saying that “the media must serve the Party.” Ren wrote on Weibo: “When did the ‘People’s Government’ become the ‘Party’s Government’? … Does it run on Party dues?” Three months later, the CCP suspended Ren’s Party membership for a year.
Other Social Media Influencers Suppressed by the CCP
The following well-known Chinese social media influencers have received harsh sentencing for their political and social views critical of the CCP.
Charles Xue (Xue Manzi) was detained in August 2013 on “suspicion of patronizing a prostitute.” He was forced to give a public confession which was aired on state broadcaster CCTV, just days after the regime announced a new crackdown on “online rumors.” Xue posted information about environmental pollution in Zhoushan city and the harm it caused to the local people. Prior to his arrest, the Chinese-American venture capitalist had more than 12 million followers on Weibo.
In July 2014, internet celebrity “Bian Min” (real name Dong Rubin) was charged with operating illegal business operations and “provoking troubles.” He was sentenced to six-and-half years in prison. He posted comments on the Mekong River massacre that occurred in 2011, when two Chinese cargo ships were attacked on a stretch of the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle region on the borders of Burma and Thailand in an apparent drug-related crime. Bian Min called the incident a “political conspiracy.”
On April 17, 2014, internet celebrity Qin Huohuo (real name Qin Zhihui) was sentenced to three years in prison for “defamation and provoking quarrels.” On July 23, 2011, Qin posted a message on his Weibo after a major traffic accident on the Ningbo-Wenzhou line railway, claiming that the Chinese government spent 200 million yuan to compensate the foreign passengers who were impacted.
The WeChat account of He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, was permanently deleted on Sept. 26, 2019 because of his criticism of the Chinese regime. The activist regards the CCP as an unregistered and therefore illegal organization, strives to reform China’s judicial system, and has blamed the regime for causing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gu Qing’er contributed to this report.