On March 20, China’s microbloggers couldn’t resist spreading rumors that an overnight coup had happened in Beijing. Nothing came of those rumors, of course, and by the end of the day, online censors had deleted them. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of it.

But on March 31, in a move that outraged a large swath of Chinese netizens, China’s two leading microblogging sites, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, announced a 72-hour suspension of the comment function that makes the microblogs such rich and dynamic forums. While the handful of state media news stories did not blame the moratorium on China’s Internet regulators, nobody was fooled: China’s microblogs operate at the whim of Chinese Communist Party authorities.

Unlike Twitter, which only allows users to post, reply and re-tweet, Chinese microblogs let users engage in discussion threads directly connected to tweets (they work like a drop-down menu). The threads can run hundreds, if not thousands, of comments long and are often more interesting and lively than the actual posts. Censors also seem to monitor them less than the actual tweets: On March 20, coup-related tweets were deleted while coup-related comment threads -- appended to non-controversial tweets -- were not. In this way, comments, not tweets, were the key vector for rumors of instability.

Ironically, Xinhua, the Chinese state news service, has also served as a source for speculation. On Saturday, shortly after the suspension began, Chinese microbloggers widely tweeted variations of a news story apparently written to explain it:

Chinese authorities closed 16 websites and detained six people responsible for "fabricating or disseminating online rumors," the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) and Beijing police said Friday.

Those websites, including meizhou.net, xn528.com and cndy.com.cn, were closed for spreading rumors of "military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing," which were fabricated by some lawless people recently, said a spokesman with SIIO.

For Chinese microbloggers, the phrase, “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing,” was nothing short of a revelation. One Shanghai-based Sina Weibo user expressed his astonishment: “I originally didn’t know anything about this, and now the whole world knows.” Thousands of other microbloggers seemed to share the sentiment -- as did Zhang Xin, CEO of SOHO China, Beijing’s largest real estate developer. She broadcast to her 3.2 million followers: “The forbidden comments have become world news that CNN is also reporting, thus spreading the ‘rumor’ much more widely.”

Since Saturday, Zhang’s comment has been forwarded -– or re-tweeted -– more than 5,000 times, thereby guaranteeing the rumor an extended life and audience.

Needless to say, the official voices of the Communist Party feel quite differently about the matter. In August 2011, Chinese state media first staged an all-out campaign against what it perceived to be sensationalist, rampant commentary on China's microblogs. However the editorials and news stories at that time were positively gentle compared to the condemning language used this past week.

For example, on Sunday, Xinhua published an unsigned editorial with the following blunt message: “Rumor fabricators and rumor spreaders have one thing in common, and that is a weak concept of the law.” A day later, Wu Qiao, a columnist for the Beijing Times, an influential paper recently under the direct control of the Beijing Propaganda Department, was broadly supportive of a legal crackdown on rumor-mongers. He wrote:

A well-ordered society won’t permit the existence of rumors. With the aid of new technologies like Weibo, rumors can do severe harm. The better educated our society is, the more tolerant it is to different opinions and voices, and the less willing it is to tolerate rumors. Therefore, as new means of information dissemination are deployed, we should punish the rumor mongers by the law, so as to reduce rumors in society.

This opinion does not enjoy wide support among Chinese netizens. But, then again, it likely was not written to convince, but to instruct. This was precisely the point made by Han Han –- China’s most popular blogger/novelist/race car driver -- in one of his rare posts to Sina Weibo, timed to appear shortly after the comment moratorium was lifted on April 3. He wrote:

[The blackout] has nothing to do with cleaning up rumors, it’s about showing off state power and serving a warning: If I can make comments disappear for three days, I can also make you lose your little Weibos altogether.

In just a few hours, this post received 60,000 comments. Soon after, censors deleted every trace of them.

Han Han wasn’t the only high-profile netizen to tweet about the comment moratorium. Wang Ran, a venture capitalist with more than 1.5 million followers on Sina Weibo, also delved into the touchy subject of why Chinese netizens feel such a compelling need to spread rumors. His tweet was also subsequently deleted, though it has resurfaced -– uncensored -– on other forums:

What breeds rumor mongers is an un-free press and an opaque system, nothing else. Actually, most people who encounter rumors don’t believe them entirely but rather "half believe, half doubt" them. Independent thinking makes them apt to "half-doubt," and the lack of transparency makes them tend to "half-believe."

Now that the moratorium is over, all seems to be back to normal; comments are piling up below posts just like before. But here and there, if you look hard enough, there’s a sense that something has changed. What, precisely, is difficult to finger: The bureaucracy that controls China’s Internet has never taken direct credit for suspending the comment function.

One netizen, based in Shenzhen, offered an opinion that’s been shared frequently the last 24 hours: “After the three day comment moratorium, I feel that Sina is deleting posts more frequently now.”

Tellingly, that’s one tweet Sina Weibo -– and its overseers -- hasn’t yet found fit to delete.

 

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Katherine Brown at kbrown114@bloomberg.net