Could a celebrity critic of the Chinese government be so stupid as to hire a prostitute while in Beijing? Advocates of a free Chinese Internet certainly hope so, thanks to the weekend arrest of one of China’s most outspoken Web personalities for allegedly hiring a prostitute almost four decades his junior.

The news -- and the uncertainty surrounding it -- has electrified the Chinese blogosphere, raising questions about just how far the authorities intend to go to control online speech and shame those who threaten its grip on public opinion.

The alleged john is Charles Xue, a naturalized U.S. citizen, billionaire venture capitalist and angel investor with stakes in dozens of projects, better known in China by his Sina Weibo handle, Xue Manzi. With more than 12 million followers, Xue counts as a “Big V,” the informal term applied to a few hundred high-profile users who have had their identities verified by Sina Weibo. According to the state-owned Xinhua news agency, Sina and QQ, owners of the two largest Chinese microblogs, have approximately 200 account holders with more than 10 million users each. Though the term has nothing to do with politics, informally “Big V” is widely used to refer to a politically liberal group of popular microbloggers who argue for the rule of law, constitutionalism and the right to mouth off without being censored.

Predictably, this has brought them under the jealous eye of a Chinese Communist Party still nostalgic for its pre-Internet monopoly on the levers of public opinion. Over the last few months there has been an uptick of Party commentary suggesting that Big Vs and other public intellectuals represent destabilizing influences on society. Then, on Aug. 10, Lu Wei, director of China’s State Internet Information Office, convened a forum (which was later televised) on “the social responsibilities of Internet celebrities.” In attendance were eight Big Vs, including the avuncular 60-year-old Xue Manzi. According to Xinhua, the attendees agreed “that everyone should be responsible for what they say and do online as the Internet is also subject to laws and moral rules in the real world.”

The statement was not meant as boilerplate. It was, rather, a firm assertion that online speech is subject to the same types of spoken and unspoken government controls (and self-censorship) as newspapers, television broadcasts and other news media over which the party has a much tighter rein. Though these laws and moral rules are rarely spelled out, everyone on China’s Internet knows that certain Big Vs -- including Xue -- have pushed against them, and by extension the party’s authority. During the Aug. 10 program, Lu Wei laid out what are now being called “the seven bottom lines” that online users should respect, including the legal system, the socialist system, social order and (of course) the truth.

In the days following the broadcast, state-owned media followed-up with extensive news reports and editorials in key party outlets explaining the “seven bottom lines” and the need to regulate everyone on the Internet -- including the Big Vs. Last Friday, for example, Beijing Youth Daily published a widely-circulated editorial in which it described the prerequisites for creating a “healthy” Internet: “A concentrated crackdown on Internet lawbreakers like rumormongers is necessary. But long term, if the ‘seven bottom lines’ are to become a norm then the self-regulation of celebrities, as well as the refinement of the legal system, will be necessary.”

A full-scale government crackdown and campaign against rumor-mongering has been unfolding for a week now (it follows on previous anti-rumor campaigns). Among the most prominent arrests were individuals associated with Beijing Erma, a public relations firm apparently connected with generating rumors and scandals including -- purportedly -- a spectacular 2011 incident involving alleged corruption at the Red Cross from which the organization has yet to recover. According to state media reports, one of the individuals associated with Beijing Erma had at one time been employed by Big V Xue Manzi, though there’s no reason to believe that Xue knew him. Still, the mention of Xue’s name in connection to rumor-mongering was not accidental, and probably was meant to connect him -- a Big V -- to criminality, if only tangentially.

For now, there’s no evidence to suggest that Xue was specifically targeted by the authorities in a honey trap. But it would be naive for Xue to have been unaware that -- in light of the crackdown -- he was most definitely under scrutiny along with other Big Vs. Under such circumstances, engaging a prostitute would be the height of Eliot Spitzer-like recklessness.

Rumors of Xue’s arrest on prostitution charges began circulating on Sina Weibo early Sunday morning. Beijing’s Public Security Bureau confirmed the story via Sina Weibo at 11:12 a.m. with a note that Xue, and the woman with whom he had been seized, had both confessed. By mid-afternoon, the news was the top trending topic on Sina Weibo, despite the fact that the Bo Xilai trial was just then producing some of its most salacious testimony and also generating significant online traffic.

The fact that Xue -- a widely admired figure -- had been arrested in the midst of the Big V campaign was deeply suspicious to Chinese microbloggers. Xu Shaolin, an outspoken Beijing-based Sina Weibo commentator, spoke for thousands of Chinese when he asked, shortly after the Beijing police confirmed the rumors, “whether an old guy of 60 could have such an excitable sex drive? He couldn’t keep it down for a few days?”

Even Hu Xijin, the conservative editor of the state-owned, hardline Global Times newspaper questioned the timing of the arrest in a deleted Sina Weibo post preserved and translated by the South China Morning Post. “It cannot be ruled out that the authorities were using the prostitution charge to frame Xue Manzi,” Hu tweeted Sunday. “It is a universal ruse by governments around the world to use sex scandals or tax evasion charges to frame political rivals.”

So far, Xue Manzi hasn’t emerged publicly to explain or dispute the charges. In his absence (probably forced), the story of the aging Internet celebrity and his call girl has run wild across Chinese media platforms. On Monday, even the usually respectable, semi-independent Caijing went so far as to claim -- based on multiple unnamed sources -- that Xue had “repeatedly engaged prostitutes.”

For most observers, the question isn’t whether or not Xue is guilty of a petty crime. It is, rather, what the state-owned news media’s gleeful trumpeting of Xue’s alleged failings says about the Party and its hopes to wrest control of public discourse back from microblogs. This Big V is hardly deserving of your respect, the Party is arguing. Only we are.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net