The Cyberspace Administration of China has accused outspoken real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang of publishing “illegal messages with a negative impact.” On February 28, officials ordered two major social media platforms, Sina and Tencent, to shut down Ren's user accounts.
Two days before Ren lost his social media accounts, the authorities criticized certain Internet celebrities for “ignoring their social responsibilities, abusing their influence, and constantly publishing information that breaks the law by disturbing social order on social media.” A number of celebrities were banned from accessing their accounts.
Ren is a member of the Communist Party, in addition to being a prominent micro-blogger with nearly 38 million followers on Sina Weibo. People believe he was punished for his comment about Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent speech addressing the political role of the media. Xi insisted that state-affiliated media outlets should serve the party and Ren questioned the president's view on Weibo:
When did the people’s government transform into the party’s government? Was it spending the party’s money? Don’t use taxpayers’ money to do something that doesn’t serve the people.
Critics drew attention to Ren's remark, calling it anti-party, though censors quickly removed it after just a few hours.
Ren’s social media accounts then vanished. An official statement published by the Cyberspace Administration accused Ren of using Sina and Tencent's social media accounts to “publish illegal information, which had a negative impact.” The agency also said Internet service providers and Internet users both need to “improve their self-discipline and awareness of standards.”
While the statement didn’t specify what exactly he'd said illegally, Ren's local Communist Party district committee issued a notice accusing him of violating party discipline, which the committee says it takes very seriously.
Some official media outlets deactivated or limited their comment function when distributing the Cyberspace Administration's statement on social media platforms. Even when comments were allowed, they were filtered of “sensitive language.”
Many netizens criticized China's brutal silencing of dissents:
Major media outlets have blocked their commenting function. This is a complete restriction of free speech. People can only behave and be quiet, or be one of the 50 Cent Party [government-hired commenters], otherwise your account can be deleted at any minute.
Some news portals still have comments. But sometimes there are more comments attacking Ren Zhiqiang, while sometimes there are more supporting him. And if you go back to the previous comments, you find many comments are gone.
People are not allowed to speak now. The horrifying era has come.
Here comes the Cultural Revolution again!
What exactly are they so afraid of? How many shameful things have they done? Why keep deleting comments? Where's the confidence? This sort of rogue behavior that keeps people from speaking out is so despicable.
Lao Xu, an experienced Web administrator, argued that silencing Ren and other celebrities will result in an antagonistic relationship between the party and the people:
其实，打倒一个「任大炮」简单，打倒他 3000 多万粉丝的意志却没那么容易。网络大 V 之所以拥有巨大的影响力和号召力，敢说真话是他们共同的特点。他们的影响力，源自他们真实的声音。他们的众多粉丝，都是自发关注形成的，是民意的一种选择和升华。注意倾听他们的理性声音，某种程度上就是倾听民意，至少是部分民意。[…]与民意为敌，只能是掩耳盗铃。尽管能得到一时的表面平静，但却孕育着长久的地狱之火。长此以往，必定失去民心。
It is not difficult to beat down “the Cannon” [Ren Zhiqiang], but it won't be easy to suppress the will of his 30 million fans. The reason why Big V [opinion leaders] are influential is because they are outspoken and sincere in expressing themselves. Their fans follow them out of choice. It is a reflection of public opinion. Listen to their rational voices and you get to know the view of the people, or at least a group of people. […] Making enemies with the people is a dumb act. It's silent, but hell's fires are burning. Eventually, you'll lose people's hearts.
Ren Zhiqiang (nicknamed by netizens “the Cannon” for his reputation for posting controversial arguments online) was the president of Beijng Huayuan Group, a real estate company. He stepped down in 2011 but remained the president of a publicly listed subsidiary until 2014.
Ren was not the only one to lose his micro-blog. On February 26, the Cyberspace Administration ordered the closure of several celebrities’ social media accounts, including the account of famous actor Sun Haiying, scholar Rong Jian, and urban affairs expert Luo Yameng. The authorities stated, “There are some Internet celebrities who ignore their social responsibilities, abuse their influence, and constantly publish information that is against of the law, which disturbs the social order, and damages the country’s well-being and reputation. Therefore, these accounts will be shut down.”