China has shut down Web sites, made a string of arrests and punished two popular microblogs after rumors were circulated of a coup in Beijing linked to a major scandal that brought down a top politician.
Authorities closed 16 Web sites for spreading rumors of “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing,” Xinhua news agency said late on Friday, citing the state Internet information office.
Six people were arrested, while the country’s two most popular microblogs, run by Sina.com and Tencent, said they would stop Web users from posting comments until Tuesday after being criticized by the authorities.
The crackdown follows a surge in online rumors about a coup led by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Political and Legislative Committee Secretary Zhou Yongkang (周永康), following the March dismissal of rising political star Bo Xilai (薄熙來).
Analysts say the political drama has exposed divisions in the ruling CCP as it prepares for a key leadership transition later this year.
In an editorial yesterday, the People’s Daily, the CCP mouthpiece, pledged punishment for those responsible for the “lies and speculation.”
“Online rumors undermine the morale of the public, and if out of control, they will seriously disturb the public order and affect social stability,” the newspaper said, according to Xinhua.
The latest restriction on Web freedom in China, where a vast censorship system known as the “Great Firewall” already blocks sites including Twitter and Facebook, drew swift condemnation from Internet users.
“Stopping Web users from posting comments on micro-blogs is a serious attack on freedom of expression and will go down in the history books,” a user called Lawyer 80 said on weibo.com.
Xinhua reported the Web site closures late on Friday, naming some of the sites involved as meizhou.net, xn528.com and cndy.com.cn, saying they had been shut in accordance with laws for failing to stop the spread of rumors.
The six people arrested were held for “fabricating and spreading” rumors “particularly through microblogging posts,” Xinhua said, citing the Beijing municipal bureau of public security.
Sina.com and Tencent, who run popular microblogs known in China as weibo, had carried online chatter speculating about a coup and were “criticized and punished accordingly,” a spokesman for the state Internet information office said, according to Xinhua.
The spokesman said both sites had pledged to “strengthen the management” — and just hours later the Internet giants announced they would block users from posting on the microblog services.
Meanwhile, Xinhua also said yesterday that Beijing police have arrested 1,065 suspects and deleted more than 208,000 “harmful” online messages during a crackdown on Internet-related crime since mid-February.
The operators of more than 3,117 Web sites have received warnings after police targeted the smuggling of firearms, drugs and toxic chemicals, and the sale of human organs and personal information, Xinhua said.