Beijing subway
Beijing subway
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING – Is recess time over for China’s whistleblowers? Are we seeing the beginnings of a crackdown on this group of influential bloggers who have contributed to exposing corrupt public officials over the past few months?

These digital activists and journalists had believed their crusade had the implicit backing of the central government after new President Xi Jinping called for "flies" and "tigers" (junior and senior officials) not to be spared in the hunt for corruption. But now they are the ones being hounded.

Zhou Lubao is one of them. The 28 year-old sales representative was investigating the mayor of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province in northeast of China. Lubao used to say he trusted the "power of public opinion" and the "power of law." He has been detained since early August in a secret location. The Ministry of Public Security said on August 25 that he was suspected of "blackmail" and "fabrication of information about a terrorist attack."

Several journalists were also arrested in recent days, including reporter Liu Hu, on August 23. He had exposed on the microblogging website Weibo a case of corruption involving the former deputy mayor of Chongqing, who is now China’s Vice Minister for Industry and Commerce. Earlier this year, the media outlets closest to the government were passionate about how the Chinese Twitter-like platform had become an anti-corruption weapon, hailing the "new era of whistleblowers." Now, in their columns, they are lynching those they call "rumor peddlers."

Another type of figure is in the authorities' line of fire. Chinese web users call them the "Big V," because their identities are "verified," and they are famous. These are the microbloggers who have millions of followers. Some of them come from the intelligentsia, others from show business or finance. With increasing openness, they make critical stances against the system, tacitly making themselves the advocates of a liberalization of the regime.

The arrest on August 23 of one of them, Charles Xue, on prostitution solicitation charges sparked intense debate because of the extraordinary splash the arrest made on official state media. Xue, who launched several successful startups, is an American citizen and has been quite outspoken with his very progressive political opinions.

It must be said that two weeks earlier, the "Big V" had been invited by the state Internet Information Office (the governmental arm for propaganda) to a lecture on the "social responsibility of Internet celebrities". According to press reports, the goal was to exchange points of view on the lines not to cross when it comes to discussing law, the socialist political system, morality, the best interests of the state, and other sensitive topics.

In its August 26 editorial on the Xue affair, the newspaper Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times, linked with the conservative fringe of the Chinese Communist Party) confirmed web activists’ worst fears. The title read, "The arrest of Xue is a stinging reminder for opinion leaders," and the piece vehemently denounced people who are "doped on political confrontation" arguing they would be better off "with a clean conscience."

This apparent witch-hunt outraged Xia Cai, a teacher from the department of studies for the building of the Party in the Chinese Communist Party Central School. In a column published in Gongshiwang ("the consensus network", a website linked with liberal circles), Cai denounced Xue's arrest and the accompanying propaganda campaign, attributing it to "manipulations of a minority of powerful people" hiding behind "the authority of the state" but indulging in "blatant abuse of power."

If nothing else, these past few weeks show that the fights for power behind the scenes of the Party are back. Now all eyes are on the next big political event: the third plenum of the Party congress in November.

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