Written by Jackie Sheehan.

After the Global Times last week, now CCP journal Qiushi has condemned online criticism of the ruling party as equivalent to the big-character posters (dazibao) of the Cultural Revolution. In effect, Xi Jinping has announced that today’s netizens, if they challenge the official version of events at all, are no better than the Red Guards were (who had September 2013 in the sweepstake?). This follows a series of detentions of leading Chinese Twitterati which has cast a chill over online expression in China.

Since his detention at the end of August for “spreading rumours” to his 12 million Sina Weibo followers, Chinese-American businessman Charles Xue apparently cannot stop confessing to things in public, firstly to use of prostitutes, and now to spreading irresponsible rumours, as “a vent of negative mood, and … a neglect of the social mainstream”. It was claimed on the news broadcast of his confession, in which he was filmed behind bars and in prison uniform, that he had volunteered to make the televised statement and even, according to Xinhua News, that he had “offered to appear handcuffed” to underline the illegality of some of his online comments.

Mr Xue’s crime is supposedly that he “failed to verify all the facts” in some of his posts, so it seems anyone going online to express an opinion (no difference between reporting and comment is recognized) in the PRC will henceforth be held to the same standards of fact-checking as the New York Times. While this raises the entertaining possibility that whoever on the People’s Daily reproduced The Onion’s spoof announcement of Kim Jong Un being voted the world’s sexiest man as a factual report might now go to jail for it, the criminalization of any view the ruling party doesn’t like is a bleak development, and one which actually does hark back to some of the worst periods of political labelling and persecution of supposed “enemies of the people.”

Others who have been rounded up know all too well what awaits them: in Kunming, businessman Dong Rubin remains in custody, and having had computers seized from his office in August by men who declined to identify themselves or provide documentation for their actions, he was expecting some version of the Charles Xue treatment, tweeting just before his detention: “What crime will they charge me with? Using prostitutes, gambling, using or selling drugs, tax evasion, gathering a crowd to stir up trouble, fabricating rumors, or directing a criminal society online?” It seems that Dong is to be attacked through his business dealings, though it is harder to work out how he has failed to “verify facts” in his posts; many recent ones were about environmental concerns surrounding a proposed petrochemical plant in Kunming, and there are no facts about its effects because it hasn’t been built yet, while others were about the death in custody of a young man whom the police admit was beaten to death.

The threshold for criminal liability and a possible jail sentence is for a comment to be viewed 5,000 times or re-tweeted 500 times, which sets the bar rather low considering the intensity of online communication in China and the number of “Big V” (verified) accounts with followers numbered in the millions, and the new hard line is also reflected in a shift in police tactics, with invitations to “drink tea” now replaced with instant detention for several weeks as a first reaction to unwelcome online views.

And it is far from universally accepted that the Cultural Revolution’s dazibao, or the Red Guards who posted them, were a bad thing. Although it’s true that people could post defamatory messages about others, this helped to even things out between ordinary citizens and a party-state which held over them their personal dossier or dang’an full of unverified information which could have been fabricated by neighbours or co-workers with a grudge, and which they were never allowed to see, although they could infer its contents from its effect on their career prospects and whether they were victimized as each mass campaign came round. For those involved, the freedom to post their opinions, however briefly enjoyed, was one of the genuinely liberating features of the Cultural Revolution at the grassroots.

As every breakthrough in communications technology is hailed as the one which will bring down remaining authoritarian regimes, it is perhaps understandable that the CCP gives such a high priority to silencing tweeters. But if the ruling party really wishes to take lessons from the Cultural Revolution, it might recall the April Fifth movement of 1976, in which mass protest derailed any chance of a leftist succession to Mao Zedong and marked the beginning of the end of the Gang of Four’s influence.

April Fifth’s activists didn’t have Sina Weibo, mobile phones, pagers, landlines, or photocopiers, and even dazibao had been banned, so they painted slogans in tar on the side of trains, turning them into “mobile billboards”. A technology cannot create an effective political movement on its own, but nor can its absence or suppression prevent a truly popular movement from taking place if it has enough support. Once it starts to happen, the revolution will not be televised, texted, or tweeted; the revolution will always be live.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork.

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