Parents and children watch performance art that criticizes online rumors at Liaocheng University in Shandong Province on August 23, as the performer cuts a board with the words "online rumors." Photo: CFP
Just like many other boys of his age, Qin Zhihui had always dreamt of becoming famous.
More determined than most but as clueless as many, he tried a myriad of ways to get into the spotlight. He peddled along Subway Line 10 in Beijing to promote his Sina Weibo account. Nicknamed Qin Huohuo, he even danced awkwardly on the street. These moves met with limited success, but then he hit upon a new idea - spreading rumors.
Qin, together with the founder of his company, Yang Xiuyu, were accused of engaging in illegal business operations after the police said they had illegally profited from their rumor-spreading actions.
The two were also charged with "provoking trouble," as thousands of followers reposted their rumors about the Red Cross Society of China and the Wenzhou train crash of 2011.
Figures such as the hero soldier Lei Feng and major-general of the People's Liberation Army Luo Yuan, were also targeted by Qin. He claimed that Luo was a deserter and his family were presently living in the US as well as saying that Lei Feng had never been a model soldier and had in fact led a lavish life.
When Qin was detained, authorities warned that "opinion leaders" involved may soon follow. These comments did indeed herald the beginning of an anti-rumor campaign by the Ministry of Public Security
of unprecedented scale. Two others were detained for similar reasons on the same day as Qin and Yang were put into criminal detention.
One day later, a Shenzhen resident was detained, and on August 23, Liu Hu, a journalist with the Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express, was detained in Chongqing for fabricating rumors.
Zhou Lubao, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower, was also arrested for allegedly publishing negative reports online and then extorting those involved, according to a statement from the Ministry of Public Security on Sunday. Shanghai Police also reported that they had arrested a rumor-monger.Motivation speculation
According to the official Weibo of the Beijing police, several accusations made by Qin were reposted, including his latest that said Lei Feng wore a leather jacket and leather shoes. These would have cost 90 yuan ($14.7) in 1959 when Lei's monthly income was 6 yuan, creating a huge contrast with the traditional image of Lei Feng as thrifty and hardworking.
Other people accused of fabricating rumors have targeted officials. This has given rise to questions as to whether these rumors have a political motive.
Sima Nan, a renowned Maoist scholar, said he believes Qin was part of an organization that has political intentions and seeks to attack Chinese mainstream values.
However, Tong Zhiwei, a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times that Lei's image had alternated given shifting visions of the man over time. "He was indeed portrayed on occasion in that fancy way to encourage domestic consumption," Tong said.
Although Lei Feng is no longer alive to take on the task of being an "opinion leader," those who fill the role now are often expected to fulfil certain expectations.
Dianzizheng, the head of a group that claims to hunt rumors on Weibo, said that "opinion leaders" such as Li Kaifu and Xue Manzi have often helped repost rumors, "especially obvious ones that should have been recognized."
Xue was also arrested on Friday for allegedly soliciting prostitutes, but details of the case remain unclear.
In any case, "opinion leaders" may need to be more careful about what they say in future.
Zhang Zhi'an, vice dean of the School of Communication and design at Sun Yat-sen University, pointed out that "opinion leaders" need to bear responsibility for what they say. "But as much as we should crack down on rumors, the government should also realize that people believe in those rumors because they have so few reliable sources of information," he said.Call to action
Statistics show that there are over 19,000 verified Weibo accounts with followers exceeding 100,000 and about 3,300 accounts with over a million fans. These people are known as online celebrities, and their posts are often reposted hundreds of times by fans.
An Internet conference was held on August 10 in Beijing to urge this group of celebrities to take on more social responsibilities and play a more constructive role, as they have a notable influence on public opinions online.
Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office, said at the conference that spreading the truth is one of the "baselines" for Internet celebrities.
The government expects them to uphold law and order as well as promote virtues and trust, said Lu, adding that celebrities should set an example of protecting the legal rights of citizens and denouncing any activities that harm the reputation and interests of other people.
"People like Qin must be punished, as they have contaminated the online environment," an anonymous Sina Weibo account with more than one million followers said, "and without the reposts by verified account, it is impossible for rumors to spread that far."Xi Jinping
, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, emphasized the critical functions and responsibilities of all departments in terms of publicity and ideological work in the country to ensure the "correct political direction" at a national conference held from August 19 to 21.
Xi also emphasized that the fundamental rights and interests of the people must be safeguarded in the process.