For many outspoken critics on China’s massively popular Weibo microblogging platform, having their accounts shut mysteriously, mostly at the orders of the authorities, does not necessarily mean the end of their cyber life.
They simply “reincarnate” themselves on Weibo, each time taking on a different user name.
The ranks of “reborn” Weibo users have grown, earning themselves the name zhuan shi dang or “Reincarnation Party.”
An entry in the Wikipedia-like Chinese-language portal Baidu Baike describes the group as comprising “users who register new IDs after having their accounts deleted or posting privileges revoked for long periods of time.”
A woman views the Chinese social media website Weibo at a cafe in Beijing. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Said media watcher Xiao Qiang, who has followed the Reincarnation Party since 2011: “There are no accurate statistics but (the) active number of this group could be in the hundreds, if not thousands.”
The latest to join the group is author Hao Qun, better known by his pen name Murong Xuecun. He sought rebirth after his Weibo accounts on four Web portals including Sina and Tencent were all shut by the operators on May 11.
Widely recognized as one of China’s earliest and most famous Internet novelists, Hao, 40, wrote in a blog post later that the portal operators told him that they were following instructions from government departments.
Hao, who had 8.6 million followers on all his suspended accounts, suspected the key reason is his criticism of a secret directive reportedly being circulated to universities, instructing academics not to discuss seven “dangerous” topics with students.
These are universal values, press freedom, civil society, civil rights, errors of the Chinese Communist Party, crony capitalism and judicial independence.
Another reason, Hao reckoned, was his defense of China University of Political Science and Law’s professor He Bing, whose Sina Weibo account with more than 430,000 followers was also frozen last week by the State Internet Information Office for “purposely spreading rumors.”
Both Hao and Professor He are among a group of microbloggers whose accounts have been deleted this year by the authorities in what observers view as a new round of censorship under China’s new leadership.
Two Chengdu-based scholars, Xiao Xuehui and Ran Yunfei, also had their Weibo accounts deleted this month after voicing their opposition to the construction of a state-owned petrochemical plant in the south-western province.
The drastic action of deleting Weibo accounts is also aimed at warning others to toe the line, said professor Xiao of the University of California, Berkeley.
“It is quite an effective measure of censorship, since deleting a user’s account can diminish his/her influence,” he told The Straits Times.
“Even if the user registers another account and starts to post again, he or she will lose lots of audience members as it is hard to accumulate a large following on Weibo.”
Similarly, Nottingham University analyst Wang Zhengxu said the CCP, in deleting Weibo accounts, has won by tightening its control on ideological discourse. He added: “Keeping this issue alive by re-registering their Weibo accounts is politically meaningful, but tactically ineffective.”
Still, bloggers are pushing back and reinventing themselves on Weibo, despite government regulations introduced late last year requiring new Weibo users to register with their real names.
New users have to submit their mobile phone numbers and also the Weibo passwords sent to their phones. But reincarnated bloggers beat the system by using different phone numbers.
Sometimes, even a different user name suffices. For instance, Hao opened a new account with the user name “ping yuan dong fang shuo,” the name of a Han dynasty minister.
Journalist Yang Haipeng reportedly uses the names of the 108 Robin Hood-like heroes listed in the Chinese classic, Outlaws Of The Marsh. Yang began with Song Jiang and is now at Fei Xuan, numbered 47. Academic Xiao Han has been reborn 212 times, while the record of 418 rebirths is held by an anonymous user.
Observers say these numbers reflect the tenacity of government censors at suppressing dissent, coupled with the determination of the netizens who push back.
Said Weibo user and academic Wu Wei, who has been reborn six times: “Every single reincarnation spreads freedom, dignity and knowledge of right and wrong a little further; each one shows just a bit more truth behind the ‘moral superiority’ of officials.
”That is how freedom comes into being: bit by bit.“
By Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times