China suddenly got serious about wiping out social media 'celebrity gossip' accounts

Actor Wang Baoqiang, right, is rarely out of the Chinese social media spotlight. Picture: Getty Images

Chinese officials are cracking down on social media accounts which trade in celebrity gossip and “flaunt” wealthy lifestyles.

Last week, the Beijing office of the Cyberspace Administration of China took down 60 accounts and websites across popular sites Weibo, NetEase, TenCent and Baidu.

Microblog Weibo has enjoyed explosive growth in just a couple of years to now boast a market capitalisation on the Nasdaq of more than $US17 billion, nearly $US4 billion more than Twitter.

One of the Weibo accounts shut down belonged to paparazzi photographer Zhuo Wei, who had more than 7 million followers. But it’s not know if Zhou’s account was closed due to his exposure of Chinese movie stars having extramarital affairs, or for highlighting the lavish lives of Chinese celebrities.

Mobile news apps were also targeted, particularly accounts which traded in celebrity news and gossip.

Officials in Guandong, China’s fourth largest province, also shut down 30 celebrity news social media accounts.

But the action may have come too little and too late for officials at Cyberspace Administration. Late last week, it was issued a stern rebuke from a senior inspector, Ning Yanling.

Ning heads a team of Communist Party inspectors which has spent the past month scrutinising Cyberspace Administrations operations. According to a statement on the website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Cyberspace Administrations had “for a period not carried out general secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions and requirements resolutely and promptly enough”.

The “important instructions” it had not paid enough attention to were raised in April last year, when Xi chaired a meeting of officials and internet tycoons.

Political content was expected to “enhance positive propaganda” and censorship was to be used as a means to restrict dangerous content such as subversion, ethnic separatism, religious extremism or terrorism.

At the same time, officials were told to tolerate “well-intentioned” criticism.

There was not a lot new in all of that for a country long associated with information control. Indeed, in April, a study from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed discussions about a nationwide crackdown on rights lawyers and activists were being stripped of images and keywords obviously deemed sensitive.

But Xi also ensured it was known the guidelines were aimed at creating a “good online ecology” in which social content was “positive, healthy, uplifting and benevolent”.

Exactly where officials at Cyberspace Administration had failed was not specified, but the shutdowns in the past week are notable for clearly targeting not the usual suspects – celebrity culture, not cyber subversion.

Ning said officials had not shown a proper “sense of political responsibility”.

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