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China cracks down on websites allegedly spreading coup rumors

By Kevin Voigt and Lara Farrar, CNN
April 2, 2012 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • State media: Popular Chinese microblogging halt comments section until April 3
  • More than 16 websites closed and six people detained for spreading coup rumors
  • Comes after shock of the dismissal of China politburo member Bo Xilai
  • Last week, China's internet filled with rumors of military vehicles entering Beijing'

Hong Kong (CNN) -- China's major microblogging sites have suspended comments sections after being "punished for allowing rumors to spread" of a coup attempt in Beijing, state-run media reported Saturday.

Sina's Weibo and Tencent's QQ -- Chinese versions of Twitter, which is banned in the mainland -- will stop use of comment function on the popular sites to "clean up rumors and other illegal information spread through microbloggings," according to Xinhua.

The comments sections will be disabled until Tuesday. The microblog sites have been "criticized and punished accordingly" by officials in Beijing and Guangdong, state media reported.

Authorities also closed 16 websites and detained six people, Xinhua reported, for allegedly spreading rumors of "military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing," a spokesperson for the State Internet Information Office told Xinhua.

An unknown number of people who also reported rumors were "admonished and educated" but "have shown intention to repent," Beijing police told state media.

China's Internet was rife with rumors of an alleged coup attempt last week after the shock dismissal Communist Party politburo member and Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai earlier in the month. Cyberspace discussions on Bo's fate have been censored.

On Weibo last week, bloggers who type in Bo's name, or even his initials BXL and homophones, typically got an automatic reply: "Due to relevant regulations and policies, search results for 'Bo Xilai' are not being displayed."

China's censors fuel online frenzy

Zhang Zhi An, an associate professor of journalism at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, says the government's actions are "not surprising."

"The government worries the information could have some mobilization functions, that it will make people worried about the stability of society," said Zhang who was attending a conference on microblog activism at Fudan University in Shanghai on Saturday. "The information that was posted hints that there is a very big struggle in the Central Party, and I think the Party can not accept this information.

"This is a very clear sign to netizens that they must be responsible for their posts online," Zhang said. "If it is not true, if it is fake, if it comes from your imagination, we will take actions to punish you."

This is the second time the government has taken serious action against China's microblogs, according to Zhang. The first time occurred in 2009 when dozens of Twitter-like sites were simply closed by the government. Since then, two main players have emerged in the market - Sina Weibo and Tencent's QQ.

The platforms have experienced explosive growth in recent years and in many ways have become alternative information sources for the country's 500 million internet users who post information that is not reported in China's state-controlled media.

Yet the platforms have been a source of ongoing concern for officials who fear that they could be used to mobilize protests or other movements that could jeopardize social stability, Zhang said.

In an effort to try to prevent the spreading of rumors or other information deemed sensitive or inaccurate, the government recently implemented a policy requiring all microblog users to register their accounts using their real names.

Sina Weibo and other micro blogging platforms were supposed to have implemented the real-name registration policy by March 16. On that day, only 19 million of Sina's 300 million users had registered their names, according to Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.

CNN's Jaime FlorCruz contributed to this article

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