BEIJING - A government-backed campaign to assert greater control over social media has lead to increased self-censorship by some of China's most influential bloggers, chilling political discourse in the country.
Chinese microblogs similar to Twitter have become key drivers of public opinion in recent years, with bloggers drawing attention to official corruption, pollution and other issues that challenge China's ruling Communist party.
But in recent months influential government critics have been paraded on state television, pledging to avoid posts that could create a "negative" social influence, while hundreds have been detained for spreading "rumours" online. "It's creating pressure, and an atmosphere of fear," said Xie Wen, a veteran of China's Internet industry who worked as a senior manager for Yahoo! China. "It's about making people speak less."
The rising influence of microblogs has been accompanied by the emergence of celebrity users with verified accounts, known as "Big Vs".
With over 13 million followers, real-estate mogul Pan Shiyi became one of the most celebrated "Big V" bloggers, driving public opinion on pollution by posting details of Beijing's dirty air levels, which at the time were not officially released.
At a meeting in mid-August, one of China's top officials responsible for Internet censorship told Pan and other well-known bloggers to be "more positive and constructive" in their online comments, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Pan was later shown in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, where he appeared contrite and warned of the dangers of "casual" online posts. Tensions increased with the August arrest of Chinese-American investor Charles Xue, who gathered more than 12 million followers to his microblog with a steady drumbeat of criticism aimed at China's government, on charges of soliciting prostitutes.
State-media insisted that his arrest has no connection with his online commentary, but government-run broadcaster CCTV showed him in prison clothes while under detention, confessing that he had used microblogging to "gratify my vanity".