BEIJING - China's crackdown on online "rumour-mongering", widely seen as a tool to halt criticism of the ruling Communist Party, has chilled political discourse, with high-profile bloggers saying they have reined in sensitive posts for fear of detention.
Lawyers and activists called the crackdown a significant, if crude, expansion of powers to police the Internet and a blow to those who rely on microblogs to disseminate information that is often not monitored as strictly as traditional media.
"I am really scared now that any whistleblowing might lead to an arrest," said Zhou Ze, a rights lawyer with more than 165,000 followers on the Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo. "We all have to talk less, and more carefully."
It is common for politically sensitive posts to be taken down by censors and for users to be blocked, but recent detentions have sparked fears of harsher punishments.
At the heart of the issue is a judicial interpretation by China's top court that says bloggers can be prosecuted for posting rumours seen by more than 5,000 people, or forwarded more than 500 times.
"If rumours can lead to detention or arrest, everyone will fear for themselves and become particularly scared about criticising officials, which we are seeing less of on the Internet," Zhou said.
An estimate of data provided to Reuters by Weiboreach, a social media data analysis firm, shows that in a random sample of 4,500 highly influential users known as "Big Vs", those with a self-reported occupation in government or academia had a much higher rate of deletion in August than those in entertainment.
The data does not differentiate between posts that users had deleted themselves and those that were deleted by authorities.
Analysts said the judicial interpretation specifically targeted the hundreds of Big Vs - "v" for verified - who send opinions, news and information to thousands or even millions of followers. Many are entrepreneurs, celebrities or academics.
Weibo users known for political and social commentary have been detained in recent weeks, enforcing fears that rumour-mongering is not the target of the law.
Wang Gongquan, an outspoken venture capitalist, was taken away by police on Friday on charges of disturbing public order after he helped lead a campaign for the release of another activist.
Well-known whistleblower Wu Dong, more commonly recognised by his online handle "Boss Hua", was taken into police custody in Beijing, the official Liberation Daily reported on its verified Weibo feed.
He said via Weibo on Wednesday that he had been released. His phone was off and he could not be reached for comment.
Wu, a watch lover, is one of many Weibo users who post about official corruption. He drew attention last year when he posted photos of expensive watches worn by government officials last year, helping to bring down one high-flying official.