China’s tragic crackdown on social media activism

September 12, 2013, 5:50 PM UTC
Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and President Xi Jinping

FORTUNE — Social media in China, which has nearly 600 million users, has long been recognized as a political game-changer. In a country where a one-party regime maintains tight censorship over traditional media, the relative freedom of expression available via Chinese social media, particularly Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), has made it a powerful platform for rallying public opinion.

In the past few years, Weibo has been credited for exposing corrupt officials, mobilizing the public against social injustices, and forcing local governments to abandon plans for building hazardous plants in densely populated areas.

The demonstrated potency of China’s emerging social media has left many wondering whether the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue to tolerate it.

Judging by the recent ferocious crackdown launched by the Chinese government, the answer is clear: The new leadership, which has been in office for 10 months, is implementing a comprehensive plan to eliminate the threat represented by China’s social media.

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So far, the campaign has resulted in the arrests of several leading online commentators, each of whom used to have tens of millions of loyal followers on Weibo. On August 21, police in Beijing detained Qin Huohuo and Yang Qiuyu, two well-known Big-Vs (online commentators with verified large followings), on charges of rumormongering and defamation. Two days later, police in Suzhou arrested Zhou Lubao, another online muckraker famous for spotting an expensive watch worn by a smiling official inspecting the site of a horrendous traffic accident a years ago (ironically, Zhou’s arrest coincided with the trial of the corrupt official). Zhou was accused of blackmail and rumormongering.

Then, on August 25, the Chinese government dropped a real bombshell. Its police arrested Charles Xue, a wealthy Chinese-American investor with more than 12 million online fans. Xue, an outspoken crusader against corruption and social injustice in China, was allegedly caught with a prostitute in Beijing.

What makes these arrests notable — and disturbing — is that they were preceded by emphatic official announcements by China’s top leadership that the party would tighten its ideological control and followed by a strong endorsement by China’s legal authorities on the validity of prosecuting individuals for online rumormongering and defamation.

On August 19, before the latest arrests, China’s President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the party’s conference on propaganda. He pledged that the party would never cede control over ideology. After these arrests were made, China’s supreme court and prosecutor’s office issued an unusual joint legal opinion that essentially affirms that online rumormongering is a serious crime that local authorities can prosecute.

The party’s war on social media reveals many things, most notably the political orientation of the new leadership. Before it assumed office last November, there were hopes that the Communist Party’s new leaders would be more tolerant and open. Their actions suggest they are more conservative, insecure, and obsessed with instability than their predecessors.

The crackdown will also doom the new leadership’s much-hyped campaign against official corruption. Experience around the world demonstrates that the most effective weapon against corruption is transparency and free speech. Indeed, China’s social media has played a critical role in exposing many corrupt officials in recent years. The vigilance of China’s online muckrakers has reached such a fearsome level that few Chinese officials now dare to display those expensive watches and other bribes in public. By prosecuting online activists, the party has essentially given corrupt officials a license to persecute whistle-blowers at will.

Apparently, the new leadership’s strategic thinking is “killing chickens to warn monkeys.” By prosecuting a few leading commentators, the government hopes to silence the majority and tame the country’s social media.

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To be sure, the harshness of the offensive against social media could intimidate China’s people into submission. But such success is likely to be short-lived. Like all government-sponsored campaigns, the attack on social media will lose momentum at some point because the party will have other fires to put out, thus creating an opportunity for social activists to return to this space.

Fighting a war against social media is like trying to squeeze a balloon: The government may succeed in taming one part, but it simply pushes social activists to other spaces and forces them to be more innovative in fighting Chinese censors.

Eventually, the party will lose this war. But by waging a futile and repressive campaign against transparency, the party will only destroy innocent lives and hopes. That is the real tragedy.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States