China has shuttered the social media accounts of property mogul and celebrity blogger Ren Zhiqiang after he repeatedly criticized the country's president, Xi Jinping, saying he had been spreading "illegal information."
The Cyberspace Administration of China on Sunday said Ren's accounts on Twitter-like services Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo were closed in accordance with recent guidance on "safeguarding Internet security" in line with a recently passed National Security Law, official media reported.
Ren's Sina Weibo verified account had 37 million followers.
"Cyberspace is not a lawless field and it should not be used to spread illegal information by anyone," China Radio International (CRI) quoted spokesman Jiang Jun as saying.
Jiang said Ren's accounts were closed following tip-offs from other Internet users that he had regularly posted illegal information, "resulting in a vile influence," it said.
He warned Internet service providers and users that they should step up their awareness of acceptable content, saying that celebrity "Big V" bloggers should "use their influence correctly, exemplify in observing laws, shoulder their due social responsibilities, and promote positive energy," the report said.
He also warned that China's law enforcement agencies are stepping up their monitoring of online information and content and will be able to prevent those users whose accounts have been closed from reregistering in another name.
Party loyalty questioned
The Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said Ren had got what was coming to him.
"Ren has spoken out this way for a while, benefiting from the fame it brings but taking no responsibilities," the paper said in a recent editorial.
"He gained over 33 million followers on Weibo, attracted widespread attention and triggered numerous heated debates in the public discourse," it said.
"As a party member, Ren should have insisted on ... the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party," it said.
A friend of Ren's who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Monday that the move appears to be linked to a high-profile visit to top state media outlets by President Xi on Feb. 19, in which he called for unswerving loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party in all forms of media.
"Clearly, somebody has taken the initiative, sensing the way the wind is blowing, according to the usual way of thinking," the friend said.
"Some people are saying that [another] Cultural Revolution is fast approaching, but I don't think that will come back again," he said in a reference to the political turmoil of 1966-1976 during which various party factions denounced and criticized people in mass "struggle sessions."
"There may be some people who want to drag China back there, but I think that times have changed. We're not in the sixties and seventies now," he said.
"It's not the first time that ... individuals have been singled out for criticism."
Netizens had mixed reaction to the news on Monday.
"Once they have wiped out any form of 'extreme' comment, then even 'moderate' criticism sounds harsher on the ear, and so it then needs to be expunged in its turn," user @l77044 commented on a news story about Ren's accounts. "In time, even the most delicate euphemisms won't be acceptable."
"And when all of these voices have been silenced, people will be forced into silent forms of protest, until they too are forced to sing [the party's] praises."
"I guess you're just not allowed to speak the truth in China now," user @likaxineraixianao wrote. "The whole of the Internet is now sounding like CCTV [state television] news."
And @biepa_shigetengni wrote: "Loose Cannon Ren must have been telling the truth, or they wouldn't have come after him."
However, the post on which the users were commenting supported the closure of Ren's accounts.
"Great job!," user @zhutianzi wrote. "Ren Zhiqiang had long since joined the ranks of subversive forces both overseas and in China."
Chonqing-based political analyst Zhang Qi said Ren's removal from social media is the latest in a long line of attacks on freedom of expression since President Xi came to power in November 2012.
"Xi Jinping has been consolidating his power since he took office, with crackdowns on freedom of speech, and using the anti-corruption campaign," Zhang said.
"It also reflects the so-called world view of the 'red second generation' who grew up during the Cultural Revolution," he said, adding that the growing trend is an ominous one for China.
"Throughout history, when a country starts to suppress public expression, to silence its people so that nobody dare say anything, then often a period of turbulence or ... even the collapse of the regime is on the way," Zhang said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.