China punishes social media, websites on coup talk

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BEIJING (AP) -- China is closing a dozen websites, penalizing two popular social media sites and detaining six people for circulating rumors of a coup that rattled Beijing in the midst of its worst high-level political crisis in years.

The extensive crackdown, announced late Friday by state media, underscores the authoritarian government's anxieties over a public that is wired to the Internet and eager to discuss political events despite censorship and threats of punishment.

A Xinhua News Agency report said Beijing police questioned and admonished an unspecified number of Internet users and detained six people not further identified. Aside from the 16 websites shutdown, two Twitter-like services run by Sina Corporation and Tencent Holdings, which each have more than 300 million users, said they would disable their comment functions for three days in a "necessary cleanup."

The punishments were meted out for fabricating and disseminating rumors that "military vehicles are entering Beijing, something is going wrong in Beijing" and similar posts, Xinhua said, citing the State Internet Information Office, an interagency body charged with policing the Internet.

Both the coup rumors and the crackdown show how the firing two weeks ago of Bo Xilai, the populist leader of the mega-city of Chongqing, has brought leadership struggles out of the usually closed confines of elite Communist Party politics and into the public.

Yet to be fully explained, Bo's dismissal came after a top aide fled temporarily to a U.S. consulate, apparently to seek asylum and in violation of party rules. It also came as the senior leadership gears up for a handover of power to a younger generation leaders in the fall, always an a period of intense bargaining.

Politically minded Chinese saw the removal of Bo, considered a contender for a top job only months ago, as a sign of divisive infighting.

"Internet rumors and lies packaged as 'facts' will turn conjecture into 'reality,' stir up trouble online and disturb people's minds," the party's flagship newspaper People's Daily said in a commentary accompanying the announcement of the crackdown. "If allowed to run amok, they will seriously disrupt social order, affect social stability and harm social integrity."