China’s government announced earlier this week that it had arrested 15,000 people for an assortment of cybercrimes, the result of a project announced in July titled “Cleaning the Internet.” The announcement of these arrests follows a major crackdown on social media sharing stories of the devastation following a massive chemical explosion in the harbor city of Tianjin.
Reuters reported on the statement, released by Chinese police, claiming that around 15,000 people were identified as suspects who “jeopardized Internet security” and thus were taken off the streets. The police did not identify what type of cybercrime they were arresting these people for—in addition to identity theft and hacking, pornography, some political speech, and other anti-communist expressive material is illegal in China—but only that those arrested were involved in 7,400 individual cases of crime. To find these crimes, the government noted it had “investigated” 66,000 websites.
The arrests are part of “Operation Clean Internet,” a move by the administration of President Xi Jinping to take full control of China’s Internet structure. The program is aimed at curbing hacking and identity theft, but also activism against the communist government. The announcement of these arrests follows a series of website shutdowns related to the chemical explosion that has left dozens dead in Tianjin, a port city. State media outlet Xinhua reported this week that 50 websites had been “punished” for spreading rumors about the Tianjin blast, namely that dangerous chemical gases were still surrounding the affected areas beyond where the government had evacuated individuals.
Posts on social media websites like Sina Weibo (a rough Facebook equivalent) disappeared in the first few days following the blast; many wondering what caused it and, upon reports being published identifying hundreds of tons of sodium cyanide as the cause, why those chemicals were there. Chinese law allows these chemicals to be stored only in places at least one kilometer away from residential areas (which these were not) and in much smaller quantities, leading many to ask whether corruption is to blame for this disaster.
On Monday, after rain covered Tianjin, many posted photos of a mysterious white foam taking over the city, fearing it to be toxic. The government responded by assuring residents the foam was a “normal” occurrence during rainfall and announcing the arrest of multiple high-ranking members of the Rui Hai corporation, responsible for the building in which the sodium cyanide was being kept.
Long before the Tianjin disaster, however, the Chinese government had made its intentions clear regarding control of the Internet. In February, China’s Cyberspace Administration announced a new policy that would swiftly eradicate the use of pseudonyms online, as an effort to eliminate the “vulgar culture” of the Internet. In addition to forcing users to only refer to themselves by their real names, Internet users will be forced to “sign a pledge” that they would avoid “illegal and unhealthy” activity while online.