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Since early November, the Chinese government has been targeting Twitter users in China as part of a nationwide crackdown on social media – even though Twitter is blocked in the country. Authorities have detained or summoned dozens or more Twitter users, forcing them to delete sensitive tweets or close their accounts. In some cases, authorities appear to have hacked accounts themselves.

The government’s recent attention to Twitter – absent any protests or other social events organized via Twitter as a trigger – signals a new level of suppression of free speech under President Xi Jinping’s repressive rule. Some of those detained have been low-profile users with a small number of Twitter followers, and do not appear to participate in activism offline. A Twitter user who was briefly detained told me that the police showed him a list of Twitter users in his city that authorities planned to “tackle.” 

It seems that the authorities not only want to stop Chinese people from speaking out against the government, but also want to scrub from the Internet records of past critical speech. Some of the tweets authorities pressured Twitter users to delete were posted years ago; few would have viewed the tweets had they remained. It strains credulity that Beijing is worried that activist Wu Gan – currently serving an eight-year sentence for subversion – is suddenly going to start tweeting from prison, yet his tweets were first deleted and then his account vanished.

Twitter has been a refuge of sorts for those who can’t bear the censorship on China’s social media. “Here are no sensitive words, no messages that can’t be displayed ‘according to the relevant laws,’ and no risk of having our account shut down at any movement,” wrote Twitter user @gavinleehead, whose account has now been deleted.

But authorities might want to heed the backlash against their ever-tightening repression. “The policeman threatened to jail me if I did not delete the tweets,” a Twitter user and activist told me. “And I blurted out, ‘Do it now, lock me up!’” Yet, ultimately, he too deleted his Tweets.