As China prepares to celebrate a new national holiday, the country has been tightening its grip over the Internet by squelching online rumors, and cracking down on tools that can circumvent its censorship.
On Sunday, China’s Ministry of Public Security said it punished 197 people for allegedly spreading misinformation over local social media and messaging services.
The rumors covered controversial topics including the financial woes of the Shanghai stock market and the recent explosion in the Chinese city of Tianjin. One rumor, for instance, claimed that more than 1,300 people had died in the blast at Tianjin, when the official toll puts the figure at over 140.
The suspects involved deliberately attempted to mislead the public and create panic, according to the Ministry of Public Security.
The crackdown comes as the country is about to celebrate a new holiday on Sept. 3, which will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II. In Beijing, the government will be holding a large military parade.
China has a long history of censoring any content deemed offensive or controversial, especially when it relates to government affairs. This has involved blocking foreign websites such as Facebook and Twitter, in addition to arresting suspects involved in alleged rumor-mongering.
A year ago, China even began blocking access to all Google services, just days before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, a topic considered taboo in the country.
Internet users can still circumvent China’s censorship through special software tools, but lately, the government has also been trying to crack down on the coding that can run these services.
GoAgent and Shadowsocks, two of these tools, have been removed from GitHub, a software development platform popular among developers.
It’s unclear why GoAgent was taken down. But as for Shadowsocks, the Chinese developer behind it was forced to delete the code from GitHub, following a visit from local police.
“I have no choice but to obey,” the developer “clowwindy” said in a posting on GitHub, which was later deleted.
Shadowsocks was a popular censorship circumvention tool, according to GreatFire.org, an activist watchdog group that seeks to end China’s Internet censorship. The tool was both free and open source, helping to make it widely used, GreatFire.org said in an email.
But even as the Shadowsocks code was deleted, other developers have made it available again, and posted it to GitHub.
A developer of the original Shadowsocks code was contacted, but declined to comment, except to say: “I believe people will take over this project and it will continue without me.”