China’s Weibo bans co-founder who questioned zero-COVID strategy

BEIJING (Reuters) – A leading entrepreneur in China who had questioned the wisdom of the country’s zero-COVID strategy was banned from posting on Weibo, with the social media platform accusing co-founder James Liang of violating laws.

Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter, did not specify which laws Liang had broken, and it was unclear when the ban took effect or what had triggered it. But on Tuesday, online users noticed changes to Liang’s account, which has 817,000 followers.

The account belonging to Liang, who is also executive chairman of China’s dominant travel platform, now displays a statement saying the user is currently blocked for “violating relevant laws and regulations.”

Reuters was unable to contact Liang through, which owns Qunar and Skyscanner, and the company also declined to comment.

Weibo did not immediate respond to a request from Reuters for comment.

Last week, Liang authored a piece that was published on the WeChat account of Beijing-based think tank Center for China and Globalization in which he argued that overly cautious epidemic prevention policies could inflict bigger pain on the economy and people’s life expectancies than the virus itself. The post was subsequently removed.

Authorities have become increasingly sensitive to public questioning of China’s zero-COVID policies, and have adopted even stricter measures to stamp out the spread of the virus, while threatening action against critics of their approach.

China says it needs to stick with a zero-COVID strategy because relaxing curbs could cause a high number of deaths and overwhelm its medical system.

In April, Liang posted on Weibo an article he had written discussing the Omicron variant’s low death rate, and challenging the need for China’s strict epidemic controls.

A separate article he published in April in the newspaper China Enterprise News also warned that excessive COVID-prevention measures might hurt China’s economy.

The strategy to combat COVID-19 isn’t the only issue the Liang has taken aim at. In his last Weibo post, on April 29, Liang published an analysis on why China had taken so long to revise its one-child policy, a topic that he has passionately discussed before on social media and in media interviews.

While Liang has remained active on Weibo amid a tightening regulatory environment during the past two years, most other Chinese business leaders who were once outspoken have gone private on social media, or stopped posting altogether.

Over the weekend, Pony Ma, the low-profile founder of tech giant Tencent Holdings, created a social media stir by reposting an article on the increasingly sensitive topic of China’s economy.

Censorship has steadily tightened under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to secure a third leadership term at a congress later this year of the ruling Communist Party.

Other high-profile Chinese banned by Weibo recently include private equity investor Dan Bin and Wang Sicong, the son of Dalian Wanda founder Wang Jianlin.

As with Liang, the specific reasons for their bans were not given, but Dan had questioned the feasibility of the zero-COVID policy and Wang had challenged the efficiency of a government-endorsed traditional Chinese medicine to treat the virus.