Heavy hand of China's censors fuels online frenzy

Bo Xilai's foothold near the summit of the Chinese Communist Party started to crumble recently.

Story highlights

  • This week rumors abounded of tanks entering Beijing and shots being fired in the city
  • Followed shock dismissal of Communist Party politburo member and Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai
  • No explanation of Bo's dismissal given, prompting specualtion on social-networking sites
  • References to Bo were censored online on Weibo, while leftist groups faced clampdown

Earlier this week, I got an email from a nephew who lives in Japan.

"The Washington Times is reporting coup rumors in Beijing due to the ouster of Bo Xilai," he wrote. "The article talks about tanks and shooting. Be careful!"

He was referring to a spate of alarming reports about a possible military coup in the Middle Kingdom. There were rumors of tanks entering Beijing, roads blocked and shots being fired in the city.

For days these unsubstantiated rumors circulated on the Internet and Weibo, China's Twitter-like micro-blogging service.

This online hysteria came hard on the heels of the shock dismissal last week of Communist Party politburo member and Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai.

China axes Bo Xilai from Chongqing post after scandal

But after such a stunning announcement, the mainstream media has failed to follow up with further details, prompting a frenzy of speculation about the reasons behind the move.

    What is happening in Beijing?

    This is a question that has China watchers and Chinese themselves puzzling and pondering.

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    "In the absence of transparency and credible official media, rumors fly," noted Bill Bishop, an independent analyst who closely follows China's Internet and social media industry.

    Even a traffic accident report triggered political rumors. When a Ferrari reportedly crashed on one of Beijing's "Ring Roads" last weekend, Weibo was abuzz with wild speculation about the driver -- rumored to be a godson of a top communist party official.

    By Tuesday, the English-language edition of the Global Times -- a newspaper affiliated with the official People's Daily -- one reported that "almost all online information" about the crash had been deleted overnight, "triggering suspicions as to the identity of the deceased driver."

    For days, the word "Ferrari" was blocked.

    Traffic accidents involving luxury cars have their particular lore in China, especially in Beijing, where many politicians and their children drive (or are chauffeured around in) expensive cars.

    The rise and fall of China's Bo Xilai

    Bo's son Bo Guagua had been sighted in Beijing driving a Ferrari, although the family has denied owning one.

    In any case, that perhaps explains why the crash attracted so much hype.

    "The Ferrari postings were 'cleaned' pretty quickly and it looks like a lot of the postings on Bo Xilai and the whole incident are now scrubbed from search," explained Bishop.

    This comes as a little surprise. For days Bo's name had been deemed a "sensitive word," since his ouster was officially reported last week. His dismissal topped the trending list for days.

    Some netizens lamented his downfall. "I hope Bo succeeds," wrote a Weibo user who uses a pen-name Fengbaoxiaozi-Yuedui.

    "China needs a strong politician. China needs a hero. China needs change."

    Others cheered. "In my eyes he is a clown," wrote Dengshandui.

    "I think Chongqing paid more attention to face-lifting projects rather than livelihood projects," wrote Fbsilm.

    Still others demanded to know more. "We need to know the truth!" clamored Kakajiangcaibuyene. "If we don't have the right to know, the right to participate, how can I believe in you, my motherland and Party?"

    Bo's sacking has created a maelstrom that could not have come at a more sensitive time.

    A scramble for power is taking place inside the communist party's elite body, the politburo, which will decide China's leadership into the next decade.

    But because of the perceived need to present a "stable and harmonious" image during the next few months, observers say, discordant debates are discouraged.

    Predictably, cyberspace discussions on Bo's fate have been censored.

    On Weibo, bloggers who type in Bo's name, or even his initials BXL and homophones, typically get an automatic reply: "Due to relevant regulations and policies, search results for 'Bo Xilai' are not being displayed."

    Censorship has been inconsistent, experts note. "Rumors were blocked and unblocked," recalled Bishop. "For most of the day at the height of the coup rumors, you could search for 'zhengbian' (coup) and on some days it was blocked."

    Such erratic censorship has created confusion compounded by questions of where the rumors originated.

    China's police join the microblogging masses

    Bishop said: "Who is spreading the rumors? People who just do not know what's going on, or are there people or overseas organizations trying to get in there to manipulate public opinion on Weibo for their ends? No idea."

    When censors scrub postings, I asked Bishop, does it mean they are true? Or does it mean censors simply do not want unfounded rumors to spread? "That's a good question," was his reply.

    Clearly, though, the micro-blog site operators are now caught in a bind. "They are in a tough spot because they are not taking sides and they just have to wait for instructions from the content management bureaucracy," Bishop opined.

    "But if there is some sort of struggle going on, perhaps some of these messages are not getting out in timely fashion because there is paralysis up in the system about what should and should not be said."

    "Wuyouzhiixiang" (Utopia), a website known for its new-left views and for supporting Bo's policies, was apparently shutdown for a few days, although it has since been back up with a special section on the "Chongqing model discussion."

    "It's the first time in China that a political power struggle has played out in the era of Weibo (micro-blogging)," said Bishop. "It's as important to get information out on Weibo as it is to publish it on CCTV or the People's Daily."

    But cyberspace censorship, Bishop argues, is not good for China's global image -- nor for the rest of the world.

    Bishop recalled 1989, the last time a political crisis of this level happened in China. That year the communist party chief, Zhao Ziyang, was sacked amid the political turmoil that followed the Tiananmen crackdown.

    "China then was not particularly important in the world economy," he said. "It was a relatively poor economy with no ability to impact global financial markets, the sovereign wealth fund, the commodities and stock markets. Not anymore."

    Now, whatever China does or does not do, it could influence markets. "It shows that the Leninist 'press office' approach no longer fits China's role in the global economic and financial world," Bishop said.

    Faced with cyber-censorship, Chinese microbloggers have reacted with predictable disdain. One, using the pen-name Luse Zhuren, wrote: "Good culture will all disappear if opinion keeps being guided."

    Another, Wu Sanfan, warned grimly: "I faintly feel that Weibo, this big tea house where ordinary people speak freely, will hang up a wooden board saying 'NO TALKING ABOUT THE COUNTRY'S POLITICS'."