News Column

Wild Rumours Draw China's Communists Into Social Media

April 17, 2012

Bill Smith

Social Media

China's biggest political scandal for years has fuelled an unprecedented outpouring of gossip, speculation, rumours and anti-government satire among hundreds of millions of internet users who drive the country's vibrant social media.

The explosion of wild rumours, and sometimes true reports, among China's 300 million microbloggers has forced the ruling Communist Party into a two-pronged attack since a political scandal broke in February involving the "princeling" leader Bo Xilai.

The party has stepped up its online controls, closing dozens of websites this month, arrested at least six microbloggers for spreading rumours, and has run a major propaganda campaign in state media.

It has started to enforce a real-name registration system for microbloggers and suspended two major Maoist websites that had supported Bo.

But it has also tried to direct the course of online discussions and "occupy" microblogging sites rather than shut them down, said Michael Anti, a writer who is one of China's best-known microbloggers.

All the rumours on Bo that later turned out to be true were "leaked by the Chinese government," Anti said.

Bo, who was once tipped for a top leadership post, lost his position as Communist Party chief of the south-western city of Chongqing last month.

He was suspended from the Politburo, which groups the party's top 25 leaders, last week as the government announced that his wife was suspected of involvement in the murder of a British man who died in Chongqing in November.

Those dramatic developments followed weeks of rumours and speculation after Chongqing's deposed police chief, hardline "super cop" Wang Lijun, briefly entered a US consulate on February 6.

"This Chongqing drama is written and directed by the Chinese government," said Anti, adding that Chinese journalists told him the first rumours in February came from a mobile phone number owned by Wang's driver.

The Chongqing government released some of its official responses to the recent scandal on its account on the popular Sina microblogging site at weibo.com.

Local and national government officials have opened thousands more microblogs.

The official Xinhua news agency said it tried to release last week's news of Bo's ouster from the Politburo on its Weibo account but was forced to wait until Sina was allowed to lift blocks on posts containing Bo's name.

The government and internet firms employ thousands of online censors, and block access to Twitter, Facebook and other international social media services.

Its surveillance tools include keyword filters and close monitoring of micro-blogs and phone numbers used by known activists.

"There is no Arab Spring on the internet in China," Anti said.

After online calls for Chinese activists to stage peaceful anti-government protests from February last year, the government restricted internet access via mobile phones at some planned protest sites in Beijing.

In the crackdown that followed, security forces apparently coerced several prominent activists into suspending or reducing their use of Twitter, which thousands of Chinese dissidents still access via virtual private networks, which bypass state controls on internet communication.

Yet despite the restrictions on Chinese micro-blogs, many analysts see the online chatter as playing a vital role in China's social and political development.

The internet has become a "fully fledged public sphere ... driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue," said Kaiser Kuo, the international communications director of China's most popular search engine, Baidu.

China's system of internet control is "incredible", said Jeremy Goldkorn, director of Danwei, a Beijing-based company that monitors Chinese media.

But recent rumours avoided using sensitive words, often replacing them with codewords, puns or satirical nicknames to slip through the keyword filters.

So Premier Wen Jiabao acquired the nickname of Teletubby, while a play on the three characters of Vice President Xi Jinping's name turned him into "Xi Forbids Comments."

"No matter how good the censorship system gets they will never be able to stop some information from spreading," Goldkorn said.

The number of internet users in China mushroomed from about 8 million in 1999 to more than 500 million today.

Text messaging and the internet rapidly magnified the scope of rumour-mongering in China, but microblogs have pushed the spread of rumours to "a new scale and a new speed," Goldkorn said.

Last week's announcements on the Bo Xilai scandal via government microblogs and state media have failed to stem the flood of rumours over Bo and his wife.

"With a highly sceptical public, with more access to information than ever before, there are very limited ways the party can speak and really be believed," said Kerry Brown, a China expert and head of the Asia programme at Britain-based think-tank Chatham House.

"There is really no safe source of information, and Xinhua is not really any better than Weibo," Goldkorn said.



Source: Copyright 2012 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH