Blogging in China's Black Box
By Aubrey BelfordApril 24, 2012
The downfall of Bo Xilai is China’s biggest political crisis in a generation. Is it a coming of age for the country’s netizens — or a victory for its propaganda czars?
The fall of Bo Xilai, the erstwhile rising star of the Chinese Communist Party, has been very fast, very dramatic and — by Chinese standards — very, very public.
Just months ago, Bo, one of China's princelings, was being talked of as a shoo-in for the highest levels of the party's leadership. As the party secretary for the inland megalopolis of Chongqing, he was also feted as a posterboy for a new model of China's development that combined a nod to the fervour of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution with aggressive efforts to create a consumption-fueled economy.
Now, Bo — along with his wife, Gu Kailai, his ex-police chief, Wang Lijun, and other associates — is locked up. The scandal, ahead of a leadership transition later this year, is seen as the biggest crisis to hit the party since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and it shows the extent to which the outsized personality of Bo had fallen out with other party leaders.
Thanks to the internet, and the growing clout of social media in China, it's also a scandal with an almost unprecedented level of public scrutiny. This is something the ever-secretive party hates.
The story — as we know it — reads like a thriller. It all starts with the alleged fatal poisoning of Neil Heywood, a British businessman and old Bo family associate, found dead in a Chongqing hotel room last year. Heywood had, according to reports, been killed on the orders of Gu after he demanded too much money for laundering offshore a massive sum of ill-gotten family money.
Uncovering Gu's alleged role in the murder, Wang, himself a longtime right-hand man of Bo, brought details of the case to Bo. Things got ugly between the men and a fearful Wang fled to the US consulate in nearby Chengdu on February 6, reportedly handing over dirt on Bo's family before leaving voluntarily and vanishing into the grasp of authorities in Beijing. That's when things became public and started to unravel for Bo, who is detained for "discipline violations" and has been linked in media reports to allegations of additional killings and a web of lucrative and often shady offshore family business dealings.
Look at it one way, and the Bo Xilai scandal has been a golden era for China's online media and the relatively free ecosystem of microblogs — in particular Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter knockoff with 300 million users.
Wang's flight to the US consulate triggered a flurry of comment on Sina Weibo, which has continued over the weeks since, as netizens have played a cat and mouse game with censors.
The flow of rumours — including talk in March of a coup in Beijing — has appeared to worry authorities so much that they have publicly denounced online speculation and have stepped up efforts to regulate, and sometimes arrest, social media users, while at the same time tightly screening content. At key stages throughout the story, from Wang's attempted defection onwards, events have often emerged as Weibo rumours first, only to be confirmed later by official media.
For some, the Bo scandal has been a triumph for social media, forcing a new era of openness on party-controlled China and exposing internal political rifts that the party would prefer to not talk about. Writing in The Guardian last week amid the social media crackdown, dissident artist Ai Wei Wei said, "China may seem quite successful in its controls, but it has only raised the water level. It's like building a dam: it thinks there is more water so it will build it higher. But every drop of water is still in there. It doesn't understand how to let the pressure out. It builds up a way to maintain control and push the problem to the next generation."
On the weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof drew a link between the scale of revelations and the shakiness of Chinese politics. "The scandal is the talk of China, and the government has lost control of the narrative. This scandal may have far-reaching effects on the national leadership, and it should, for it points to a larger truth: China's political model is simply running out of steam," he wrote.
But has the Chinese Communist Party — the world's biggest and smartest information control freak — really lost its grip?
Some close observers of China's online world say the opposite is true. Look at it another way, and it appears party leaders could be deftly managing social media — and even leading along the coverage of muckraking foreign journalists.
"If someone argues that this time social media really played a very important role to push, to force the government to be more transparent — nonsense," says Zhao Jing, a Chinese journalist and political blogger who usually goes by the name Michael Anti. "It just only shows how sophisticated the Chinese government is, how smart the central government can utilise social media."
For Anti, a closer look at how the Bo scandal has played out in the media shows signs that some in the party leadership may have been preempting the chaos that social media could have created by planting gossip online before making its own official statements — thereby shaping the narrative of Bo's downfall. After Wang Lijun's February 6 dash to the US consulate, many observers noted that gossip about the incident was only intermittently subject to keyword blocks and removal by human censors, which are the usual preferred methods.
A similar pattern has continued at other stages of the scandal, according to Anti.
Rumours that Wang had implicated Bo's wife in the death of Neil Heywood also reportedly first emerged on Weibo in early March from a reporter at the Southern Weekend newspaper group, who said he had received an SMS with the information from a phone belonging to Wang — more than a week after the policeman was arrested.
"Yes, they have this anti-rumour campaign, they're arresting people. But it's a selective crackdown," Anti says.
The strength and influence of China's social media comes from the fact that ordinary Chinese have such little trust in official pronouncements, Anti argues. Letting rumours emerge and air on social media — giving them an element of street cred — boosts the eventual believability of party announcements.
"Let's be clear that there is nothing on Chinese microblogs, Chinese Weibo, on this case that's really something new, not intentionally released by the Chinese government," Anti says.
Another boon for China's central leadership is the fact that Sina Weibo's servers are located in Beijing, where the central agencies with a hand in censorship also are located. In China's fragmented political system, this matters. Bo was a leader with a significant public following and a powerful fief in Chongqing. The Bo scandal — as well as an earlier Weibo-fuelled scandal over a high speed train crash that killed 40 people in the city of Wenzhou last year — has been an opportunity for central authorities to increase their power, and drown out other voices in the regions.
"Basically, that means that only the central government can control the servers and data," Anti says. "Local governments, or even local factions or small factions, can't access it."
David Bandurski, the editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, doesn't believe there's evidence the party is planting rumours on microblogging services or allowing them to circulate. But Bandurski does agree authorities have been adroit at managing the crisis.
Bandurski argues that social media has actually played less of a role in the Bo crisis than is often portrayed. Government censorship — and self-censorship by the microblogging companies — actually has been fairly tight on these stories, he argues. The big moves in the story have come instead through official media.
Reports from Xinhua, the official news agency, on April 10 announced that Bo was suspended from the Politburo and that Gu was under investigation for Heywood's murder. The next day, editorials on the stringent direction of the central propaganda authorities, originating from the party-controlled People's Daily, began blanketing the Chinese media. The narrative that was pushed has been that the downfall of Bo and his family is a case of personal moral failing and the rule of law, not factional division. They want it to be proof that the system works — not that it's rotten to the core.
While the new, networked China has presented new challenges to party authorities, they have reacted to the latest crisis, and to other recent scandals, with an evolving and sophisticated propaganda strategy, Bandurski says.
"They want to, on one hand, control and constrain information and discussion, especially on a strategic story like this, and on the other hand they want to push out their own information. Gone are the days, in many ways, when they'll be silent on a story like an environmental disaster and you just won't hear about it. They can't entirely cover it up, so they'll constrain the discussion and then push their own so-called authoritative version. It's really a two-pronged strategy."
For the foreign media in China, the ongoing Bo scandal has proved a goldmine for drama and salacious information. Chinese officials are notoriously hard to reach, but foreign media stories in recent weeks have included a constant barrage of details. Some has been sourced from forensic reporting off China's shores, but much of the rest comes from officials and other people close to power who recently have shown an uncharacteristic openness to talking to the media. The picture that they have painted has followed very closely the central party line.
"Basically they're glad to see the coverage," says Anti, the blogger. "You foreign journalists have now become a propaganda branch. Everything is just on track."
Malcolm Moore, a China correspondent for Britain's The Telegraph, who has broken a series of details on the murder of Heywood, is one journalist who feels he may be getting played. "We went to Chongqing. We started meeting people, they introduced us to other people, who introduced us to other people. Why all those people wanted to speak to us is a good question to ask," Moore says.
Every source who came forward with juicy details of the case was bringing information that had originated within the party. Details of the police case into Heywood's murder, for example, were read out to relatively low ranking party officials in what appears to be an internal propaganda effort to discredit Bo. With the word out that it was open season on Bo, the information has then made it to journalists.
Whether that's at the direction of propaganda authorities or has happened indirectly is impossible to say, according to Moore. "Even the sources are kind of questioning why they've been told this stuff," he says.
Trace them back far enough, and every kernel of information disappears into the Chinese Communist Party's black box. The real facts of China's biggest scandal in a long time may not be known for a long time yet.
"In this case the journalists are playing a very central role in how the story is unfolding. It's clear that there's been manipulation on both sides," Moore says. "There's nothing really we can do about it. I wouldn't pretend I've got anywhere near the truth."