Sex, Politics, Murder and the Web
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
In other times, the political excommunication of former Chinese rising star Bo Xilai would have been a relatively simple affair. Bo, the party boss of Chongqing, had for years built himself firm control over what happened in his province, along the way winning something of a reputation as a crusader for the people. But his sharp tongue and unconventional ways rankled Party officials in Beijing, and on April 10 he was suddenly demoted. End of story.
But the Internet loves a scandal, and as scandals go, the story of Bo Xilai seems to have it all (much of it detailed here by VOA’s Matt Hilburn and Kate Woodsome.) Soon after his dismissal a flurry of stories from the official party apparatus suddenly linked Bo to a series of business and bribery deals gone wrong. The mysterious death of longtime friend and British business leader Neil Heywood, first blamed on alcohol poisoning, was quickly tied to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai. For her part, rumors began to float that Gu is volatile, depressed, paranoid or worse, possibly even having had an inappropriately close relationship to Heywood. Then came whispers, quickly swatted down by the government, of dissent among high levels in the nation’s military unhappy with Bo’s removal.
Stories like Bo’s, of course, are nothing new. It wasn’t all that long ago that Jiang Qing, perhaps better known as “Madame Mao,” was at the height of political influence as one of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. But with Mao Zedong’s death, it didn’t take long for her to be toppled, landing her in prison with the label “counter-revolutionary.” Of the many opaque factions within the one permitted Chinese Communist party, there are always winners and losers. Bo Xilai has come out on the losing end of that equation. And that, traditionally, should have been that.
Which is exactly where the Internet comes in.
At first, government higher-ups appeared content to let China’s 350 million Internet users spread all sorts of negative rumors about Bo, Gu, and others associated with the disgraced two-some. But as we’ve often noted, the Internet sword cuts both ways, and soon users on sites like Weibo, Utopia and other popular networks turned the tables, repeating claims of a conspiracy to oust Bo led by party officials who had turned their back on the revolution. Very soon at least 40 websites were shut down, and the popular micro-blog Weibo was heavily censored. An uncertain number of people have been arrested and countless posts have been erased, with Beijing’s “State Internet Information Office” proclaiming the rumors a “very bad influence on the public.”
Yet key-word censorship is a tricky business, as Chinese users have become very adept at learning how to evade the censors by using similar but non-threatening words. Another oft-used tactic in China is shutting down nearly all access to the web in a specific geographic region, such as happens periodically in the ethnically-restive Xinjiang province. That can work to isolate one area for a limited time, but as a technique for stopping a national discussion it seems fraught with downsides. Just ask Egyptian officials.
In any event, as Helen Gao over at the Atlantic notes, the Internet cat may already be out of the bag:
“China’s heavy-handed censorship may now actually accelerate the spread of rumors, which could be seen as more plausible precisely because they are censored. Chinese web users trying to figure out the most likely truth must speculate not only about the rumors themselves, but also about every move the government makes in response. The tug-of-war between the government and the people over truth and rumor happens every day in today’s China. The rise of social media has made the struggle harder and the stakes higher.”