Bo Rumor Free-for-All Shows China’s Internet Struggle

Former Chinese Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai
Bo Xilai, former Chinese Communist Party secretary of Chongqing. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Bo Xilai’s downfall shows the Internet as both a menace and a prop for the ruling Communist Party, which has swung between closing down sites and letting rumors go unchecked.

On April 10, the official Xinhua News Agency announced the suspension of Bo, 62, from the Politburo, saying he was “suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations.” His wife, Gu Kailai, 53, was “highly suspected” in the homicide of a British businessman, the news agency said.

Officials may have allowed online criticism and speculation as part of a campaign against the Chongqing chief, who revived songs and slogans from the Maoist past. At the same time, reports last month of an attempted coup in Beijing showed the risk of destabilizing rumors in a nation that has 485 million Internet users and 300 million microbloggers according to government data.

“At times it was a free-for-all,” Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based independent media consultant says in the April 16 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek. “It seems the decision was made to let people blacken Bo’s name -- that the Net was being used as a political tool.”

The actions of Wang Lijun, Bo’s demoted police chief, who spent a night in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan in February, initially triggered online speculation. Bo was dismissed as Chongqing’s boss in mid-March and it later emerged that Britain’s embassy had asked China to probe a British citizen’s death in Chongqing.

In March, a Sina microblog said, “The one responsible for Chongqing’s ‘singing red’ must step down.”

Closed Down

On April 6, censors shut down the nationalist website Utopia, which had supported Bo and the Chongqing economic model, named after the southwestern city that he ran as a showcase of state planning.

The site was earlier shuttered temporarily at the time of Bo’s dismissal as Chongqing party secretary. Other websites have been closed and Sina Corp. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Twitter-like microblogging sites had their commentary sections disabled for three days from March 31 to April 3.

Three Internet and public security bureaus had informed Utopia it was being punished for publishing “articles that violated the constitution, maliciously attacked state leaders, and speculated wildly about the 18th Party Congress,” a notice on the site said after the latest closure. The congress meets this fall to ratify the transition to a new national leadership.

‘We Had No Choice’

Utopia must undergo “a self-inspection beginning from noon on April 6, 2012, to be brought back online after an examination was passed.” Huang Jihuan, previously listed on the site as a contact person says, “We had no choice but to shut down.”

The central government struggles with its own ambivalence about the Internet and the Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo.

“On the one hand, by allowing people to use Weibo, a lot of anger can get blown off, and you can do real-time monitoring of the problems facing China,” says Bishop. “On the other hand, if people start spending a lot of time on Weibo, it makes them feel much more negative about what is going on in this country.”

The party has attempted to foster a common line on Bo’s suspension among its 80 million members, ordering them to support the decision in a front-page commentary in the People’s Daily, the party’s official organ. Party papers across the country, from Guangdong in the south to Shanxi in the north, reprinted the directive.

“It has become a Sisyphean task to monitor the Internet,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, founding director of Beijing-based Danwei, a China Internet and media research firm. He points out how difficult it is for censors and software to keep up with evasive tactics, such as the regular use of puns, homonyms, and homographs, the term for words that are written the same but have different meanings.

To get around Web censorship, Chinese bloggers use the characters for bu hou, which means “not thick,” when referring to Bo Xilai. The Chinese character for Bo can mean “thin” when pronounced differently.

— With assistance by Dexter Roberts

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