Chinese Coup Rumors Run Wild Online, Then Disappear: Adam Minter

These are strange days for China’s netizens. On March 15, the Chinese Communist Party relieved Bo Xilai, the Chongqing Party Secretary, of his duties after his police chief allegedly attempted to seek asylum in the United States. It was arguably the biggest political story to hit China in two decades, and Chinese microbloggers embraced it with gusto. In the hours following the concise, two-sentence official statement the state media carried about the firing, citizens posted millions of tweets to Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblog,  speculating about the causes and circumstances of Bo’s abrupt fall.

The Weibo frenzy lasted for roughly a day, but then, with ruthless efficiency, the censors that troll Chinese microblogs -- whether they represent the party or the controversy-averse microblog owners -- quickly vacuumed up most of those tweets, abolishing them from the site. Searches, too, for “Bo Xilai” on Weibo produced no results. The Chinese public knows nothing about what is happening between the factions who supported Bo, and those who opposed him.

Amidst all this opacity, politically-interested netizens have fallen into a seemingly paranoid mood. This is especially the case for those who have something to gain or lose from the rise and fall of political leaders, such as businessmen whose success is highly dependent upon good relations with local governments. One of China’s best-known real-estate developers, Pan Shiyi, tweeted this on Monday night for his 9.2 million followers:

This evening Weibo was strange indeed, there were some words that could not be sent out on Weibo. I saw a line of commentary dropped several times from Weibo, but what I saw made my scalp tingle; was it gremlins? Better to turn off the computer and go to sleep.

Pan has a habit of posting cryptic tweets that regularly generate hundreds of responses. But this post landed in the midst of political scandal at the highest levels -- and it spurred rumors at the lowest levels. By Wednesday afternoon, it had been forwarded (or, retweeted) and commented on almost 3,000 times. Perhaps because of the post's ambiguity, censors have not removed it from the site.

The reactions have been varied. Some netizens advised Pan to get some sleep (“early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy”); some thought he had seen a ghost. Others responded by simply writing “Bo Xilai” -- and many, many others responded simply with “Ferrari,” in reference to a mysterious weekend car wreck in Beijing involving a Ferrari and, rumors have it, somebody powerful.

But the most curious interpretations of Pan's tweet came Tuesday mid-morning: Some suggested that a coup d’etat had taken place Monday night near Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Communist Party's leadership compound. This rumor spread rapidly, in various forms (and forums), online and offline. In a post that has since been deleted from Weibo (but is posted as an attachment to this article), one user wrote:

According to reports, Beijing people said that last night the 38th Army was seen on Chang’an Avenue [which runs in front of Zhongnanhai] and an accumulation of police and military vehicles were in front of the Diayoutai State Guesthouse, signaling there will be big changes soon in our government.

Several responders to Pan Shiyi’s tweet claimed they’d heard shots near Chang’an Avenue. Meanwhile, Weibo users, and The Epoch Times, a U.S.-based newspaper with connections to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, circulated photos of military vehicles on Chang’an Avenue that were allegedly taken during the alleged coup. Later, however, netizens began circulating a link to a military website from which the photos had been lifted: It turned out that the pictures were from night rehearsals for the 2010 National Day parade.

By lunchtime Tuesday though, coup rumors were flying fast and furious on Weibo. One microblogger summed up the surprise of many when he wrote: “I tried the word 'coup' and it’s not blocked.” Indeed, it wasn’t –- but "coup" was not featured on Weibo’s trending topic lists, either. (However, a general lack of transparency in regard to the trending topic list means that nobody really knows how a subject ends up on it.)

For every netizen who tweeted “coup?” “coup!” and “coup …” there were others who dismissed the whole matter, often with the devil-may-care humor so characteristic of Weibo. For example, on Tuesday, a netizen in Shanghai asked, “If there’s a coup d’etat, is it a legal holiday?”

Still, that humor can often exhibit a very harsh anti-government edge. One of the more common jokes expressed during the coup fever was one that referenced the Chinese government’s unpopular decision to raise gasoline prices by 6.5 percent, and diesel by 7 percent, such as in this now deleted post (also posted as an attachment to this article) :

Regarding last night’s internet rumors that loud noises in Beijing were caused by gunfire … actually the citizens of Beijing welcome the news that oil prices will rise and spontaneously gather in the streets to set off fireworks and celebrate. Don’t worry about a coup!

One thing is for sure: neither rumors about the coup, nor jokes about the rumors, were destined to last long. By dinnertime Tuesday, most were deleted and “coup” was no longer a searchable term on Sina Weibo. Around that same time, Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry denied rumors of the coup to Bloomberg News.

Still, despite censorship of the word "coup," speculation persists and the comment thread of Pan Shiyi’s mysterious Monday night post continues to grow, apparently uncensored. On Wednesday afternoon, several netizens on that thread noted that “Chang’an Avenue,” the site of the alleged coup on Tuesday morning, had, like “coup,” became a blocked search term on Weibo.

Why? For now, at least, it’s unclear if that’s even the right question to be asking.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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