China Confronts the Online Rumor Mill

On 08/01/2014 by Site Default
Anywhere in the world it can be a challenge to sort fact from fiction on the Internet, but in China the problem has a unique dimension, given the relative absence of reliable information, especially on issues involving the government.

In recent years, all too often the Chinese authorities have issued false statements in an effort to conceal the truth about matters of public concern, with the result that rumors thrive as people grope for clues about what really happened. As official lies and popular rumors vie for supremacy, it becomes all the harder to distinguish between fact and fiction, especially on the Internet.

A key factor in this are the microblogs, which during the last four years have claimed a hold over Chinese society and are shaping people’s judgments. As a popular saying has it, “While truth is still tying its shoelaces, rumor has already run a whole lap around China.”

But microblogs are simply a tool that makes it easy for rumors to circulate. It’s the falsehoods peddled for so long by the government that have fueled the rise of Internet gossip.

On Feb. 6, 2012, Wang Lijun, then Chongqing’s police chief, sought refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu for a day. Officials in Chongqing cooked up a story that Mr. Wang was on sick leave, and rumors started to fly, one even announcing a coup d’état in Beijing.

Government fabrications provoke people to search the Internet in an attempt to piece together the real story, and sometimes they find that things officials write off as rumor turn out to be true. For example, colorful details like Bo Xilai — Chongqing’s former top official who is serving time in prison for corruption — slapping Mr. Wang in the face were later confirmed as fact, making more people put their faith in rumors.

Given the proliferation of rumors, and the speed at which they circulate online, the government realized that measures like deleting posts and shutting down microblog accounts had lost their effectiveness. So it began a campaign to prosecute bloggers. On Sept. 9, the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a ruling stipulating that defamatory reports, if reposted more than 500 times on the Internet, are a crime worthy of punishment.

A few days later, Yang Hui, a 16-year-old boy in Gansu Province in the northwest, became one of the first to fall afoul of this new rule. After challenging online the official explanation for a local man’s death, he was detained for seven days on charges of stirring up trouble. Only after an outcry, mostly online, was he freed.

In fact, the crackdown began in August, before the ruling was even issued. According to local media reports from across the country, hundreds of bloggers may have been arrested and taken into custody. Some were given “educational warnings”; some were jailed. It’s impossible to get exact numbers.

The policy of cracking down first and only later providing a legal justification seems not to have been questioned on the Internet, because the government has continued to delete posts, gag speech and shut down microblog accounts, making it impossible for critics to protest online.

The government campaign came to light on Aug. 21, when one story dominated the web: The Beijing police had closed down an “Internet rumor company” and seized someone with the alias Qin Huohuo and five others.

The official media, in coordination with the Beijing police, reported in detail on Mr. Qin’s many misdeeds. Prior to this I knew nothing about him, and after reading part of his microblog, it seemed to me that some of his posts were indeed just unsubstantiated rumors.

Even so, there were lots of people online who spoke up in his defense, finding weak spots in the official media’s accusations. One of Mr. Qin’s alleged crimes, for example, was that he disparaged Lei Feng — the young soldier exalted by Mao and his propagandists as an icon of patriotism and self-sacrifice — claiming in a post that Mr. Lei actually hankered after a life of luxury: “The high-end apparel that Lei Feng bought for himself in 1959 — leather jacket, woolen pants, leather shoes — would have cost about 90 yuan at the time, but his pay was only 6 yuan a month.”

Some Internet commentators pointed out that at the end of 2012 the official Xinhua website had already reported Mr. Lei’s purchase of a watch and a leather jacket, and they asked sarcastically why the police weren’t taking Xinhua into custody.

Given all the online support for Mr. Qin, and for other well-known bloggers who have been shut down, I am doubtful that the government’s use of punitive measures will achieve its goals.

Chinese people of my generation that grew up during the Mao era have long been accustomed to government mendacity: from the Great Leap Forward’s grossly inflated claims about rice production to the recent fib about Mr. Wang’s sick leave. The difference is that before the Internet and microblogs, popular rumors spread mouth to mouth, with very limited circulation, and official fairy tales enjoyed a virtual monopoly. But once the Internet and, more particularly, microblogs came onto the scene, the social reach of rumors soon eclipsed that of official media — and official mythmaking’s monopoly was broken. That left the government to clamp down not on real violations but on what it labeled as Internet rumors.

The best way of putting an end to Internet rumors is for the government to stop disseminating lies. But the government will never do that, and so Internet rumors will continue to sprout and spread — even after the crackdown.

Yu Hua is the author of “To Live,” “China in Ten Words” and other books. This article was translated by Allan H. Barr from the Chinese.


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