Weibo has flown completely off the rails – Why is the rumor mill still spinning?

Last week Weibo was swept up in rumors of a completely imagined coup in Beijing (Yaxue covered the extent of the madness excellently). It seems that this week is bringing yet another wave of crazed speculation, again involving former star Bo Xilai, as well as an international man of mystery, and most of Bo’s family (NYT coverage or the more entertaining and similarly accurate movie version).

For me the question has nothing to do with whether or not these rumors bare any resemblance to what has actually happened (they probably don’t), the big question is why aren’t these rumors being squashed like a bug?

There are several possibilities. While nobody really knows the answer, my Chinese friends have assured me that “this is absolutely not normal”. Weibo has come off the rails in a surprising way, even though China is not big on surprises when it comes to politics and stability.

One option seems to be that the authorities (being either from Weibo or the Party) are simply not able to keep up with the speed at which these rumors are spreading. Much of Weibo’s controls rely on mass blocking of a few key words (like “Bo Xilai”), while individuals scour posts for oblique references to the parties involved. The Bo story may have simply gone viral in a way that censors were unprepared and ill-equipped for. As I’ve discussed before, Chinese has so many homophones and puns that blocking keywords can hardly be called an effective way of stemming discussion of sensitive topics. Furthermore, the rare opportunity of “openly” gossiping about a gov’t official seems to be irresistible to many, and further drives netizens to create new ways around the blocks. Censors also seem to be failing to block even the obvious keywords effectively, like only blocking the Chinese character, or blocking only a full name and not the family name. If this is the case, than I wouldn’t be surprised if micro-blogging sites were closed soon for “maintenance,” to give time for the rumors to die. I favor this option slightly more than others because censors did seem to accidentally let an inordinate amount of “sensitive” information come through the wall last week.

A second possibility, is that those in control of the Party (and no one is actually certain that there is a power struggle), want to make sure that Bo Xilai and his allies have been thrown completely under the bus. A number of stories have appeared about Bo’s Chongqing policies being reversed that support this theory. I also suspect this because my co-workers have been uncharacteristically well informed about the rumors, even though they don’t spend much time on Weibo, and don’t know how to escape the limits of the Chinese web. While there haven’t been any explicit descriptions of what has happened, there have been more nods than in the past. Global Times stated last week that,

“There are a lot of social discussions around Chongqing at present. This is normal, since the changes in the city deserve public attention.”

Global Times usually prefers to remind me that it’s none of my business and that I should just accept what the Party tells me – after all this article was titled “Trust in Party authority shows social maturity.” To me this indicates that the gov’t is allowing Bo’s reputation to be damaged to some extent, but doesn’t want the discussion to spread to other topics.

And still there are several other possibilities that I’ll leave to others to explore (The Party thinks the rumors have been contained, Weibo is benefiting too much from the traffic bump to crackdown completely, all the leaders are on vacation after the Two Sessions and haven’t bothered to look online…).

And while we’re enjoying a period of wild speculation, I thought I’d add my two-cents as to why these rumors matter.

For three decades now China has managed to build economic momentum, despite glaring human rights abuses, largely because the Party offered something that no other developing country could: long-term stability. While the amount of power the Party actually has over its people is debatable, the appearance of stability is what has lured multinationals to invest billions. The rumors on Weibo challenge that notion in a way that could cause bigger problems.

That Global Times article I mentioned earlier makes me think that the Party is aware of this issue as well. The article emphasized a few key points; that the Party is still the ultimate authority, that the transition of power later this year will go smoothly, and that the 18th CPC meeting was a success. If the Party’s voice on these topics is ignored, it would cause people to doubt China’s stability, and foreign investors would worry. If foreign investors worry, China’s economy slowly eats away at the Party’s mandate to rule.

9 responses to “Weibo has flown completely off the rails – Why is the rumor mill still spinning?”

  1. Great post Tom. This comment: “If the Party’s voice on these topics is ignored, it would cause people to doubt China’s stability, and foreign investors would worry. If foreign investors worry, China’s economy slows eats away at the Party’s mandate to rule.” is another potential reason for the decline of China’s economy. Your point here is very poignant.

  2. Mark walker says:

    Very interesting. Momentous changes have begun with less.

    • Tom says:

      I’m not sure how they will ever get the lid back on Weibo rumors after this without greatly increasing transparency.

  3. Alec O says:

    This is a very exciting time to be watching China!

  4. […] at SeeingRedInChina has a good post looking at why the censorship machine is letting so much noise get through on the Bo Xilai affair: […]

  5. vwam says:

    The past 60 years have been a wild ride. I wouldn’t classify them as some kind of golden age of stability. No one takes the party’s voice seriously as it is. But the party still has to speak.

  6. Lorin Yochim says:

    Before Weibo, rumours flew wildly in other fora. The SARS crisis was partly one of information control. Even then the flow of the true, the false, and the ridiculous was hardly constrained. Your option one, Tom, is the most compelling explanation. In relation to questions of the Party’s ability to control of this or that, bloggers and their readers ought to consider the possibility that they attribute far greater power/uniformity to the Party than it actually has. Given the history of shoddy reportage (not to mention failure to understand the role of metaphor in fictional accounts) on the nature of totalitarian regimes, it’s not hard to see why people see them as omniscient/potent big brother figures. Many of things we struggle to understand about China become easier to understand if we 1) let go of the image of the all-controlling central power; 2) recognize that there are powers in the world (e.g., markets) that by nature resist control (a point that you’ve highlighted nicely); and 3) grant a modicum of human agency to common people, including those whose actions foreigners tend to reflexively read as sheep-like.

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  8. […] However there are still many questions left unanswered and censorship has been greatly increased since the announcement to squash any new rumors from forming (which is difficult). […]

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