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The fall of Bo Xilai and spreading rumors as civil disobedience in China

Last night the Central Gov’t confirmed that rumors of Bo Xilai’s involvement in the death of a British national were true. The Party claims this as a victory that shows China as a country “ruled by law (and here),” even though information about this case began to surface months ago with Wang Lijun fleeing to the U.S. Embassy in Chengdu.

Bo’s sacking along with the revelation that he may have been an accomplice in a murder is also unusual in that high-level officials are usually dismissed without much clarification. In the last big case, with Railway minister Liu Zhijun supposedly embezzling 800 million RMB, it was only stated in the Chinese press that he was suspected for graft without a specific amount (even though he was blamed for the high-speed rail crash and other railway officials were named with specific amounts). This indicates that more information has been revealed this time as part of an effort to curb rumors.

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).

The first question we should explore is – What kind of country spawns rumors about officials murdering foreigners in which the official gets away with it? Or that the military has occupied Beijing without it being reported on the news? While one of these rumors has been verified and the other disproved, they both spread like wildfire without any confirmation or semblance of evidence. Rumors only take root in fertile soil (compare the viability of Bo rumors to whether or not Bin Laden was killed). This reveals a society (inhabitants of weibo, not all of China) that believes most gov’t officials are corrupt, that such officials are rarely punished, and that even a murder most foul would be covered up. This does not suggest that the citizens see China as a country under rule of law; they know that many like Chen Guangcheng are still being held outside the law.

Secondly, rumors are continuing to spread in spite of real name registration on Weibo, renewed efforts to effectively contain such sensitive speech online, and a dozen or so articles from the Chinese press begging netizens to stop spreading rumors and place their trust in the Party. This demonstrates a hunger for knowledge even under threat of arrest, and a major push towards the democratization of information in China. While the gov’t still discourages the spread of “illegal information,” it looks as though netizens are starting to challenge the assertion that there are some things they should never know.

This brings me to my main point – In modern China spreading rumors about gov’t officials can be seen as a form of civil disobedience* (In that it is non-violent and challenges a law that is seen as unjust). Netizens are actively refusing to heed the requests of the gov’t to stop spreading rumors as a way of demanding a more transparent and open form of gov’t. This is in no way an attempt to overthrow the Party, but instead seeks the information that is being denied to them, as well as challenging the current limits on their freedom of speech.

This morning as my wife headed to work she noticed that her school bus was a cacophony of “Bo Xilai,” “murder,” and “British person.” With the knowledge that this was being discussed openly, we tested whether or not a text message of 薄熙来 (Bo Xilai) could be received – it was not. When I arrived at work I mentioned this to my Chinese co-workers. They both claimed that it was a problem with my phone and that China did not possess the capabilities to block text messages. So one of them, wanting to prove me wrong, sent a text. A few minutes passed before my phone beeped with a new message – it was the second one she had sent as a test, it simply read “OK.” After waiting a few more minutes without any more messages, they saw first hand the level of censorship that exists in China**. It was an experience that overrides all the People’s Daily and Global Times articles that claim freedom of speech exists in this country. It also shows that even sending a 3 character text can be a form of civil disobedience and a tool for political awakening.

*I recommend reading The Mask of Anarchy (the important bits), which is considered the first poem on the subject of Civil Disobedience (full poem).

**I repeated this test with friends in Beijing and Chengdu, both reported that they did not receive my text. The pinyin “Bo Xilai” seemed to be uncensored. Test was done around 8a.m. on April 11th


7 Comments

  1. 34f67dg72 says:

    I had the same experience with a text message (even in pinyin) when a certain person won a Nobel peace prize – I wonder if his name is still blocked?

  2. sanculottist says:

    vpn12 worked fine for me until i got a touch of dns poisoning as we came up to the 90th anniversary of the party. fortunately, that particular six month stint in china was coming to an end anyway . still, what about having a couple of good vpns on your computer?

    apropos, “spreading rumours”; it would be interesting if the americans were to release the information that wang lijun gave them when he was in the consulate in che
    ngdu. he certainly wasn’t there to drink coffee and wait for beijing to save him from bo xilai’s claws. although, it has been suggested that was in fact the case.

    therefore,”that more information has been revealed this time as part of an effort to curb rumors” might not reflect the whole picture. there may have been no alternative to follow it to a more lucid conclusion.

    Still, it is worthwhile pointing out the statement made by the xinhau press, which i got from the ‘global times’: “the cpc’s decision against bo highlights that nobody is above the law and discipline in china. power abuses are not allowed no matter how superior one’s authority is. local affairs cannot be dominated by an individual’s interests.perfectly right to doubt the credibility of the xinhau press.” your implied hypothesis that this is poppycock is, of course, absolutely correct.

  3. A well written piece Tom. It’s amazing how many Chinese are so naive when it comes to how much control their government imposes upon them and what tactics it uses to keep it’s citizens at bay. Your text message being censored and then revealed to your Chinese colleagues is a classic example of this.

    • Tom says:

      I think this instance has been the most successful in causing friends to realize to what extent there is control. Too often you hear people just say, “The problem with your gov’t is that they block information.” I’ve never seen this line of attack work.

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