THE truth – and who controls it – has become a highly contested commodity in China this year – not least because the country is in the midst of a sensitive transition to a new generation of leaders.
First came the saga of Politburo member Bo Xilai, whose wife was given a suspended death sentence in August for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. News of the scandal first seeped out on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, following eyewitness accounts of a heavy police presence outside the US consulate in the western city of Chengdu. It soon emerged that Wang Lijun, the police chief in Chongqing (the city Bo ran), had sought refuge in the consulate. We now know that he fled there because he had fallen out with his boss over whether to cover up the killing. At the time, though, after a few days of online speculation, the government prevented further debate by blocking the names of the main protagonists.
Even when it was eventually announced that Bo had been suspended from the Politburo, little explanation was given. The silence created a vacuum in which all sorts of rumours spread online – including claims, prompted by what some thought were unusual troop deployments in Beijing, that Bo loyalists were attempting a coup. This led to a further crackdown on the internet. Some of those accused of spreading such rumours were arrested, comments on many posts were temporarily blocked, and users were warned that their accounts would be closed if they made untrue statements.
Despite all this, Weibo generally remains a lively forum for debate and the exchange of ideas. But the official crackdowns have reminded everyone of the Chinese government’s continuing desire to control the flow of information. In an age in which, thanks to the internet, people in China have grown used to having greater access to information than at any time in living memory, it’s perhaps not surprising that this has prompted a backlash, with cynicism towards officially sanctioned information appearing to have reached a new peak.
Several recent cases have revealed the scale of the government’s credibility gap. The trial of Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, was one: web users were quick to point out that the woman who appeared in court looked very different from the pictures of Gu Kailai previously circulated – she seemed plumper, with a rounder face. Some web users even came up with the name of a woman who they claimed had been hired to go to jail in Gu’s place. The speculation reached such a pitch that the authorities blocked the use of the term “body double” in online searches.
In the same month, August, it was reported that police had shot dead one of China’s most wanted men, Zhou Kehua, who was suspected of ten murders and a series of robberies. Again, there was widespread scepticism about the news, with some web users suggesting Zhou had killed himself, others that he was unarmed when shot – and some even claiming that the body in the photograph released by the authorities was actually that of a policeman.
Further scepticism came after a drunken military official reportedly assaulted an air hostess, who then posted pictures of her injuries online. After a media furore, it was announced that the two parties had amicably settled what the local authorities called a “misunderstanding.” This was greeted with widespread suspicion; even the official Xinhua news agency asked, “Have you really conducted a comprehensive and objective investigation?”
In another case, an official in Shanxi province was reported to have been suspended following public anger when he was shown to have smiled at the site of a road accident in which many children were killed. (Questions were also raised online about the source of the expensive watches he likes to wear.) But later investigations by Chinese journalists raised doubts about whether he had really been suspended, and one columnist in the Shanghai Daily argued that spurious “investigations” were simply another delaying tactic used by the authorities to fob off the public.
These cases prompted Sun Liping, an influential professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University (and former doctoral supervisor to China’s vice-president Xi Jinping) to publish a startling commentary in the independently minded newspaper, the Economic Observer, in which he warned that such mistrust was becoming endemic in Chinese society. “This is an indicator of how weak the government’s credibility really has become,” he wrote, “because no matter what the government comes out and says, the first reaction of people is not to believe it.”
Referring to the case of suspected murderer Zhou Kehua, Sun observed that some people felt that “the scepticism with which people approached the facts of the shooting had already become more dangerous than the criminal himself… People are not only beginning to lose trust in official information,” he continued, “but our society’s ability to present truth to itself is gradually disappearing.” For Sun, this state of affairs has two causes: the fact that “the government just isn’t doing a very good job at releasing information and that the public is confused due to this incompetence,” and the longstanding official practice of releasing “unreliable” official information.
Sun’s suggested solution is “to allow multiple sources of information, so that people may weigh for themselves the competing claims to truth.” In a modern society, he argued, “people are willing to believe, and perhaps will only believe, a message that was first announced by government, then doubted by media, then these suspicions are investigated by the media and shown to be either true or false.” It was, he said, the only way to “rebuild the credibility of government.”
RECENT signs suggest that the Chinese authorities are in no mood for such a solution, however. Tensions surrounding the transition to the new party leadership have been heightened by official nervousness following the Bo Xilai affair, which raised embarrassing questions about official corruption and abuse of power. (A subsequent Bloomberg report on the financial standing of members of the family of vice-president Xi Jinping, who is expected to be the future party secretary-general, prompted a furious reaction from the Chinese authorities, even though it did not allege any wrongdoing. Such topics have been off-limits, even to the foreign media, and the authorities are clearly alarmed at the prospect that this kind of reporting might become more common.) The response has been an apparent tightening of controls over China’s media, aimed at reining in some of the country’s bolder, more questioning media organisations.
Two of China’s best-known crusading journalists, Jian Guangzhou of Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, famous for exposing the scandal of adulterated infant milk powder in 2008, and Liu Jianfeng of the Economic Observer, have quit their jobs in recent months, in apparent frustration at official interference. And when Xu Huaiqian, chief editor of Earth, the environmental supplement published by the official People’s Daily newspaper, committed suicide in August, fellow journalists were quick to ascribe his tragic death to the pressures of his job. One colleague recalled Xu saying that “what he dared to think he dared not say, what he dared to say he dared not write, and what he dared to write he dared not publish.”
The Communist Party’s traditional emphasis on secrecy was highlighted again in September when vice-president Xi cancelled a series of meetings with foreign dignitaries, including Hillary Clinton, and the government refused to give a clear explanation of the reasons for his absence. When he reappeared, more than two weeks later, it was reported that he had been suffering from a bad back; analysts noted that the authorities were unwilling to reveal even such simple information because of a tradition of keeping leaders’ private lives completely out of the public eye. Yet the lack of information had given rise to fevered speculation, once again involving political infighting, palace coups and the like.
Many people, though, are clearly chafing at the controls and cover-ups. (This, after all, is a country where it is generally not permitted to write, in a microblog post, the name of President Hu Jintao, apparently to protect the leader from any possible criticism.) And some argue that it will be difficult for the authorities to tighten control on China’s new media significantly in the long term. Prominent media scholar Yu Guoming notes that new microblogs operated by the official Xinhua news agency and People’s Daily have both criticised official statements in recent months. “The public need for state media to be more responsive and relate to audiences has forced them to adapt,” he told a Chinese newspaper, “and official media is also feeling the need to seek common ground at the grassroots level in China, given the deteriorating level of government credibility.”
Two very different attitudes towards information currently co-exist awkwardly in Chinese society – but it seems increasingly unlikely that this unwieldy status quo will continue in quite the same way for much longer. •
Duncan Hewitt, a Shanghai-based journalist who contributes to Newsweek and other publications, is the author of Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China.