Cracking Down on Rumors

Bao Tong analyzes China's anti-rumor campaign blocking online discussion of the political scandal surrounding ousted leader Bo Xilai.
By Bao Tong
2012-04-13
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bao-tong-305.jpg Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, Sept. 14, 2009.
AFP

In the past few days, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang has instigated and directed a nationwide struggle aimed at cleaning up online rumors. Newspaper and television reports all say that this is a glorious mission. The reason is very simple: the fact that the central government has decided to pursue a case against Bo Xilai just shows that the bulk of the rumors were not unsubstantiated. Now, of course the case will proceed according to law, and nobody else had better go meddling or sticking their noses in.

This latest campaign against rumors has a unique characteristic: it is aimed at rumors surrounding an important matter that must be kept secret. This is very odd. They pursue the rumors, and yet they don’t clarify the situation, but keep it as a skeleton in the closet. In a world without justice, it must be so hard to surround people and pounce. Their effort really deserves a mention in the history books.

I have been cut off from the outside world for a long time, and yet even so I have heard some “rumors” of my own, since the Party leadership decided to think again about Bo Xilai. The “rumor-mongers” speak without any basis in fact. They can’t tell truth from falsehood because they adhere to the words of the Party spokesman, and they may as well have said nothing at all. Of course, the fact that the Party spokesman has said something doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinese people will be able to tell fiction from fact. This is understandable, given that the spokesman would hardly take it upon himself to sort out lies from truth, even if he were far more powerful than he is now. This means that even those in charge of hunting down rumors aren’t really in a position to say for sure what constitutes a rumor and what doesn’t.

Anyway, suffice it to say that the rumors I have heard since the Party leadership decided to review Bo Xilai’s status have fallen into four categories: The first kind say that Bo’s anti-triad campaigns in Dalian and Chongqing gave rise to a large number of arbitrary accusations and miscarriages of justice; the second kind say that his wife plotted to murder someone for money, and is now a suspect in an international murder inquiry; the third kind say that he has close ties with a certain member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and the fourth kind say that he was part of an attempted political coup and that there was a military clash in Zhongnanhai. Whether these rumors are the reason behind the anti-rumor campaigns has been shrouded in secrecy until now, and we have no way of knowing in which year or month the truth will be made known to us. Perhaps it will remain a mystery forever.

But based on what I have heard, the above “rumors” don’t warrant sending in the troops and mobilizing the masses for a nationwide witch-hunt for rumor-mongers, for four reasons, which you are welcome to refute.

Firstly, there was really only a very short period of time during which the question of Bo’s connection to an international murder investigation was, wrongly, said to be a rumor. After the Party leadership announced that it decided to pursue a case against him, it morphed in an instant into a major news item worthy of study by the whole Party and the entire population. Any misunderstandings arose merely from the fact that the Party spokesman was not able to deliver this news to the people in a timely manner. The way to solve this problem isn’t to go after the people who got hold of the news before anyone else, but to improve the backward working practices of the Party spokesman.

Secondly, regarding Bo’s murky past in Dalian and Chongqing, how is this a rumor? If there are miscarriages of justice among the people, it is up to the government to right them. If there has been no injustice, then they can simply uphold the original decision. If they find mistakes, they can move quickly to wipe the slate clean. What is so difficult about that? Why can’t victims and bystanders have a voice? Why are they only happy when they have throttled the “rumors” like so many weeds? I don’t know what sort of intent this springs from.

Thirdly, regarding Bo Xilai’s relationship with a certain member of the Politburo Standing Committee, it would be much simpler to get to the bottom of this rather than to allow everything to remain murky and confused. It is irresponsible simply to deny all knowledge of such things. There is a saying which has no basis in law which states that the nine members of the Standing Committee cannot be criticized. This is total nonsense and lacks any moral foundation. The leaders of a republic are different from the leaders of a dictatorship. Under Hitler’s leadership, no one was allowed to grasp that tiger’s tail, whereas any U.S. citizen was allowed to subject President Nixon to criticism and verbal attack. The Watergate scandal began life as a “rumor” and later was subjected to due legal process. Not only was there no uprising in the U.S., the rule of law was strengthened as a result. If (!) the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee are the true  leaders of China, then this should be clearly and frankly written into the Constitution for this to take effect. And even if this were to happen, they should aim to be more of a collective Nixon than a collective Hitler; I dare to make such a bold statement.

Fourthly, the rumors of the so-called military incident in Zhongnanhai are unlikely to lead to any kind of upheaval, so there’s really no need to be so nervous. They should really be thanking the tens of millions of Internet users and cell phone owners! The reality, that everything is quiet and peaceful in Zhongnanhai, is a result of their tweeting to the whole world via their mobile phones and the Internet. Rumor is the constant companion of controls and monopolies on the flow of information. The free flow of information is their natural enemy. Controls on information will inevitably give rise to rumor. It is hard work for these big officials who fear the free flow of information and free competition as they try to control a market economy. But are the rumors flying around between officials less than those circulating elsewhere? If the rumors circulating among the people must be censored by officials, then please tell me, who is going to censor the rumors passing between officials?

That’s why I say that the anti-rumor campaign in the wake of the case against Bo Xilai is highly unlikely to pay off.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Bao Tong, political dissident and aide to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, is currently under house arrest at his home in Beijing.

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