5:23am

Mon April 30, 2012
Asia

Two Crises Highlight China's Social Media Struggles

Originally published on Mon April 30, 2012 9:13 am

China is clamping down on social media as it grapples with a crisis over the escape of a high-profile dissident, apparently to U.S. protection. The case presents new difficulties for a Chinese leadership already struggling to deal with the scandalous downfall of a powerful politician, and it complicates U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing this week.

Yet China's use of social media in dealing with these two recent crises has been a study in contrasts.

There's a long list of forbidden terms on Chinese Twitter-like services, words for which searches are banned. In recent days, the list got longer still. Freshly banned words include "blind man," "U.S. Embassy" and "consulate," as well as "Chen Guangcheng," the name of the blind lawyer who escaped last week after 19 months under house arrest. Chen, who exposed forced abortions by local officials and subsequently served four years in prison, is believed to be under U.S. protection, though this is still unconfirmed.

Despite the ban, news of his escape was all over Weibo, China's biggest microblog service. Netizens were referring to him with code words such as "going into the light," which is a play on his name.

"Weibo now has become the public sphere of Chinese politics," says Michael Anti, a columnist who tracks Weibo closely. "It has become a market of rumors."

The Internet is making it harder for China to control messaging, he notes, but the government is becoming more sophisticated.

"Even rumors are not equal on Weibo," Anti says, adding that certain rumors are permitted, while others are deleted and their posters punished.

Such distinctions were clear recently, when powerful Chongqing politician Bo Xilai was sacked last month. Bo's name had been sacrosanct — no online criticism permitted — until a few months ago, when his former police chief tried to seek asylum in a U.S. consulate. Suddenly, unofficial accounts of the scandal were posted online, and not deleted. The saga took an even more dramatic turn when journalist Yang Haipeng announced on Weibo that the mysterious death of Englishman Neil Heywood was indirectly linked to Bo.

"I knew the news for about 10 days before releasing it," Yang says. "I didn't dare believe it. Then reliable sources told me about it again while we were drinking. They were from the legal world, and they didn't leak it on purpose."

Yang's post was not deleted, despite the sensitivity of the allegations. Days later, the government confirmed that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was a prime suspect in Heywood's death. Beijing seemed to be tacitly allowing the online demonization of Bo. Unconfirmed rumors swirled about his wiretapping of senior leaders, about massive corruption and that the motive for Heywood's murder might have been to stop him from exposing transfers of vast sums of money overseas.

Yang believes a disinformation campaign could have been under way. "At first, the government panicked because true news was coming out. Now they've calmed down," he says. "It's possible that they are releasing lots of false information on purpose to confuse people, so no one can tell what's real and what's false."

These rumors gave Beijing cover to move against Bo's followers inside the government.

"That's the typical Mao Zedong strategy: Mobilize the people against the local factions," says Anti, the columnist. "Weibo has already become a battlefield for public opinion. If it is a battlefield, they should occupy instead of destroy that."

But in the case of Chen, the escaped lawyer, the strategy has been completely different. The censorship machine has tried to deny his existence rather than allow his demonization. That could be because sensitive negotiations with the U.S. about his fate are ongoing.

Charlie Custer of the translation website ChinaGeeks.org says another factor could be that his case is more potent.

"The whole Bo Xilai thing is sort of like watching an opera or watching a movie. It's very entertaining and very interesting, but it doesn't cause the average person to think, 'Wow, that could happen to me,' " Custer says. "Chen Guangcheng comes from a rural, poor background, so he strikes a chord with a lot of people. Then seeing his family — these people who are completely innocent of anything — be arrested and held without trial or charges, that does resonate with a lot of people."

On the streets, many ordinary people are baffled by recent events.

"I don't believe anything," says a 50-something who gives his name as Mr. Sun. "Ninety percent of what you hear is lies. There's no truth anymore."

Such views highlight a real danger for Beijing. The government is trying its hardest to manipulate social media, but the truth is that the online world and official discourse have become parallel worlds, growing further apart day by day. And that widening gulf is undermining the government steadily every day.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

For the moment, there's not much China can do about the apparent escape of a high-profile dissident, but the Chinese can clamp down on discussion of the embarrassment. The man slipped out of house arrest and, according to his friends, has made it into U.S. protection. And that case complicates Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing this week. It also adds pressure on the Chinese government, which is already managing the scandalous downfall of a powerful politician, and the government is now tightening controls on social media.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: There's a long list of forbidden terms on Chinese Twitter, words for which searches are banned. In recent days, it got longer still. New banned words include blind man, U.S. embassy and consulate, also the name of the blind lawyer who escaped after 19 months under house arrest, Chen Guangcheng. He came to prominence for exposing forced abortions by local officials. He's now believed to be under U.S. protection.

Despite the ban, news of his escape was all over China's biggest Twitter service, Weibo, with netizens using codewords to refer to him.

MICHAEL ANTI: Weibo now it become the public sphere of Chinese politics. It become a market of rumors.

LIM: Michael Anti is a columnist who tracks Weibo closely. He notes that the Internet is making it harder for China to control messaging, but the government is becoming more sophisticated.

ANTI: Even rumors are not equal on Weibo.

LIM: This was clear recently when a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, was sacked. Up until a few months ago, his name was sacrosanct: no online criticism permitted, full-stop. Then suddenly, his former police chief tried to seek asylum in a U.S. consulate. Unofficial accounts were posted online, and not deleted. The saga took an even more dramatic turn when journalist Yang Haipeng revealed on Weibo that the mysterious death of Englishman Neil Heywood was indirectly connected to the politician.

YANG HAIPENG: (Through translator) I knew the news for about 10 days before releasing it. I didn't dare believe it. Then reliable sources told me about it again while we were drinking. They were from the legal world, and they didn't leak it on purpose.

LIM: Unusually, for such sensitive allegations, his post was not deleted. Days later, the government confirmed Bo's wife was a prime suspect in the murder. At this point, the central government tacitly allowed the online demonization of Bo Xilai.

Unconfirmed rumors swirled about his wiretapping of senior leaders, about massive corruption, and that the motive for Heywood's murder might have been to stop him from exposing transfers of vast sums of money overseas.

Yang Haipeng believes a disinformation campaign could have been underway.

HAIPENG: (Through translator) At first, the government panicked, because true news was coming out. Now they've calmed down. It's possible they're releasing lots of false information on purpose to confuse people, so no one can tell what's real and what's false.

LIM: These rumors gave Beijing cover to move against Bo's followers inside the government. This, Michael Anti says, is classic Chinese Communist strategy applied to the Internet era.

ANTI: That's the typical Mao Zedong strategy: mobilize the people against the local factions. Weibo is already become a battlefield for public opinion. If it is a battlefield, they should occupy instead of destroy that.

LIM: But with Chen Guangcheng, the strategy has been completely different. The censorship machine has tried to deny his existence, rather than allowing his demonization. That could be because sensitive negotiations with the U.S. about his fate are still underway.

Charlie Custer from the translation website China Geeks says another factor could be that his case is more potent.

CHARLIE CUSTER: The whole Bo Xilai thing is sort of like watching an opera or like watching a movie. It's very entertaining and it's very interesting. But right, it doesn't cause the average Chinese person to think, wow, that could happen to me.

Chen Guangcheng comes from a rural, from a poor background, and so he sort of strikes a chord with a lot of people. And then seeing his family - these people who are completely innocent of anything - be arrested and held without trial or charges, that does resonate with a lot of people. It's like that could just as easily potentially happen to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SOUNDS)

LIM: On the streets, many ordinary people are baffled by recent events.

MR. SUN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I don't believe anything, says 50-something Mr. Sun. Ninety-percent of what you hear is lies. There's no truth anymore.

Such views point up one real danger for Beijing: The government is trying its hardest to manipulate social media. But the truth is that the online world and official discourse have become parallel worlds, growing further apart day by day. And that widening gulf is undermining the government steadily, every day.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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