In absence of facts, rumours of coup take centre stage
It is better to believe that it exists than that it does not. So goes a popular Chinese saying when it comes to speculation about the mainland's secretive power politics.
This partly explains why the mainland's rumour mill went into overdrive last week with intense murmurings of a coup on the popular Twitter-like microblogging sites, just days after the sacking of Bo Xilai as the party chief of Chongqing in one of the country's biggest political scandals in recent years.
What was even more amazing was that several credible Western newspapers and news agencies felt compelled to report the rumours and thus give considerable credence to the speculation, which was then recycled with more weight and credibility over the internet.
Most of the mainlanders who rabidly swapped rumours of the coup may not have believed in them, not least because the speculation was so badly concocted for anyone with some understanding of the mainland's political and military systems.
But many of them appeared to believe something was afoot in the run-up to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition. In the absence of hard facts, rumours were all they could get.
Publicly the Chinese leaders may be tending to their business as usual, but privately it is not hard to imagine some of them may have seethed with anger over the 'malicious' rumours spread by the so-called Western hostile forces. Others may have laughed it off.
Their knee-jerk reaction may well be to devote more resources to strengthening control over the internet. But the scale and velocity with which the coup rumour spread shows that those efforts will again prove futile, despite the Great Firewall.
The hard lesson is simple enough - the absence of facts inevitably spawns rumours, which in turn damage people's trust and sap the authority of the rulers.
The speculation about a coup appears to have started on Monday night and Tuesday morning when the mainland internet users began to swap rumours of gunshots being heard near the Zhongnanhai leadership compound and of traffic controls being tightened along Changan Avenue, the key boulevard passing through the centre of Beijing.
This came just days after Bo, a controversial politician who was until recently seen as a strong contender for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee in the leadership change later this year, was sacked following the attempted defection of his right-hand man at the US consulate in Chengdu .
Except for a one-line announcement on Bo's dismissal, leaders have kept mum about what will happen to him, even though he remains a Politburo member. But Bo is no ordinary Politburo member. He is a princeling who reportedly has extensive connections with the military and central government leaders.
Since 2007, he has presided over a high-profile campaign of 'striking black and singing red' in Chongqing - organising singing contests of Mao-era songs and cracking down on organised crime and its protectors in government and law enforcement. Bo was widely seen as using the campaign to secure a top leadership position in Beijing.
He continued the campaign despite the apparent disdain of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao , who have not set foot in Chongqing since 2007 even though the city is one of the country's most important industrial cities.
Rumours about whether or not Bo would go quietly quickly led to those of a military coup - supposedly orchestrated by Zhou Yongkang , a Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the powerful and massive security apparatus.
Zhou is widely believed to be a strong supporter of Bo. Zhou met Bo and other members of the Chongqing elite during the annual session of the National People's Congress earlier this month and voiced support for Chongqing, just days before Bo's sacking.
But the speculation lacks common sense. While Zhou may wield considerable power as the mainland's leading official in charge of law enforcement, he has no military background and does not have a seat on the Central Military Commission, which has total control over the army.
As for the rumours of the gunshots and increased traffic controls near the Zhongnanhai compound, numerous curious people, including journalists, did a drive-by on those two days of intense speculation and did not see anything amiss
But in a sign of unease, leaders were forced to react and employ the well-tested tactic of staging high-profile public appearances of the officials rumoured to be in trouble.
Following the reports of the coup in several Western newspapers on Thursday, CCTV reported on Friday that Zhou met Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on the sidelines of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit to China and talked about his 'fond memories' of his previous meetings with Yudhoyono.
The meeting seemed to contain no substance and was arranged at the last minute to show Zhou in public.
But the curious thing is that despite his fond memories, Zhou did not get the chance to meet the Indonesian president. The next day Li Changchun, another Politburo Standing Committee member, met Yudhoyono to talk about cultural exchanges.