Attack on rumours a step backwards for transparency

Beijing should continue the openness shown during Bo Xilai trial and embrace social media, rather than cracking down on internet speech

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 8:28am

Two developments over the past two weeks - one highly positive, the other ominously negative - highlight Beijing's ambivalence towards the free-wheeling social media environment and raise questions over its efforts to boost transparency to fight corruption.

The positive development was the surprising degree of transparency during the five-day trial of Bo Xilai, arguably the country's most watched court case in decades. The decision to publicise the bulk of court proceedings on popular microblog platforms - including Bo's defiant defence against all charges - earned widespread praise, particularly from lawyers and academics. Some state media hailed the decision as a landmark in the country's efforts to enhance the rule of law.

Just as the accolades started to ring, authorities meanwhile intensified what appeared to be a nationwide campaign to detain online social commentators, citizen journalists and even state media reporters who used social media to expose corruption and social injustices.

Their pretext is to punish people who spread malicious rumours online, which authorities say harm social harmony and incite disturbances. But the crackdown has understandably heightened fears that authorities are trying to rein in the country's boisterous microblogging platforms which have remained less censored.

The crackdown seems to be two-pronged. First, police in Beijing and other cities rounded up a number of microbloggers who posted comments about supposedly deadly accidents or corruption allegations that turned out to be false.

Second, authorities have targeted bloggers who enjoy especially large followings on social media, known as "big V" users because their identities have been verified by social media operators like Sina or Tencent.

Most notably, Chinese-American businessman Charles Xue Biqun, the popular online commentator known on the mainland as Xue Manzi, had been detained for patronising prostitutes. Many of his supporters, however, believe he is really in trouble because of his liberal comments and sheer influence - his Sina Weibo account has more than 12 million followers.

Indeed, China Central Television's main evening news programme has run several commentaries in the past two weeks explicitly warning big V users to be more responsible and constructive with their postings. Given the apparent intensity of the crackdown, the authorities appear determined to use high-handed tactics to go after the most outspoken bloggers to tighten control over the internet.

The crackdown, however, could backfire at a time when the new leadership under President Xi Jinping is trying to rally national support for the fight against corruption and to forge a new direction for the country's economic development.

Many high-profile corruption cases have come to light this year after first being raised by bloggers, including the arrest of the former energy chief, Liu Tienan . More importantly, some 600 million mainlanders use various social media platforms. A crackdown, no matter how severe, is unlikely to work. The genie long ago escaped from the bottle.

While the authorities may feel frustrated or angry over the volume of unsubstantiated rumours online about the conduct of government officials or their decisions, they should also realise that many of these accusations are the result of authorities' lack of transparency.

Some analysts suspect the crackdown was launched by the leadership to forge unity following their relatively rocky power transition. Rumours of an intense power struggle at the highest echelons of power started to fly after Bo was abruptly removed from the Politburo last year, triggering one of the mainland's biggest political crises in decades.

Until the disgraced Chongqing party chief was put on trial last week, the official media kept largely silent over what happened to one of China's most prominent politicians, who was once believed destined to be one of the country's top leaders. Instead, state media ran commentaries urging mainlanders not to believe in rumours and to place their faith in the party.

Gossiping is human nature and it is incredulous that officials believed they could keep Bo's saga under wraps and that the public would obediently refrain from spreading rumours and speculation if asked.

Political gossip is rife on microblogs precisely because of the authorities' futile attempts to draw a heavy veil. The result is obvious, as rumours always tend to magnify or distort.

Some analysts suggest that the authorities' decision to allow a surprising degree of transparency over Bo's trial was partly aimed at establishing an official account, given the intense interest at home and abroad.

Instead of blaming bloggers for spreading malicious rumours, mainland officials should hold a study session of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's wisdom, specifically pages 144-45 of volume two of his Selected Works.

In an important speech titled "Emancipating the mind … looking to the future" made on December 13, 1978, Deng said: "One thing a revolutionary party does need to worry about is its inability to hear the voice of the people. The thing to be feared most is silence.

"Today many rumours - some true, some false - circulate through the grapevine inside and outside the party. This is a kind of punishment for the long-standing lack of political democracy."