Chinese history is littered with stories of rulers and rumours, the inevitable result of excessive power being jealously guarded. Too often events end badly, usually with instability or tragedy. But sometimes, as with the early Han dynasty, gossip was listened to, rather than brutally silenced, to gauge popular sentiment. This made for officials who were less corrupt and more attuned to the people. As the Communist party once again cracks down on microblogs to quash the dishing of political dirt, it would do well to change its ways instead of repeating age-old mistakes.
Rumour-mongering is the inevitable result of a political system that is so mindful of maintaining control that it insulates itself from the people it governs. With horse-trading for the party's leadership for the coming 10 years under way, officials are more worried than usual about stability being maintained. The 'great firewall' of internet censorship, tightened since the Arab awakening in 2010, has been further constrained, and microblog networks, known as weibo, more closely monitored. But the gossip that spread like wildfire through the blogosphere with the attempted defection by then-Chongqing vice-mayor Wang Lijun and the subsequent sacking of the city's party boss, Bo Xilai, prompted a heavy-handed silencing. What got the government nervous were posts about coups, gunfire and tanks on Beijing's streets. There were no such threats, but with many of the 700 million weibo users online for purely recreational reasons, and eager to spread rumours to challenge the authorities and the state-run media, the claims went viral. Although unconvincing, some foreign media gave them a shred of credibility. Officials stepped in, detaining perceived troublemakers, shutting down prominent websites and accounts and forcing the biggest service providers, Sina Weibo and Tencent, to turn off commenting capabilities. Bans relating to Bo were lifted yesterday.
Users of the main weibo providers have to give their real name and identity card number under a new system introduced last month aimed at stopping postings authorities do not like. But just as the 'great firewall' can be jumped through proxies and virtual private networks, creative ways can be found around the restrictions - especially with corruption so rife. Internet and smartphone use is so pervasive that a government is deluded if it thinks it can block gossip.
Rumours have always been with us and forever will be - it is part of human nature. In the absence of government transparency and openness and an independent media and judiciary, gossip will appear to have an element of truth. Rather than doing the impossible and stopping people talking, authorities would be wiser to engage them and let them speak what is on their minds.