Stories posted and reposted online have looked into the Bo family’s financial holdings, the dealings of extended family members, and even the overseas university partying habits of Bo’s son, Bo Guagua.
In both the Chen case and the Bo Xilai story, the official state-run media has tried to squeeze the information flow to a trickle. In both cases, their attempts have largely failed.
“It really illustrates the challenge that social media poses for systems that rely on an extremely tight control of information,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and based in Hong Kong. “The erosion of information control is an enormous challenge for the party.”
July train crash
Even before Bo and Chen, an event on July 23 pointed to how pivotal microblogs had become. When two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, killing 40, people immediately used their cellphones and tablets to take and post photos of the wreckage and the rescue efforts, long before the state-run media even acknowledged the crash.
When China’s censors ordered the state-run media not to report on the incident or the investigation, except for official pronouncements, most news about the causes and the ensuing investigation came from Weibo.
China has stepped up efforts to rein in the freewheeling Weibo culture, including implementing new rules requiring users to register with their real names and identity card numbers, so they can be more easily traced. Authorities have also clamped down on Weibo “rumor-mongering,” closing down at least 16 Web sites and arresting several people. The comment functions of the two most popular microblogging sites were temporarily disabled.
But Chinese “netizens” are constantly outpacing the censors.
Shortly after word of Chen’s escape emerged, for instance, authorities scrambled to limit what was known about him online, banning from Weibo search engines Chen’s name, his initials, “Blind Man,” and even code names such as “C-Guang-C.” But the censors went further, banning Weibo searches for his home city, Linyi, and his village, Dongshigu. Also banned were the movie titles that were being used as code words: “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Great Escape.”
Chinese media finally broke its silence Friday, and four Beijing newspapers ran coordinated editorials attacking Chen and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke for assisting him. But netizens again displayed their power.
Outraged readers bombarded the comment sections of the Beijing Daily, defending Locke and Chen. Soon, even “Beijing Daily” joined the list of banned search terms.
One of the newspapers, the Beijing News, even ran what appeared to be a contrite apology for its own editorial the next day.
In a Friday editorial, the paper wrote that “1.3 billion Chinese people cannot be fooled so easily.” It was referring to Chen and his supporters. But it may just as easily have been referring to the Communist Party’s propaganda machine.
Staff writer William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.