Rumors corrode Beijing's political legitimacy

Rumors corrode Beijing's political legitimacy
By He Qinglian on March 23, 2012

The perfect hotbed for rumors to thrive would be where the politics is opaque and where power functions in a way that is concealed from the public. China has always been full of rumors, in particular when it is the time of chaos and confusion, or when a dynasty nears its end. At present, the Chinese people in a time of Web2.0 is surrounded by all sorts of rumors, as was the case when the Qing dynasty was about to end a hundred years ago.

All these rumors could be traced back to one incident: Wang Lijun, deputy mayor of Chongqing and former public security chief, went inside the U.S. Consulate-general in Chengdu in February this year. In the afternoon of March 14, 2012, Bo Xilai, one of the most powerful persons in today's China, was relieved of his duties. From that day onward, Bo, who in the past few years had been in the limelight of domestic and foreign media, vanished from public vision. Even Bo's whereabouts is now deemed as a “state secret” that the public should know nothing about, not to mention the kind of punishment that he may get from the authorities. As a result, all sorts of rumors fly.

A good few varying stories can be retrieved from Chinese websites outside China, some appear to be quite plausible, such as Bo being put under house arrest; others are clearly incredible—a looming coup for instance. Yet because Bo Xilai and news about him are censored inside the country, all kinds of “argots” pop up on Weibo and they change daily. Several argots are being used to refer to Bo Xilai alone: “not thick” (taken from Bo's surname, which means “thin”); “Red in the West” (Red Songs sung in the country's Southwest); and “third young master” (Bo is the third son).

In the beginning, major international media would still make the effort to verify leads appeared on the Internet. For example, when the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune reported the CPC central committee's “Bulletin Regrading the Initial handling of the Wang Lijun incident” on March 15, they would respectively check with several Chinese officials who had read it. But later on, even some of the major media joined in the guessing game. For instance, in the afternoon of March 20, a report that Bo Xilai repeatedly objected Wen Jiabao's calls to redress “June-fourth” was published in the website of the Financial Times; and on March 21, netizens in mainland China found out that all of a sudden the ban on the country's website had been lifted and they could retrieve some of the information about the “June-fourth incident”. All these gave rise to even more far-fetched speculations.

After a closer look, I found that these rumors could be divided into three categories: the first would be about the corruption issues of Bo Xilai himself and his wife, Gu Kailai; the second would be the issues of CPC top level disputes that Bo Xilai brought into daylight; and the third would be the number of persons with military background who got involved in this power struggle.

As a result of the Chinese officials' remaining silence, the Chinese people had no way but to exercise their special skill of deciphering the true meaning from between the lines of the news reports. Reportedly the CCTV evening news, a program that has long been dismissed by the young and the middle-aged, saw a great increase in its audience recently, people would patiently watch the boring domestic news from start to finish so as to find out who has not shown up. In particular, Zhou Yongkang, member of the Politburo Standing Committee and secretary of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, allegedly the one who backed Bo Xilai, has become a focus of attention.

Rumors are in fact what the people in authoritarian societies use as a weapon to resist those in power. Looking back at the history of China, one would see that the times when rumors abounded and played significant roles in helping people to make of the situation were usually when dynasties came close to an end and when the country was descending into chaos.

From “rumors”an incision of any given society, we could have some insights into the state of things in that society, what people have on their minds, the basic situation of politics and its development trend. Since modern times, China has gone through at least three major occasions when political rumors were abuzz: the first took place in the late Qing Dynasty, the second on the eve of the KMT government retreat to Taiwan, and the third in 1976.

Take the late Qing Dynasty for example, at that time the air was filled with rumors mainly of two categories: one being predictions of the dynasty's collapse; and the other focused on disputes and infighting at the top most level. When triggered the Hubei New Army mutiny (the prelude to Wuchang uprising) in October 1911 was also a rumor that had a direct relevance to the soldiers' lives: the Manchu imperial government was compiling a roster of all Chinese soldiers, and all Chinese soldiers of Hubei New Army would be arrested and punished for being members of the revolution party. The rumor put the soldiers in an impossible situation which obedience meant death; but if they revolted, there might be a chance that they could survive. And so the Chu Lookout uprising on the night of October 10 broke out.

China is not a country with information transparency. Whenever a power struggle occurs, rumors would be everywhere, and even officials at lower levels would be happy to spread and believe in those. In the Web2.0 era, there is no way for any government to manage all communication channels in society, no matter how good at information control it may be; the tighter the government regulates, the more bizarre the generation and dissemination of rumors would become. This state of various rumors flying around since Wang Lijun incident in February this year provided a very valuable research sample for Political Communication, the interdisciplinary study of Political Science and Communication.

The relationship between a society's political system and its communication system is a symbiotic one. The fact that rumors spread rapidly reflects to some extent the social conflicts and chaotic governance of a given period, and is an omen that a drastic change, a major division and a great collapse would occur. It can be said that these rumors are fundamentally corroding the legitimacy of the Chinese government.With all these rumors around, the Chinese people become increasingly discontent with and contemptuous of their government.