x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

China's cybersphere defies the Party line in scandal exposé

As the Bo scandal spiraled out of control, Beijing's censorship of the internet was exposed as a massive, clumsy exercise in futility.

There are many reasons why the rest of the world has been riveted by the political scandal engulfing the Chinese Communist Party these days. The recent purge of Bo Xilai, the party boss of Chongqing, normally should have merited little media attention. But instead, the plot of the story gets thicker, if not more morbid, by the day.

We now know, according to the official version and credible press reports at least, that the Bo scandal involved treason, corruption, alleged adultery, murder by poison and an attempted cover-up. As a case of life imitating art, the story should have Hollywood script writers salivating.

But the last thing China's most powerful rulers want to see is a political thriller about one of their own. Given a choice, they would rather keep Mr Bo's political skeleton in the closet. What forced the Party to reluctantly air its dirty secrets in the open is a combination of accidents and fundamental changes in Chinese society.

Had Mr Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, not been allegedly involved in the murder of a westerner, things could have been different. (Many ordinary Chinese citizens have died at the hands of corrupt and murderous officials without triggering investigations.) If Mr Bo's police chief had not gone to the Americans and created an international incident, Beijing would have covered up the scandal. These two incidental factors doubtlessly helped to seal Mr Bo's fate.

Yet, another, perhaps more powerful, force was at play as well. That is the revolutionary change brought by economic modernisation and technological progress. For the first time in the history of the People's Republic, ordinary people can get details of top-level power struggles, some of which are just rumours, practically in real time through the internet, micro-blogs (the Chinese Twitter), and mobile phone messages.

In retrospect, the outrage of Chinese people, incensed by the exposed corruption, treason, arrogance and lawlessness of their rulers, must have forced the Party leaders to cashier Mr Bo even though he had powerful patrons at the very top of the government.

Two interrelated lessons emerge from the Bo scandal that have a bearing on the prospects of the rule for the world's largest one-party state.

First, for all the investments, ingenuity and efforts the Communist Party has devoted to censoring the internet and countering the information revolution, the unravelling of its damage control after the scandal broke showed that the Party is really no match for a citizenry empowered with modern information technologies.

This does not mean that the Party did not try hard enough. Indeed, it did everything imaginable to keep the lid on the Chinese internet and mobile-messaging services by blocking references to words and phrases related to the scandal. But Chinese citizens found clever ways of bypassing the censors. For example, instead of using Bo (which means thin in Chinese), many Chinese chose two characters, buhou (or not thick), to refer to Mr Bo.

It has now become quite clear that the Party's internet censorship strategy has three fundamental flaws. One is that, unlike the traditional media, such as print newspapers and magazines, the internet cannot be pre-emptively censored. The Party has to react to events and impose censorship after the fact. In a political crisis, such as the Bo scandal, it loses valuable time in containing the outbreak of news and rumours and suffers the consequences, such as the spread of the truth undermining the Party's legitimacy. By the time the Party manages to restore order on the internet (it never succeeded in doing so this time), the damage to its image and authority is already done.

Another flaw is that the Party has underestimated the ingenuity of millions of tech-savvy Chinese who derive enormous, although not necessarily politically inspired, satisfaction from beating the censors. Their collective brain power overwhelms whatever capacity the Party's censorship machine may have in managing information flows.

The third insurmountable obstacle for the Party is that modern information technology, such as micro-blogging and texting, has become such a part of an average Chinese citizen's economic and social life that pulling the plug on the internet would throw the entire society into chaos and, instead of saving the regime in a crisis, would only hasten its fall.

The second lesson of this scandal is that the current regime is actually far more fragile than commonly perceived. For years, the Communist Party has carefully crafted an image of effectiveness, control and stability. Aided by three decades of rapid economic growth and a powerful internal security apparatus, the Party seems to have an unchallengeable hold on power.

The Bo scandal and the Party's clumsy handling of the aftermath suggest otherwise. There are deep cracks in the regime's foundations. Its top leaders are split in a crisis; a meticulously planned succession has been derailed; the rot of corruption has reached the core of the system; the loyalty of its elites is suspect; unfounded rumours of military coups cast doubt on the Party's authority. The list goes on.

For now, of course, the Party will do everything possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together. One can imagine that the Party will simply double-down by investing more in internet censorship and tightening control over Chinese society. This would be a great tragedy for China - and for the Party as well - if Beijing's rulers believe that they can continue to govern China as if the Bo scandal had never happened. If anything, the Bo affair shows that they cannot.

 

Dr Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California