China's web of lies opens up on Bo Xilai saga
BEIJING // Purges are nothing new in China, but until the removal of Bo Xilai, none had happened under the glare of more than 500-million internet users, half with microblog accounts allowing them to post commentary.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of online speculation, and although officials have stifled discussion of a possible coup attempt, analysts say internet users have had more freedom than expected to comment on events surrounding the former provincial party chief.
"It's not been as strict as it could've been, based on other cases where they've cleared up the internet very effectively," said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a Beijing media website and research company.
"There does seem to have been a certain tolerance for bandying about stories about Bo Xilai, which may or may not represent a decision by someone to allow people to blacken his name."
In a dramatic fall from grace, Mr Bo was dismissed as Chongqing party chief in March and this month stripped of his place on China's 25-member politburo for "serious discipline violations".
His wife, Gu Kailai, and a family servant are under arrest, accused of involvement in the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, found dead in a Chongqing hotel room in November.
Discussion on the internet began in February, when Mr Bo's former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a US Consulate in nearby Chengdu and divulged details about Heywood's death.
"There seems to have been a little bit of a venting period where they let people comment on it," said Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based internet consultant who writes the Digichina blog.
"For a period of time, they're happy to have people ruin [Bo Xilai's] reputation ... It looks like they've been trying to channel discussion and they've had some success. It's a pretty hard thing to completely control."
More details have emerged in recent days. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that Mr Wang had spent 36 hours at the US Consulate, during which time Chinese security officials in Beijing were contacted so they could collect him and ensure he could pass a cordon of police officers loyal to Mr Bo surrounding the building.
The case has raised concerns among Republicans in the US Congress over why Mr Wang was not offered greater protection from the Chinese authorities by the US. Officials from the State Department reportedly pre-empted a formal application for asylum by aiding his transfer to Beijing officials.
With the US having passed information about Mr Wang's allegations to the UK authorities, the British prime minister, David Cameron, this week called in parliament for China to "expose the truth" concerning Heywood's death. Opposition members of parliament have questioned why the British government failed to raise concerns earlier.
In a statement released through the official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday, China promised to "thoroughly investigate related events and release information in a timely manner".
The use of Mr Bo's name on microblogs has been blocked by China's internet censors since the saga erupted, but illustrating the limits to which online content can be controlled, internet users have circumvented restrictions by using images, puns or alternative words, Mr Goldkorn said.
Internet censors have been less tolerant of material favourable to Mr Bo, closing hard-left websites sharing the 62-year-old's vision of a heavily state-managed economy.
They have also clamped down on false rumours of a coup attempt in Beijing, shutting 42 websites and removing 210,000 messages. Among the websites affected were the popular Sina and Tencent microblogs, where functions allowing users to post comments were disabled for several days on the government's orders.
Allowing some discussion online, even when critical, may aid the authorities because it lets the public vent and indicates which issues cause anger.
Also, the internet is, say analysts, forcing the Communist Party to be more open. In previous decades, the saga surrounding Mr Bo would not have been discussed so publicly, said Doug Young, a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"I think this investigation of Bo and this conflict with Wang Lijun would've gone on behind the scenes in the old days, but it would've happened and Bo would've been purged, but nobody in the central government would've said anything. The one thing that's changed is that there's more transparency," said Mr Young.
While the decision-making processes at the top remain cloaked in secrecy, the Communist Party has given some information about why Mr Bo has been removed and his wife arrested.
"These kinds of things happen all the time. The only thing that's changed is that people know about them. In the past the average person wouldn't have known," Mr Young added.
Comments related to the Bo Xilai case from various microblog sites
We have to uphold the decision of the central authorities!!! All the forces should uphold the party’s decision in solidarity!!! - Tiger Meng
My conclusion is that history is written by the victors. But in order to completely wreck your political future they must also pin you with a crime that’s not too big and not too small. This is how the plot goes. And at the end of the day, among those on the podium, whose closet is clean? - @Panda00001
That group of central government scumbags does whatever they want ... Although Bo Xilai was a bad apple, you can’t just butcher him - Fuzengqu
Us poor pleibians, what can we do aside from wishing the country a prosperous future? … Focus first on buying a house and getting a wife, hehe!” - Yang Dianfeng (Young insane)
Head detective [Wang Lijun] did a service for the people, but made the Party look bad; I figure he’s going down - Luke’s blog
Wang is really amazing, he saved his own life, got rid of a megalomaniac who was about to drag China back into the abyss of the Cultural Revolution and helped bring to light an international murder mystery. - The back alleys of the spring_abc
In the end detective Wang sacrificed himself like a suicide bomber to explode the largest mafia of all. I guess even mafia fighting can be addictive. - Li Fan
* Compiled from the English-language blog Tea Leaf Nation
Updated: April 19, 2012 04:00 AM