The Bo Xilai Rumor Mill: Is There a Method Behind the Wild Speculation?

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Bo Xilai, center, then Chongqing party chief, attends a session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference of the Chongqing Municipal Committee in Chongqing on Jan. 7, 2012

Another day, another juicy detail. Once, political scandals in China took months, even years, to reveal themselves. We are, for instance, still gleaning particulars of the power struggles that culminated in the brutal 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. (Three years ago, a secret journal by one of Tiananmen’s purged liberal protagonists, Zhao Ziyang, was published in English based on smuggled audiotapes.) By contrast, the pace at which scandalous details from the Bo Xilai affair have appeared has been tailored for the digital age, even as China is still run by a cloistered, centralized leadership.

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that another key reason for the disgraced former Chongqing party chief’s dramatic ouster — beyond his alleged economic misdeeds and a murder investigation of British businessman Neil Heywood in which Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is a chief suspect — was the fact that Bo purportedly ordered wiretapping of top Chinese officials. The use of sophisticated eavesdropping techniques fed into the paranoia and political rivalries that have divided the top echelons of the Chinese government, said the Times. The man who reportedly presided over the tapping effort was Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief and ex-Bo aide, who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February to rat out his former patron and plea for asylum. Those whose private conversations were supposedly monitored included President Hu Jintao, according to the Times, which said it confirmed the incident with nearly a dozen sources with Communist Party ties.

(MORE: Purged Chinese Official’s Son Denies Tales of Extravagance: ‘I Have Never Driven a Ferrari’)

Before Bo’s downfall, I visited Chongqing, where officials boasted of the pervasive police presence in their city, telling me that they could get cops “anywhere within five minutes” because of their efforts to improve a once notoriously unruly city’s security. Back then, as the municipality was trumpeting its controversial “smash black” crackdown on organized crime, which critics say involved the torture or detentions of hundreds of innocent people, the preponderance of CCTV cameras and other security equipment across Chongqing was apparently viewed as a good thing that should be pointed out to visiting foreign media. I felt less than reassured.

Hong Kong’s Yazhou Zhoukan magazine reported allegations about Bo’s wiretapping proclivities more than a month ago, basing its report on an unnamed Chongqing Public Security Bureau official. Want China Times, a Taiwan-based news site, and other overseas Chinese online media groups have also speculated widely on Bo’s penchant for illegal monitoring, which they said allegedly included tapping phone conversations conducted by Vice President Xi Jinping, the man widely tipped as Hu’s successor in the leadership transition beginning this fall.

One major source for news on the Bo scandal has been Wang Kang, variously described as a Chongqing entrepreneur, filmmaker or liberal scholar. Peddling sensational allegations about the case — from Gu, Bo’s wife, supposedly ordering Heywood’s death because he was asking for too much of a cut for funneling hundreds of millions of dollars abroad to a purported affair gone sour between the pair — Wang has emerged as a rival to Deep Throat, except that he’s happy to associate his name with these explosive tidbits. In his office, Wang shows off a picture of himself with Bo Yibo, Bo Xilai’s father who was a revolutionary hero, according to Reuters. But Wang also admitted to CNN that he didn’t personally know the younger Bo and had only met him once. Yet unlike other commentators who have been silenced or censured for publicizing Bo Xilai’s case, Wang seems to have a free hand in disseminating information, raising suspicions that he may have official sanction to release his version of the story to the media.

(MORE: How Bo Xilai’s Fall Will Affect China’s Leadership Transition)

With such sources willing to talk and various unnamed citizen journalists sending tips to overseas Chinese news websites, we are now awash in information and innuendo regarding the Bo case. Often it’s hard to distinguish between the two. The Internet provides a crucial forum to discuss Bo’s downfall and present a narrative different from the sanitized version available in China’s circumscribed official media. That’s all for the common good.

Yet in some cases it’s clear that the dissemination of information regarding the Bo scandal, as well as some so-called independent analysis from Chinese experts, has been orchestrated. While reporting this week’s TIME’s magazine story about Bo, I talked within a 24-hour period to five Chinese (academics, advisers and state-linked journalists) with access to the halls of power in Beijing. Three of them compared Bo to Hitler, each saying that Bo was manipulating a naive populace just like the German dictator once did. I would have believed one person coming up with a Hitler analogy on his own. But three? Then two of the five gave the exact same convoluted explanation of how Bo’s transgressions were worse than that of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair. I pushed one of the experts, and it became clear he didn’t really know much about the Lewinsky scandal at all. Later that day, a Chinese journalist told me that the media publication he worked for had received an internal notice comparing Bo’s actions to that of Clinton. While his media organization did not run any editorial comparing Bo and Clinton, I was the recipient of this talking point from two different people.

The problem with talking points is that eventually someone goes off message or the tantalizing bits of gossip spark an even crazier rush of rumormongering. One that has gained currency in recent days involves speculation that the 2002 crash of a China Northern Airlines flight from Beijing to Dalian, which was officially blamed on a fire started by a troubled man looking to profit from insurance policies, was actually a hit ordered by Bo to target a political rival whose wife died on board. All 100-plus passengers died.

(MORE: The Party’s Over: Fall of Bo Xilai Signals Change in China’s Growth Model)

Chinese government censors are displaying a schizophrenic attitude toward such wild stories, as well as toward more straightforward information online. Earlier this week Bo Xilai’s son Bo Guagua, who is studying at Harvard and has been criticized for his extravagant overseas lifestyle, released a letter denying reports that he drove a red Ferrari to the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Beijing. Today both the terms Bo Guagua and Ferrari were blocked from searches on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. In March, as online rumors about a possible military coup galvanized by the Bo affair reached fever pitch, two major Chinese microblog sites were forced to close down their comments section for three days. And Boxun, a news site run out of North Carolina that has reported with surprising accuracy about some more shocking aspects of the Bo case, has suffered denial-of-service attacks from unknown hackers over the past few days, as people flock to the once relatively obscure site to check out the latest Bo rumors.

On Thursday, the feisty Global Times, a Beijing newspaper with links to the Communist Party, published an editorial criticizing Western media for sensationalist coverage of Bo:

“The Chinese public’s interest focus on the Bo Xilai incident has passed. But some major Western media seemed to have maintained the enthusiasm on the issue, successively issuing feature reports and telling various detailed stories. However, few of these details are credible, with reliable source … Western opinion’s special enthusiasm in the Bo Xilai incident told us they have overvalued Bo Xilai incident’s position in Chinese politics. It will not form an impact on China’s political system and national line. The sensation it caused will be short term. Some Western people have also exaggerated Bo Xilai’s destructive force to the whole ruling style of the Communist Party. Bo doesn’t represent all the leaders in China. Major Western media also take the Chinese people as their potential audience. Overseas opinion shows increasing will to influence the Chinese people’s views. The China society should stay firm and sober in front of various plausible rumors.”

Yet the same day, Li Weidong, a Chinese online aggregator and commentator who has gained a large following for his posts on the Bo affair — many of which he says are quickly removed — posted an incendiary rumor that he says he got from an overseas Chinese news website about the day Heywood was killed, which he said was also Gu’s birthday:

“Ms. Gu invited some close friends for her birthday. She cooked the soup herself, and told a helper to get some poison to put into the soup. She saw to it that the poison was indeed added into the soup, and then cleaned the dishes and left calmly … A cop cut a piece off of the dead man’s body to keep as evidence. I’m not sure if this is true, and am trying to verify this. If true, this is terrifying.”

The unsubstantiated item, posted on two Chinese microblogs, was completely untouched by censors.

— With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing

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