Sleepless on Weibo–the climax of Bo Xilai drama draws millions
April 11, 2012Jing Gao17 CommentsBo Guagua, Bo Xilai, censorship, Edison Chen, erectile dysfunction, Gu Kailai, Harvard University, Neil Heywood, online rumor mill, Politics, Rumor, social media, Southern Metropolis Daily, Wang Lijun, Xinhua News Agency
Until last night, Bo Xilai is like Schrodinger’s cat thrown into a dark box with radioactive substance. All Chinese know the political career of Bo, a charismatic politician best known for his campaign of singing red songs and combating triads and a hopeful candidate for China’s top office, is over, but no one knows how ugly it gets inside or if the cat is alive or dead.
And if it were in the pre-social media era, the dark box would never have been opened. The official announcement of Bo’s demise would be terse and final, leaving the broad masses of populace making wild guesses and unable to make head or tail of it, as was the case in the downfall of Lin Biao (Mao’s protégé), Chen Xitong (Beijing party boss until 1995) or Chen Liangyu (Shanghai party boss from 2002 to 2006).
But last night, Chinese social media sites had a historical moment, when the official explanation they’d been awaiting for two months came, drawing the curtain on the political scandal that so many have been watching with excitement.
Ever since words got around that “There may be an important news to be made on Mr. Bo” yesterday afternoon, the online masses had been feverishly refreshing their Weibo news feed page ever now and then. Weibo user @HX_219: “I am standing by and watching this with the same feeling as when I was expecting Edison Chen’s full collection (of sex photos) back then.”
Eventually, at 11 p.m. sharp, the state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that Bo is dismissed from his position on the Central Committee and Politburo for serious discipline violations, and that his wife, Gu Kailai, is suspected of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood over disputes, a charge alleged by Wang Lijun, Bo’s closest ally in Chongqing, who sought political asylum at the U.S. general consulate in Chengdu on February 6.
Left: Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai. Right: The Bo family, including their Oxford- and Harvard-educated son Bo Guagua.
Neil Heywood, a British businessman, was close to the Bo family before the relationship soured and he died a suspicious death.
To use an American analogy, it would be like the California governor, a presidential candidate, gets sacked after his police chief, who helped him fight a glorious war on organized crimes in the state, divulged to Chinese diplomats his dirty laundry and a murder masterminded by his wife in exchange for protection. The analogy is not exact, as a seat in the 9-member Politburo Standing Committee in a system with no checks or balances is more powerful and therefore more coveted than the U.S. presidency.
The breaking news soon spread like wildfire on Sina Weibo. Two weibo posts published by Sina’s Breaking News citing the announcement has had altogether 180,000 shares in less than 12 hours.
In fact, the announcement contained no new information or discovery. The rumors about infightings between Wang and Bo, the Bo family’s link to corruption and the mysterious death of the British citizen have been flying thick on the web since Wang’s visit to the U.S. consulate – so thick that the government punished Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo, two most microblogging services, for housing the rumor mill on March 31.
Rather, the confirmation of all these rumors is a bitter irony, given that just a day ago, CCTV’s 7 p.m. primetime news denounced the online rumor mill vehemently by saying, “Some people can undermine social stability with a mere click of the mouse.” It turns out that the society is itself unstable.
Weibo user Zhang Xingsheng wrote, “We had already followed the instruction from the higher-up that we’d never believe or spread a rumor. But today, the rumor became the truth! I am puzzled! To believe or not to believe? This is a question!” Many weibo users commented, “In China, rumors are far-seeing predictions.” User @苍井色 quipped, “Rumor is the premature ejaculation of the truth. Truth comes after the erectile dysfunction of a rumor.” Wang Xing, a reporter with Southern Metropolis Daily, said, “Some rumors on the Internet are really abhorrent, (because) they are so trustworthy.”
For all the thrills of Chinese netizens over the grand finale, few think it will lead to any concrete political reform. @五岳散人: “The dust is settled. The situation has stabilized. The transition has been smoothed. The seating order has been arranged. High above, however shaky it gets, we the rabble would have no say. Down here, wrongs and grievances won’t be redressed. That’s the thing about politics here in this country…Or, upon further investigation, you will find that all of them are on the same boat.”
But one thing is certain. Before the advent of social media, the government never owed the people an explanation. Rumor was only disseminated during small table talks, and would begin to drag and then died if it remained unsubstantiated. Today, with tens of millions of Chinese actively use Sina Weibo, a low murmur of political gossip may have already been amplified and heard by thousands before the internet police step in, and it may linger, chipping away at the government’s image. Unless the state shuts down the social media completely, it has got to learn how to deal with the tittle-tattle with openness and tact.