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It’s the biggest political scandal to hit China in years, and it destroys any possibility of a smooth transition to the next generation of top leaders. Late on April 10, the official Xinhua News Agency announced that the charismatic politician Bo Xilai had been suspended from both the Central Committee and the even more powerful Politburo. The charge: “suspected of being involved in serious discipline violations,” according to Xinhua, which also announced that Bo’s wife was “highly suspected” in the homicide of a British businessman who died in Chongqing in November.
China’s top brass now have to defuse a world-class scandal. Part of that task involves taming China’s Web, which is turning into both a menace to and a prop for government power. On April 6, censors shut down the nationalist website Utopia, which had aggressively supported Bo and the Chongqing economic model, named after the southwestern city that Bo ran as a showcase of state planning. Utopia was shuttered temporarily at the time of Bo’s dismissal as Chongqing party secretary on March 15. Now it may be out of action for some time. More than a dozen other websites were shut as well.
A notice posted on Utopia the day of its latest closing said that three Internet and public security bureaus had informed the site it was being punished for publishing “articles that violated the constitution, maliciously attacked state leaders, and speculated wildly about the 18th Party Congress.” (That congress meets this fall to ratify the transition to a new national leadership.) Utopia was told it must undergo “a self-inspection beginning from noon on April 6, 2012, to be brought back online after an examination was passed.” Says Huang Jihuan, previously listed on the site as a contact person: “We had no choice but to shut down.” The Twitter-like microblogging sites on portals Sina (SINA) and Tencent had their commentary sections disabled for three days from March 31 to April 3.
The Bo Xilai affair is the first major political fracas confronting China in the age of the Web, and Bo’s dismissal as Chongqing’s boss in mid-March triggered rampant speculation online. So did the actions of Wang Lijun, Bo’s demoted police chief of Chongqing, who failed to win political asylum in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan in February. The online rumors peaked the week of March 19 with reports of a coup attempt.
At first the regime treated this speculative frenzy with relative leniency. “At times it was a free-for-all,” says Beijing-based analyst Bill Bishop, who closely monitors China’s Web. Although Bo’s supporters got to voice their opinions, so did his detractors. “It seems the decision was made to let people blacken Bo’s name—that the Net was being used as a political tool,” says Bishop. One example: a Sina microblog in March that stated, “The one responsible for Chongqing’s ‘singing red’ must step down.” Bo had revived Maoist-era songs in the city he ran.
China now has 485 million Internet users and 300 million microbloggers, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. “It has become a Sisyphean task to monitor the Internet,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, founding director of Beijing-based Danwei, a China Internet and media research firm. He points out how difficult it is for censors and software to keep up with evasive tactics, such as the regular use of puns, homonyms, and homographs (that’s when two words are written the same but have different meanings). To get around Web censorship, Chinese bloggers use the characters for bu hou, which means “not thick,” when referring to Bo Xilai. That’s because the Chinese character for Bo can also mean “thin” when pronounced differently.
The central government struggles with its own ambivalence about the Web. “On the one hand, by allowing people to use weibo (microblogging), a lot of anger can get blown off, and you can do real-time monitoring of the problems facing China,” says Bishop. “On the other hand, if people start spending a lot of time on weibo, it makes them feel much more negative about what is going on in this country.”
The bottom line: Tracking dissent on the Internet is a challenge for Beijing, given China’s 485 million online users and 300 million microbloggers.