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April 10, 2012

Chinese Internet Users React to Bo Xilai Scandal

Heavy keyword censorship on Chinese microblogs did not stop Chinese Internet users from hotly debating the deepening scandal surrounding former high-profile politician Bo Xilai, whose wife is under investigation for the murder of a British businessman.

Wednesday, searches for those involved in the case produced no results on China's most widely used microblog service, Sina Weibo.  Related searches, such as for Chongqing, the city where Bo had been party secretary, prompted the response: “According to Chinese rules and regulations, the following results are not being shown.”

Users circumvented the blocks by referring to the political scandal as “the major news.”  A Sina Weibo list of the 10 most debated topics on Wednesday, widely reposted online, included three Bo Xilai-related phrases.

The founder of Chinese media monitoring website Danwei.org, Jeremy Goldkorn, says even sophisticated government attempts to censor the Internet will not be able to completely prevent information from spreading.

“If people put together a bunch of words that are normally fine, it is just much more difficult to track," Goldkorn explained, "because you can not use filtering or software to track them. If they do not mention somebody's name [or] they do not mention any of the 'bad words,' [then] the speed of Weibo does allow these things to spread."

Many comments on Weibo focused on the lack of public information in China about what is really happening inside the ruling Communist Party.

“The major news is only told by officials," user "Reserved Cold" wrote on his blog stream. "Who can tell me what the real situation is like?”

Some expressed concern about making public comments on the matter. “In the beginning I wanted to say something about the major news. I have braced my nerve but still I can't find the courage,” a user from Beijing wrote, “I am not afraid of the character limitation. I am not afraid that they close my blog. What I am really afraid of is that for a word too much I will be detained.”

As the political scandal surrounding Bo has widened, Chinese authorities have increased efforts to suppress online rumors, but some Internet users express their thanks for information they gather online.  Beijing University economist Xia Yeliang said, “If it were not for these rumors, how can people hope to get real news from the official media?”

Kaiser Kuo, director of international communication for Baidu.com, China's most used search engine, says Chinese Internet firms serve two masters - the government and consumers.

“None of these Internet companies labors under the illusion that people prefer censored search results, but at the same time, we are multiple stakeholder companies," Kuo said. "We are obliged to obey the law in China, and we are also sort of compelled to explore the elasticity of our boundaries.  So, it is tough.”

Kuo says the developing Internet in China represents two opposing forces to him.

“On the one hand, you have this ratcheting up of controls, but in the same period essentially, you've seen the Internet develop into a full-fledged, or mostly fully-fledged, public sphere in Chinese life. This is unprecedented. There's never been a time in China's history where there's been a comparably large and impactful public sphere,” Kuo said.