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Scandal sends China's netizens into a feeding frenzy

Jason Lee / Reuters

China's Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai waves a Chinese national flag during an event in Chongqing municipality in this June 2011 file photo.

BEIJING – It’s the biggest news in China in a long time – and China’s netizens are finding ways to get around censors to gossip and get the latest online rumors.

The scandal, which has spread to the New York Times front page and other Western news outlets, is centered on Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, China’s biggest municipality with 30 million residents, and his wife, Gu Kailai, who is a murder suspect in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Before the bombshell announcement from China’s official news agency, Bo had been considered one of the top contenders for the country’s highest echelon of power, the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party, in the upcoming power reshuffle this fall.
No further official information has been released since last Tuesday’s news, but it still seems as if China’s entire population of 1.3 billion people is talking about the scandal. And despite the government’s best efforts to squelch online chatter, the country’s savvy computer fans have come up with novel ways to circumvent Beijing’s watchdogs.  

Foreign 'rumors'
Foreign media have continued to feed the voracious appetite for more juicy details from Chinese netizens.

Kyodo / Reuters

China's former Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai in a January 2007 file photo.

Many in China have made use of VPNs (virtual private networks) to circumvent the Great Firewall to access these Western reports, as well as overseas Chinese websites like Boxun, or Hong Kong and Taiwanese media reports. 

Every time a new article comes out, it’s instantly translated into Chinese and posted on Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like service, followed by tons of comments and re-tweets.

The foreign reports have delved into everything about Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, from her business dealings to her friends and close personal relationship with Heywood.

The extravagant lifestyle of Bo Guagua, Bo Xilai and Gu’s only son, has also come under the spotlight in foreign news reports – from his hard-partying ways at expensive private schools such as, Harrow, Oxford and Harvard, to his penchant for fast cars.   

And on Tuesday Reuters added a new wrinkle to the story with a report that Bo initially agreed to a police probe of his wife's role in the murder before abruptly reversing course and demoting his police chief, which eventually led to the downfall of both men.

The government has applied every method possible to silence not just the local press, but the public passing along tidbits from the foreign reports.

Posts regarding the Bo scandal, defined by the official media as “rumors,” are usually deleted quickly after they show up online. Major web portals have been ordered to intensify their monitoring of allegedly scurrilous reports. And government mouthpieces like CCTV and Xinhua have appealed to the public to stop spreading rumors.

Chinese authorities do not issue empty threats – at least six people were recently arrested for posting gossip about a rumored military coup in Beijing.

Getting around the Great Firewall
But cracking down on gossip is an enormous project in China. The country’s sophisticated netizens – who now number up to an estimated 500 million – pass along rumors using puns, hints and words with different Chinese characters but similar pronunciation to key words.

For instance, the word “Bo,” which also means “thin” in Chinese, has been replaced by the term “not thick.” Many posts have called Bo “the not thick governor” in order to slide past censors.  

Meanwhile, some witty netizens have referred to the city of Chongqing as “tomato,” because tomato is pronounced “Xi Hong Shi” in Chinese, which sounds the same as “Western Red City.” That seemingly cryptic reference is to the “red revolutionary song” campaign initiated by Bo when he was governing Chongqing. As the son of a major leader of China’s Communist Revolution, Bo was also famous for promoting a campaign to revive Cultural Revolution-era “red culture.”

“This is the most remarkable event [in China] ever since 1976, when the Gang of Four was arrested,” said Yao Bo, a China-based Internet observer and blogger, in a phone interview with NBC News. He was referring to when the leaders of China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution were publicly purged from the Communist Party a month after Chairman Mao’s death – marking the end of one of China’s most turbulent political eras.

“When people used to talk about politics on forums or bulletins before, it was censored much more easily, since such discussion always had a topic. Weibo is like a virus, it can share information much faster and becomes uncontrollable,” Yao said.

‘We Firmly Support the Central Party’
The government has tried to introduce a counter-campaign of sorts by ordering all major newspapers and TV news channels to pledge their loyalty to the Communist Party. Within a few days after Bo’s scandal was exposed, a variety of publications had editorials with the same headline: “We Firmly Support the Central Party.”
Some leftist websites that openly supported a return to a Maoist-like regime have been mysteriously shut down in recent days – another signal suggesting its best time to stick to the party line. None of them has publicly stated that they are following an official order, but they all went into “maintenance-mode” simultaneously.
Over the last few days less gossip devoted to the Bo scandal has appeared online, which Yao attributed to both censorship and the political nature of the scandal. 

“What Bo did was to pull China in an extreme direction when nobody knew where it was going. The leftists say ‘it’s a red trial,’ the rightists say ‘it’s a disaster.’ Now he’s down, people have nothing to argue about. This is a signal sent by the highest leaders that they do not wish to go back to China’s past.”
“This has made netizens realize one thing: rumor is another name for truth,” said Yao.

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