The Lesson Behind China's Coup Rumors

5 MINS READMar 23, 2012 | 18:41 GMT
A Chinese woman online in Beijing

A series of posts on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo between March 19 and March 22 rapidly spiraled into rumors in international media of a coup against China's political leadership. According to the rumors, the coup attempt was led by Zhou Yongkang, a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee and alleged ally of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai. The rumors are almost certainly false, but that did not stop them from spreading through Hong Kong, U.S. and global media outlets and even momentarily causing worry in international financial markets.

Social media play an increasingly important but unpredictable role in shaping Chinese social and political life, as the rapid spread of these rumors suggests. Regardless of their truth, political rumors reflect growing awareness and unease among a relatively small but very vocal segment of the public — urban, educated Chinese — over the political situation in Beijing. In a country where outright criticism is sharply curbed, rumors offer an indirect avenue for expressing dissent. More important, because of social media, such rumors are traveling farther and faster and garnering more attention from international news outlets than ever before.

Chinese political rumors emerge and spread through a few primary channels, both domestic and international. Social media services such as Sina Weibo and Tencent QQ, as well as the many Chinese blogs, represent the first, largely informal space where rumors develop. These rumors then often move through Hong Kong publications with close ties to the mainland and through overseas Chinese publications in the United States and elsewhere. From there, they can reach major national and international news outlets.

Weibo and Social Media

In recent years, Weibo has emerged as the most popular microblog and social networking service in China. Though the Chinese government closely monitors Weibo, it nonetheless offers a means for individual users to express themselves to a theoretically limitless public. Its users include a wide variety of social groups in China, from teenagers, university students and ordinary adults to prominent business leaders, celebrities and intellectuals.

At the same time, Weibo has developed an increasingly political edge. It is often the first source to expose corporate and official malfeasance as well as nascent, if indirect, political dissent. A notable example of Weibo's growing political power came in the aftermath of the July 2011 Wenzhou train crash, when individual users leaked pictures that pointed to an attempted cover-up by Ministry of Railways officials.

Like Twitter and Facebook, Weibo is a spontaneous, informal network. It is both highly active and often unreliable. Speed gives Weibo a built-in capacity to become an effective political tool: It is a vital source of political rumors not only because it allows for immediate personal expression, but also because it often moves faster than the censors can.

But Weibo and the mainland Chinese rumor mill are also somewhat inward-looking and unresponsive to what is being said outside, and the topics that attract attention are determined less by input from international media than the influence of Chinese celebrity users. This means that while Weibo can be the most disruptive element in the larger rumor mill, it is also often the least predictable, and the most difficult to make sense of.

Reaching International Media

After appearing on Weibo, rumors like the one currently circulating pass through a small number of Chinese- and English-language writers, newspapers and bookstores before reaching mainstream international news. Usually, they reach Hong Kong first.

Throughout the last few decades, Hong Kong has served the dual role of supplying the world with insight into domestic Chinese politics while providing Chinese politicians with a politically safe gauge of their own public's real opinion of them. This is possible because Hong Kong both sits on the fringe of domestic Chinese politics and serves as a haven for political dissidents and advocates.

When a rumor reaches Hong Kong, it is elevated from the informal network of blogs to the realm of news. Hong Kong news outlets rely heavily on sources inside China and are able to provide condensed (though not always reliable) context to the rumors emerging from Weibo.

In the case of the March 19-22 coup rumor, it appears that the rumor reached an online publication with links to a Hong Kong- and New York-based bookstore that publishes collections of Chinese political gossip (which are in turn smuggled into and widely read in China). This publication, along with the Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times, was largely responsible for escalating Weibo posts about an "unusual armed police presence" on Chang'an Street in Beijing into a theory of a Zhou Yongkang-Bo Xilai coup.

Once a rumor from China reaches the United States, it spreads in a variety of directions. From openly political publications like the Epoch Times, it reaches mainstream media outlets like Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and BBC News. On this level, it has real potential to influence international financial markets (though it seems these markets are increasingly tapping directly into Weibo). Even though the effect on markets is negligible and passing, it is felt.

What China's Rumors Mean

On some level, Beijing supports the use of programs like Weibo — if it did not, such programs would not exist. Beijing tolerates Weibo because the alternative — widespread protests — would be worse. Still, Beijing is aware of the danger inherent in social media, not necessarily as tools for mobilizing protest, but as forums for criticizing the government. At a time when the facade of unity within the Party has been significantly tarnished by the ouster of Bo Xilai, one of China's most prominent politicians, Beijing is particularly sensitive to the role played by Weibo and similar media in the spontaneous proliferation of damaging rumors.

The real significance of the coup rumors, though, is what they reveal about contemporary Chinese social and political life. That these rumors emerged and spread so far in the first place reflects a readiness among the large, very active online community to question the face of comity continually presented by Beijing. Rumors like these suggest that urban Chinese are increasingly aware that under the surface is a real political struggle with significant implications for the smoothness of the upcoming power transition. The depth and scope of this struggle is for now unknown, but it is evident in the ouster of Bo. 

Chinese social media are often riddled with fabrications, but with a grasp of the nature of the Chinese rumor mill, it is possible to understand where certain rumors are coming from and what the interests of those outlets spreading the rumors may be. In this way, social media can contain valuable bits of information, even if the rumors themselves are false. 

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