It’s rare in China that a scandal involving a senior Communist Party official becomes public, but never before has a scandal unfolded with so many Chinese online.
Many of the half-billion Chinese who are online are abuzz about news released on state-run media late Tuesday night. It was a one-two punch.
First came word that former Chongqing governor and Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai had been suspended from his official positions. That was expected.
Then the news anchor announced that Bo’s wife and his housekeeper had been arrested on suspicion of being involved with the murder of a 41-year-old British consultant, Neil Heywood, in Chongqing in November.
Until then, Heywood’s death had been reported as the result of excessive alcohol consumption.
China’s social media lit up with reactions, with people helping each other figure out what was going on.
One prominent blogger and journalist, Michael Anti, noticed something strange about how state-run media were referring to Bo’s wife in the coverage.
“If you really read the story, they didn’t call her Gu Kailai. They called her Bo GuKailai. It’s weird.”
In other words, they tacked Bo’s surname onto his wife’s name, something not generally done in China. So why might this have been done?
“Chinese propaganda guys really intentionally want to tell the people – the woman is not the woman herself. It’s BO Gu Kailai. It’s Bo Xilai’s wife,” said Anti. “It’s not like an evil woman destroyed a good man. It’s that the man himself is evil.”
That matters, because Bo was Communist Party royalty, the son of a senior revolutionary. Bo had hoped to step into one of the top nine leadership slots in China during the leadership transition this autumn. But his self-promoting, populist style made others in the Party uneasy — they’d had their fill of cults of personality under Mao Zedong.
And Bo’s crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing turns out to have taken down not just criminals, but also business rivals and others he or his family felt had crossed him.
Heywood had helped Bo’s son get into Harrow, an exclusive boys school in Britain. Later, Heywood is said to have told friends Bo’s wife wanted him to divorce his Chinese wife and swear an oath of loyalty to the Bo family — and she was angry when he refused. Now, Gu Kailai is suspected in Heywood’s murder, and Bo Xilai could end up being implicated as well.
This is by no means the first leadership scandal to rock the Communist Party, but it’s the first to unfold with half a billion Chinese online, sharing what they know or suspect, and using creatively coded words to get around the censors.
“I think it’s clear that the whole process would have been a whole lot more opaque, that this really did shoot a lot of holes in the roof and allow a lot of sunlight in,” said Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for China’s leading search engine, Baidu.
He added that China’s leaders have conflicted feelings about the role the internet plays these days in China.
“There is almost immeasurable amount of economic gain China has realized as a result of rolling out the Internet, of being so aggressive in doing so,” Kuo said.
But at the same time, all those Chinese online means public opinion takes on a life of its own, especially at times like these.
“There’s never been a time in China’s history where there has been a comparably large and impactful public sphere,” Kuo said. “It is now driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue.”
That’s why the government takes such efforts to try to censor and control online content and discussion. In the case of Bo Xilai, according to Michael Anti, the government let rumors swirl for two months so it would be easier to take down a popular provincial leader.
The scandal started in early February, when Bo Xilai’s former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu with, it now emerges, evidence that Bo’s wife was involved in Heywood’s murder. Wang told Bo this, and fled when Bo retaliated by going after him. Chongqing police went to Chengdu to try to retrieve him, and the central government sent police as well.
When the U.S. refused to give Wang political asylum, Wang turned himself over to the central government police.
At that point, a journalist Anti knows got a text message from Wang’s phone, even though Wang was in detention.
“It’s a very mysterious text message,” Anti said. “We had a discussion, and came to one conclusion: that Wang Lijun and the authorities wanted to send the message out.”
So the journalist wrote the story that Wang Lijun had been detained, and word and speculation spread online. Michael Anti thinks this is what the government wanted; to use the power of the Internet to guide and shape opinion with a finite goal of discrediting Bo. When public opinion strayed away from that goal — like, into rumors of an attempted coup — people were detained.
But the power of social media in China cuts both ways. These are not the days when Mao Zedong could use zealous teenage Red Guards for a few months to create chaos so he could take down his rivals, and then, send them off to the countryside to work quietly for the next decade.
China’s digital class isn’t going anywhere. They’re waiting to see how the biggest leadership drama in decades will unfold — and it’s a safe bet that as it does, they’ll have plenty to say about it.