How Beijing is artfully stage managing the Bo Xilai corruption case

HONG KONG — While much about Bo Xilai’s upcoming trial remains hazy, one thing at least is clear: Beijing is intent on controlling every aspect of its presentation.

First came the leaks, timed closely in Hong Kong and Western media. Earlier this week, the South China Morning Post, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times all published stories citing anonymous sources saying Bo would soon be charged after more than a year in detention.

Shortly thereafter, the state-run news agency Xinhua confirmed the accounts, stating that Bo was being charged with bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. 

Next came the social media campaign. On July 24, the day before Xinhua's announcement, Bo Xilai’s name was censored on China’s two major Twitter-like services, according to a test by Fei Chang Dao.

A day later, the ban on his name had been lifted. 

As of Thursday evening, nearly 325,000 posts had appeared with the hashtag “Bo Xilai charged," many of them expressing support for the government.

Some even echoed the language of a state media commentary that said the charges were proof of the “strong determination of Communist Party of China to root out corruption.” In fact, as pointed out by Liz Carter of Tea Leaf Nation, almost half of Weibo posts on Bo Xilai seemed to make use of the phrase “determination to fight corruption,” or some variation on it.

“The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee pays great attention to this case, and has reacted quickly and enforced the law with strength, fully showing our Party’s determination to fight corruption,” one wrote.

“Since the 18th Party Congress, one after the other, a number of criminal officials have been arrested according to the rule of law, especially Bo Xilai,” wrote another. “This indicates the central government’s determination to safeguard the dignity of the law.”

“The Central Committee has repeatedly stressed that strict Party discipline is its consistent position,” wrote another supposedly independent user. “Today, the fair handling of Bo Xilai’s case will undoubtedly show beyond doubt the Party’s firm determination to crack down on corruption.”

The suspicious pattern suggests that many posters are actually freelance propagandists known in China as the “Fifty Cent Party” for the payment they supposedly receive per post. (Read Global Post’s guide the Fifty Cent Party here.)

Yet while the floodgates were opened to pro-government ideas, censors filtered out unwanted views on the case. On July 23, censors ordered websites to delete all pro-Bo statements on social media or online forums “without exception.” On July 25, censors blocked searches for the phrases “support Bo,” “think fondly of Bo,” “internal Party struggle,” as well as any searches that connected Bo’s name with the current General Secretary and President, Xi Jinping.

On Thursday, thousands of Weibo posts responding to the indictment were deleted. Many were collected by FreeWeibo.com, and they range everything from defenses of Bo Xilai to suggestions that most Party officials would be found guilty of the same charges.

“Bo did a lot of good things in Chongqing, repairing rural roads, helping the elderly, improving security and happiness,” went one. “As for the investigation, how many wealthy people’s money is clean? Compared to the early Party days, Chongqing has become very civilized. As for corruption, what official of Bo’s stature are completely clean?” 

Whatever internal disagreement there may still be over Bo's fate, the Party has clearly united on the need to deliberately stage-manage the Chinese public's response to the case from on high.