Ask most ordinary Chinese where to look for the unvarnished truth, and the odds are that they won’t be rushing off to buy People’s Daily. Instead, a cynical readership now has more faith in online forums for a less-censored take on events.
That view can be vindicated – see Talking Point for how news of Saturday’s fatal bullet train crash was first uncovered on weibo.
But the internet vigilantes don’t always get it right, as a recent exposé in Chengdu illustrates.
This follows news that the same four people had been ‘randomly’ selected to attend almost all of the public hearings in the Sichuanese city.
The individuals concerned were immediately dismissed by netizens as ‘stooges’, paid to clap along with the official point of view. One of the public attendees, retired teacher Hu Litian, was even referred to as the ‘best actress in China’ after being chosen to attend 23 hearings over seven years.
The so-called ‘fake citizens’ reportedly spoke in support of controversial initiatives including hikes in the price of water and public transportation. And when a photo of the Sichuan four sipping tea at a local café was posted online, they were soon being accused of colluding before the hearings took place.
Eventually the furore bubbled over into the print media – and that’s when the story started to weaken.
Weibo commentators may be freer from the state censor but traditional news media has the time and resources to investigate in greater depth. Their reports seemed to confirm that the ‘public hearings specialists’ have attended a slew of meetings – but that they denied being plants.
“We have never discussed our views together before our speeches,” Tang Houyi, one of alleged ‘actors’, told the Yangcheng Evening News. Instead the group insisted they were civic-minded retirees who got a “sense of participation and achievement” out of the hearings.
For her part, teacher Hu seemed to welcome the attention. “I’ve become a sensation since [the story broke],” Hu told the China Daily. “The more people pay attention to me, the more they will care about public hearings,” she predicted, rather hopefully.
So why were others so quick to smell a plot? The Economic Observer points out that people generally don’t believe the hearings are of much value, or that they take much note of actual public opinion on issues like price rises.
Clearly, weibo won’t always get the story completely right. In this case, the Sichuan four seem to have been on some kind of local government list, as individuals with an interest in turning up to official hearings. For the moment, the burden of proof seems to have rested with the traditional news outlets in showing that the bloggers can sometimes be wrong in their cynicism.
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