Rumour has it

Control of internet escalates

Rumour has it

In 1950 an unlikely rumour spread across China. The whisper was that one of the ingredients fuelling atomic bombs was testicles, and that Mao Zedong had promised the Soviets a mass supply as a way of repaying China’s debts. Accordingly, the government was sending teams of special agents on castration missions.

The speculation spread like wildfire, even among those who hadn’t heard of atomic warfare. Men and boys were so afraid that they slept on their roofs. Strangers wandering into villages were beaten close to death.

According to Li Ruojian, whose research on the “castration scandal” was published in 2007, the case exemplifies how rumours have often gripped millions of Chinese.

And still do, in the view of Beijing policymakers. Lately the government has been clamping down on speculative chat, although the target medium has changed from word of mouth to the written word online.

In the last few weeks several hundred people have been detained on charges of “spreading rumours” in social media. Among the group, the Xinhua news agency reports, are the owners and employees of public relation firms that help clients defame competitors online. But others suggest that the regulators are really targeting influential voices in social media. One of them was Xue Manzi, an outspoken Chinese-American venture capitalist with more than 12 million followers on Sina Weibo. He was arrested for soliciting sexual services (see WiC206) and later made a public apology on TV in which he also admitted to “irresponsible” internet postings.

More detentions were to follow. The South China Morning Post reported last week that Wang Gongquan, another venture capitalist but also outspoken advocate for civic involvement, was taken away from his Beijing home (see WiC103 for our profile of Wang).

Another “Big V” – the term being used to describe opinionated weibo commentators with huge followings – was detained for investigation this week. He had popularised the practice of posting online photos of officials wearing luxury watches (one was worn by Yang Dacai, the “Brother Wristwatch” who got a 14-year sentence for corrupt behaviour this month, see WiC163).

Other ‘Big V’ personalities seem to be taking note. For example, SOHO China’s chairman Pan Shiyi, a weibo celebrity with 16 million fans, looked unusually nervous during an interview with CCTV last week when he discussed the “social responsibilities” of his peer group.

Pan was one of the first people that Sina invited to blog on its service and his weibo postings have kept the property tycoon in the public eye. But Pan also admitted that they have led to “one public relations crisis a year” and exposed him to online slander, including unfounded rumours that he had stolen Rmb5 billion ($816 million) in state-owned assets.

In the interview Pan seemed to agree that Chinese cyberspace needed a “new order” and said he was ready to lead by example. “I…I…think as a micro-blogging celebrity with a larger number of f…f…fans, I…I… should be more di…disciplined with myself,” he confessed.

Pan’s stutter was one of the most talked about parts of his TV appearance. “Was Mr Pan singing a rap? He was trembling!” one weibo user wrote cruelly. Others suggested Pan was trying to give a good impression and wanted to appear as “honest and reliable”.

The Economic Observer preferred to focus on the government’s campaign against rumour-mongers, wondering if much of the problem wasn’t the fault of an opaque style of government. “An old Chinese saying suggests rumours stop when they spread to intelligent people, but transparency would also help,” it wrote in an editorial.

Li Ruojian’s own study of the phenomenon made a similar point. “Rumours speak of people’s anxiety and discontent with power,” he wrote.

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