China, Global Communication

March Madness on China’s Social Media: Unveiling the Beijing Conundrum

Wang Lijun

What’s happened in China within the Communist leadership in the past two weeks has been not only a mystery to Westerners, but to most Chinese as well. Wang Lijun, the aide of the flamboyant Chinese politician Bo Xilai seeking political asylum in the US embassy in Chengdu, followed by Bo removed as the party chief in Chongqing (read how the New York Times interprets the link between Bo’s dismissal and China’s political reform here), and the block of the word “Ferrari” in Chinese search engines. Now, not just the West, but also the majority of Chinese are aware of what’s behind such bizarre incidents thanks  to microblogging.

March 8 – rumors on Weibo

It all starts with a whisper on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), that “something big has happened” in the early morning of 8 March, by Mao Shoulong, Dean of the School of Public Management at Renmin University, Beijing. Within hours, his post was forwarded over 2,600 times and attracted almost 1,000 comments.

@LunaZHONGBellFall: I’ve climbed over many layers of wall. Besides yesterday morning’s news of Hu Jintao calling Wang Lijun a traitor, there’s no latest development or confirmation of this news.

@TangGu2010: I’m outside the wall scouting for everyone. The South China Morning Post reports that Hu denounced Wang. What this means for Tomato is hard to say.

You can read more excerpts of Weibo comments here

March 15 – Bo disgraced by Wen

Bo Xilai

Then Bo was officially sacked on March 15,  which drew speculations around the world. The Atlantic even asked “Is there a coup in China now?“. However, the Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine on China run by mainly Westerners who distil stories reflected on China’s social media debunked this rumor. Unlike such bold inquiries by the Western media, the Chinese Weibo users have to invent phrases to discuss this issue in order to get around the tight censorship. For instance, to avoid publishing sensitive words that might be blocked on Weibo, they use “Great Pacifier of the West” (平西王) as Bo’s nickname because of his crackdown on organized crime as Party Secretary of the southwestern city of Chongqing, and tomato (西红柿 xī hóng shì) to refer to Chongqing because tomato sounds the same in Chinese as “western red city” (西红市) (Bo has been famous for evoking Mao’s revolutionary “red” in Chongqing).

You can read some wistful words of Bo from Weibo in English here.

Read China Digital Times, which offers perspectives from Chinese and foreign experts on China’s recent political conundrum. “Bo Xilai: Down, But Out?”

 March 19 – Ferrari crash involving son of top official

The Ferrari crash in the early morning hours of 19 March did not arouse that much attention among most netizens until they woke up to find that the word “Ferrari” was blocked on Weibo. Rumors say that the driver was the illegitimate son of Politburo member Jia Qinglin who is supposed to be in the same league as Bo Xilai.

This series of events somehow linked together has been called the March Madness in China by many media reports. This conundrum is no longer only accessible to those who are able to climb over layers of the “Great Wall” or those outside China, but to the average Chinese Weibo user. 195 million of China’s 1.3 billion population uses Weibo, according to China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)’s June 2011 report. This huge wave of awareness created by Weibo as the platform of civil society discussion reminds me of the stimulant Twitter during the Arab Spring.  However, put aside the question whether China will have a “Arab Spring”, I can be certain that during this period of leadership transition in China, the fact that citizens are better informed of what’s going on in China’s politics, which were so intangible before, is a good sign for China’s future.

Learn more about the speculations on the Ferrari accident among Chinese netizens and foreign media here and how these discussions led to a number of of banned terms online.

Read the translated Chinese official reportage of the story here.

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About Huiquan Liu

Delilah Liu is a graduate student of Global Communication at the Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University, concentrating on Public Diplomacy. She is currently on exchange to Sciences Po, Paris, where she studies public diplomacy, global governance, and renewable energy resources. Before she was a journalism student in China and interned for the political division of Hong Kong Now TV.

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