In China, strict controls on the flow of information are exercised by the leadership and a vast Party-state media system in order to maintain social, political and economic stability. But these controls can sometimes have exactly the opposite effect, encouraging surges of speculation that drive social panic.
One of the most outstanding examples of this so-called “Streisand effect” happened last week as vague official news about a national security investigation in the city of Hangzhou prompted speculation about the fate of tech mogul Jack Ma. Shares in tech giant Alibaba, of which Ma is the co-founder, fell nearly 10 percent in Hong Kong before sanity was restored.
Who Is “Ma Mou”?
The saga began on May 3, as China Central Television announced through its official news app that a certain individual surnamed “Ma” from the city of Hangzhou, their given name unspecified, had been subjected to “criminal coercive measures” owing to suspected national security related crimes. This meant essentially that curbs had been placed on the personal freedom of this “Ma” in order to ensure a smooth investigation. The crimes, according to the brief news item, included “colluding with external anti-China forces” (勾结境外反华敌对势力), inciting separatism, and other alleged national security crimes.
The point of misunderstanding was simple. The name given in the CCTV news app report was “Ma __” (马某), the given name elided, as is common practice in releases related to criminal arrests. But two-character names, like that of Alibaba’s Ma Yun (马云), or Jack Ma, are relatively uncommon, as opposed to the more common three-character names. Alibaba is headquartered in Hangzhou. Wasn’t it possible, then, that this unspecified Ma in breach of national security laws was none other than Jack Ma, who since last year has been mired in political troubles?
The CCTV news app post, made at 9:01AM, was followed within minutes by re-posts from a host of over media outlets, including Shanghai’s Jiemian (界面). These posts immediately kicked up a wildfire of speculation, prompting the CCTV news app to delete the post shortly after and publish a new post in which the suspect’s name had three characters instead of two.
This slight alteration did little to quell attention online to the issue. Other than the addition of a single place-holding character mou (某), standing in for a missing character, the CCTV post made no explanation. Why had the reporting of the name changed?
Meanwhile, Alibaba stock was slipping sharply on the Hong Kong exchange. And behind the scenes, evidently, state media bosses were scrambling to forestall the real-life impact of a news app blunder.
At 9:33AM, the Global Times also released a version of the story of alleged national security crimes in Hangzhou in which the suspect’s name had three characters. This was followed seven minutes later by a television news broadcast by CCTV also reporting the crimes of three-character “Ma.” There was no mention of earlier inaccuracies or corrections – just an assumption that new reporting could gloss over the uncomfortable error.
At 9:49AM, Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, waded in on his Weibo account in an attempt to clarify the matter and dampen speculation. “According to confirmations I’ve made with [relevant] authorities, the State Security Bureau in Hangzhou arrested a certain ‘Ma Moumou,’ not a certain ‘Ma Mou,’” he wrote. “Any media reports mentioning ‘Ma Mou’ are incorrect.”
Thirteen minutes after Hu’s explanation, and almost exactly an hour after the original post, CCTV News released another new post, this time on its official Weibo account, reporting the same Hangzhou news as the original 9:01AM post, but with the simple addition of a second “Mou.” Like the original post, this one said that the three-character “Ma” was “currently under in-depth investigation” for national security crimes, suspected of colluding with anti-China hostile forces.
Less than 15 minutes later, at 10:16AM, the Global Times rushed out with an article on its English-language site that offered further information about the “Ma” in the original CCTV news post. Exclusive sources had told the Global Times, according to the article, that the “Ma” in question was “the director of hardware research and development department of an IT company.” Unlike Jack Ma, who was born in 1964, this “Ma” was born in 1985.
As for his crime, the “Ma” in question, said the Global Times, had been “brainwashed by outside anti-China forces,” and had “become one of their tools to contain China.” More specifically, it said, he had “created an online anonymous group to play the role as agent of outside forces.” The goal had been to “spread rumors and disinformation and release [a] so-called independence declaration to split the country and subvert the state.”
As mainstream news media focused on reports about the alleged national security crimes of “Ma Mou,” attention turned on social media, including in WeChat groups, to the timeline of state media reporting and the problems it exposed.
In a comment shared by a number of media professionals, including Lu Xuning (卢旭宁), a former news editor at the news portal Sina.com, former journalist Shi Feike (石扉客) went through the timeline of reporting through various state media and their affiliated social media accounts – along the lines of the above CMP summary.
Shi followed with three thoughts, or lessons, stemming from the morning’s dramatic back-and-forth and the related dive in the Alibaba stock price. First, he said, the authorities in charge of the case need to be far more transparent in offering information. “Mystery gets people killed,” he said, underscoring the real-life consequences of secrecy.
Second, news media must be reformed. The news release system (通稿制度), said Shi, also “gets people killed.” By “news release system,” Shi was referring to the current state of affairs by which official news releases from Party-state media are given too much latitude for use by other media. Because these releases are privileged as “authoritative,” for the simple fact that they come from central media (trusted by the leadership), they are simply passed along by other media outlets in the vast state-controlled press system. In this way, the system discourages independent reporting and verification by other news outlets. And ultimately, this is harmful both to the truth and to real people — like Alibaba investors.
Finally, said Shi, he wished the best for Alibaba, for Jack Ma, and “for all private enterprises and private entrepreneurs in our country.” This was a reference, no doubt, to the crackdown over the past year on China’s tech sector, and fears over possible curbs on the private sector more broadly.
It was also, perhaps, an indirect reference to the uncertainties hanging over China’s future – when its politics and law are so steeped in mystery.