A cartoon posted to the official government web portal of Chongqing Municipality portrays “online rumor” as a fist strangling the internet.

In its latest action to rein in errant behavior on social media platforms in China, the country’s top internet control body announced this week that it had shut down 1,660 online accounts, alleging they had either disturbed social order or “fabricated public policies.” 

Posting a statement to its website on Wednesday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) paired news of the crackdown with eight typical cases from platforms including Weibo, the popular microblogging site, and the short-video sharing platform Kuaishou, to illustrate the nature of the violations. 

As is typical of regulatory language on information in China, the notice couched the actions in metaphors of health and safety, urging the need to prevent the spread of fake information to “purify the online environment.” But a closer look at the cases cited by the CAC suggests a real public interest in issues such as safety, food security, regulatory overreach, and the rights of gig economy workers — and an appetite for related information that is not mediated and controlled by the Party-state.

Are the public opinion controls of the CCP fighting rumors, or feeding them?

If the Public Loses its Fetters

In fact, unverified information is often shared through social media channels in China precisely because controls on information are stringent, and citizens have little faith that CCP-controlled “mainstream media” will factually report breaking stories that are clearly in the public interest.

In one of the more outstanding cases earlier this year, social media attention to a fire at Beijing’s Changfeng Hospital, including eyewitness video accounts, was obliterated online, so that no news about the incident was available for more than eight hours — even though the fire had occurred in a populous urban area. Only after an official news bulletin was released by the Beijing Daily, a newspaper under the control of the city’s CCP committee, did media reporters begin a trickle of related reports.

In the aftermath of the Changfeng Hospital fire, there was talk of the need to prevent rumors, and the obligation of the public to “speak correctly” (正确发声). But the context was the need to create a “positive energy public opinion climate” (正能量的舆论氛围) — a Xi Jinping-era reference that placed the political prerogatives of the CCP ahead of real questions of fact.

In cases like the Changfeng Hospital fire, the robust information controls exercised by the CCP to “guide public opinion” and maintain social and political control, which are routinely conflated with rumor-busting, have inflated the value of rumors (as unverified but potentially true information) in the public imagination. 

An excerpt from an article in the August 2020 edition of Shaanxi’s Television Industry Outlook warns of the danger of online rumors hijacking the CCP’s control of “public opinion guidance.”

In the official discourse, including the official academic discourse, the Party-state is quite open about the fact that “online rumors” are rumors simply because they have not been issued by an authoritative government agency, or by CCP-led media.

The August 2020 edition of the official magazine Television Industry Outlook (视界观), published by the local broadcast authority in Shaanxi province, warned against the threat that “public opinion guidance” (i.e., media control) might be hijacked in the internet era by “online rumors” emerging from the public (民众), rather than from the Party. “When online rumor [is capable of] channeling online public opinion, and this becomes a situation where the public is responsible for [the process of] channeling,” read an article by Li Shiyu (李诗雨), a professor at Xinyang Normal University in Henan, “the internet will cloak and mask the people, and this unusual mechanism will inevitably mean that users of the internet will lose their fetters.”

In this passage, online rumor is equal to unbridled online speech. The crux is not whether information online is factual, but whether or not it agrees with the CCP’s public opinion control objectives. Even if an “online rumor” is substantially true, and could be verified by professional news reporting, it is politically false because its existence poses a threat to the Party’s construction of a harmonious, incident-free cyberspace — in which, mind you, internet users should be fettered, according to Li.

If the Local Authorities Say So

The second of the eight cases cited in this week’s notice from the CAC, and highlighted in a report by the English-language China Daily, sends worrying signals not just about the risks for citizens in speaking out online in China, but also about the central leadership’s apparent over-reliance on local authorities when it comes to information verification.

The case concerns rumors that “students have gone missing from a school in Lanzhou” (兰州某学校有学生失踪). The rumor apparently spread on the internet this week, but the notice states that police in Lanzhou found, upon investigation, that “the information shared online was a rumor.” In response, the police detained a man and woman, aged 18 and 19 respectively (and both surnamed Zhang) — and placed them under administrative detention.

“[This] unusual mechanism will inevitably mean that users of the internet lose their fetters.”

Administrative detention (行政拘留) is a measure police are authorized to take in China for non-criminal offenses under the Public Security Administration Law. The action, which is frequently used to punish unspecified political offenses against those such as rights defenders who are seen as a threat to public order, affords the police broad administrative powers, and can mean individuals are detained for extended periods without formal arrest.

What exactly did the Zhangs say, and why? Is it not possible that they are young parents or relatives responding, more out of real concern than malice, to chatter about an incident at a local school in Lanzhou?

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing. True or false, the goal of the authorities in Lanzhou would certainly have been to shut down speculation online and ensure that any incident was handled quietly, keeping local agitation to a minimum. In such cases, local and national media might step in to provide credible reporting, replacing speculation with facts. But in the Xi era — more so than at any time in the past four decades — the local authorities now dominate this process. News media have been defanged across the country in favor of a national infrastructure of official public accounts (公号) whose pronouncements are often taken at face value as authoritative.

Reporting on the case yesterday, Shanghai’s The Paper, a popular official online news outlet, deferred entirely to the WeChat public account of authorities in the Lanzhou New Area (兰州新区), a state-level development under the direct control of the municipal government. The same was true of all government news portals (many simply amplifying the report from The Paper) and other official state media. In the rare cases where media added anything to the Lanzhou New Area account, as in the case of the once-respected Beijing News (新京报), the only embellishment was to add a note of condemnation from the CAC.

The recipe here for public mistrust — and therefore, the exaggerated appetite for alternative information sources — is simple. Citizens in the PRC, as has been noted in other authoritarian regimes, have a well-documented mistrust of local authorities (those they deal with more intimately) as opposed to a relatively high level of trust in the central authorities. And yet, as the production of “authoritative” information has increasingly devolved to local leaders, and more independent reporting by the media has been supplanted by the demand for Party loyalty, Chinese are still being asked simply to trust.

The purified online environment of the CCP-led information system has assured beyond any doubt that rumors will fly.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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