By Tenzin Gelek
On March 10th every year since 1959, the Tibetan administration in exile commemorates the Tibetan National uprising day and every year (until 2012) His Holiness the Dalai Lama has made an official statement reflecting on the Tibetan struggle thus far and expressing his aspirations for the future. On March 10th , 2006, His Holiness made such a statement, but on that particular occasion, he expressed a wish to visit some pilgrimage sites in China. Following that, rumors of an impending visit by the Dalai Lama to Kumbum monastery in Amdo spread far and wide. With no reliable source of information and no accessible means to confirm or refute these rumors, thousands of Tibetans set out, on journeys that often took several days, in the hope of seeing the human embodiment of the Bodhisattva of compassion.
In March 2011, when a devastating triple disaster struck the Japanese coastline, a rumor spread through major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and others, that iodised salt could help ward off radiation poisoning from Fukushima's nuclear catastrophe. This falsehood triggered a tsunami (pun intended) of panic-buying, eventually leading to many supermarkets running out of salt. During this time, the price of salt shot up almost ten-fold as gullible citizens shopped for that last grain and enthused entreprenuers sought to capitalize on this mass hysteria by hoarding sacks of salt.
Although both these instances of unfounded rumor took place at separate locations and at different times, what inspired these rumors and the circumstances which sustained it are strikingly similar. They were both an attempt by a disenchanted group of people to grasp their last bastion of hope, however flimsy and whimsical it might seem. Both groups would rather place their trust in an anonymous source than believe the Chinese government. Such is the lack of trust that when the Chinese government makes a statement, most believe the opposite to be true. Of course, these two rumors turned out to be plain rumors in the end. But instead of investigating why such bizarre rumors take on a life of their own, the Chinese government, in their typical way, pursue a temporary solution of cracking down on the immediate source. This is evident in their recent crackdown on websites or microblogging sites where such rumors take life. The Chinese government, like most authoritarian regimes, does not ask the right questions, because the answers would stare right back at them and finally shake the very foundation of their own legitimacy. Living in denial has after all been the norm since the time of the great helmsman himself.
It is a general assumption that rumors and gossip are a universal phenomenon and are in no way unique to China. It is also a fact that most governments have to contend with baseless rumors. However, nowhere has a simple rumor led to largescale rioting. And no government has fought rumors to the extent that China has. A case in point - the recent crackdown on the spread of "toxic rumours" on the internet. Today, in China, truth is a scarce commodity and the lack of access to information, other than the one-sided state propaganda, makes it a fertile ground for rumors.
The game Chinese whispers is often used to illustrate how information is adulterated or corrupted as it travels from one source to another and to highlight the fallibility of indirect communication. The word Chinese was added by early Europeans as a metaphor for complexity and incomprehensibility. However, present day Chinese politics and the once-in-a-decade leadership transition that is often brokered behind giant red curtains is literally a game of Chinese whispers. It is complex, riddled with secrecy and often accompanied by wild speculation, and - you got it – rumors. The run-up to the 2012 leadership transition has been anything but simple. It has kept the Chinese rumor mills working overtime. It all started in early February this year when the close aide of Bo Xilai, a suave Chinese politician slated to be one of the 9 most powerful men in China, attempted to defect to the US. Now, it is unclear what transpired following that attempt, but the incident of Wang Lijun's spending a night at the US consulate in Chengdu was enough to catch the attention of Zhongnanhai power-brokers. It set in motion a bizarre chain of events including a few outlandish rumors, such as the involvement of Bo Xilai's wife in the suspicious death of a British businessman and a coup d'etat attempt in Beijing. At the time of writing, one of these has been confirmed. Bo Xilai has been removed from his position at the Politburo and Central Committee and his wife has been detained for her suspected connection to the death of Neil Heywood, the British businessman.
About the second rumor of a coup, we may never completely know what really happened. It may just have been the handiwork of an overzealous conspiracy theorist, as Gady Epstein from the Economist explains in his blog. But that is not really the issue. The cause of concern here is the abject lack of accountability from the government of a nation that is looking to play an influential role internationally. Globe and Mail’s Beijing correspondent Mark Mackinnon further accentuates this disquiet in his brilliant piece on the coup rumors circulating the Chinese microblogging universe. In particular, this poignant paragraph explains just what the Chinese government might be doing wrong (in addition to being a ruthless authoritarian regime, if I may add). He writes, ”… the wall of secrecy that Communist Party leadership has built around itself also prevents the development of trust between the government, media and public. It leaves the media with no one to talk to and get real information from when there’s a wild rumour floating about, like the continuing – and so far unfounded – talk that some kind of coup d’état was attempted Monday night in Beijing. And it leaves the public unsure of what to believe in such situations.”
Around the same time in April, not far away in democratic India, a similar rumor was building up about a possible military coup. In January, the movement of two military units towards the Indian capital of Delhi caused a little stir in the intelligence branch and made the the entire front page news of a prominent Indian daily. This rumor has since been quashed as baseless and the movement of the military units was explained as routine exercise. Without getting into the details of this incident, let us compare the ways in which these two similar rumors of a coup were handled. In the case of India, it made national news where it was investigated, debated and subsequently ditched. The Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and the Army came out with statements and sanity was finally restored. In China, however, heavy-handedness prevailed. Websites were shut down, microblogging functions were suspended, and the PLA was told to ignore rumors and obey the command of the Party.
In his astute blog in The Diplomat, Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, sums up this disparity. He points out, “... when we compare how rumours fare in autocracies and democracies, the difference is huge. To be sure, rumours are concocted and spread in all societies. But those ruled by autocratic elites are far more vulnerable to their impact because these societies have no independent and free press that enjoys public confidence and can quickly discredit rumours through their fact-based reporting. In democracies, rumours can seldom cause mass panic or riots because a free press quickly acts as an antidote.”
Condemning the repression of information in China as immoral, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that “1.3 billion Chinese people have a right to know the reality and they also have the ability to judge what's right and what's wrong.” Today, with more than 500 million internet users and counting, and the advent of sophisticated VPNs, rumours in China are spreading faster than you can say “GFW!”. According to a recent report in Global Times, an official mouth piece of the Chinese govt, Beijing police have already arrested 1,065 suspects and deleted more than 208,000 online messages since mid-February in their crackdown against online rumours. Perhaps now, it's time the Chinese govt. concedes that repression of information is not only immoral but also increasingly unrealistic.
The writer is a graduate of Advertising and Public Relations from Emerson College, Boston.