The People's Republic of Rumors

Whether Jiang Zemin is dead or alive, one fact is beyond question: China's Sina Weibo is the world's best rumor-mongering machine ever.

BEIJING — Last Friday, July 1, one familiar face was missing from the usual lineup of past and present Chinese Communist Party leaders at the CCP's 90th-anniversary parade: Where was former President Jiang Zemin? Was he very ill, recently deceased, or for some reason not wanted there? No explanation was given for his absence -- not even an official acknowledgment of his nonattendance. And in the absence of reported and verifiable information, rumors in China breed like rabbits. 

Chatter began over the weekend on the microblogging platform Weibo-- which has some 100 million users -- about Jiang's whereabouts, but there wasn't much to go on except speculation that, at age 84, his health might have failed. But on Wednesday, July 6, some Weibo users noticed that outside Beijing's best military hospital, Hospital 301, there was suddenly a large crowd of traffic-control officers. Using Google Maps, which shows real-time traffic information in China, Weibo users confirmed that the main road outside Hospital 301 had been blocked. Some passers-by also noticed and blogged that the small parade of black cars driving into the hospital were not the standard government-issue Audis, but black Mercedes-Benzes fit for VIPs.

No one seemed to have any specific evidence linking the road closure with Jiang, but by the evening it seemed to be taken as almost fact on Weibo that he had passed away and that an official announcement was coming soon. Top Party leaders, the microbloggers claimed, had been summoned back to Beijing! Editors at state-run newspapers had been told to hold the front pages of Thursday's edition for the big news! And then … nothing. Thursday morning came and went, the papers published the usual mix of stories, and still no news. (One Hong Kong TV station jumped the gun and ran an obituary, but then retracted it.)

Now, this saga might sound like a mere curiosity, an instance of people shouting in a virtual echo-chamber, but for the fact that China's censors seemed to give credence to the rumors (or at least their fear of them) by ordering certain search terms to be blocked on Weibo: "Jiang" -- a very common word in Chinese, which also means "river" -- and "301" among them. Instead a search would yield the error message: "Due to relevant rules and regulations, the results can't be displayed."

Then on Thursday, China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, finally issued a short statement denying the rumors of Jiang's death, but also failing to offer any alternative explanation for his recent absence: "Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin's death from illness are 'pure rumor,' said authoritative sources Thursday." And that was it. Never mind that the rumors were in fact homegrown, or that what any reader really wants to know is not what isn't true (a denial), but what is true. But as of Friday afternoon, the line between fact and fiction remained unclear. Jiang Zemin remains unaccounted for.

It's worth noting that most of the conversation -- save for the Hong Kong TV blooper-- occurred over Chinese social media, in particular Weibo, where Jiang was the top-trending topic on July 6 (before the censors clamped down, of course). I asked a few Chinese friends who aren't close followers of social media for their take on the rumors, and their response was: "What? I hadn't heard."

Weibo is often said to be China's equivalent to Twitter, but in some key ways it's different. First, it allows users to more easily and directly share photos and videos -- more like a Facebook wall than a 140-character text-only entry. This is handy for sharing visual tips like Google traffic maps more virally. (It's also handy for busting seminude officials using the service to sext with mistresses.) Second, and more importantly, is who uses the website. This is admittedly hard to quantify, but among Chinese and expat users of both platforms whose opinions I've solicited, the consensus is that there seems to be a greater percentage of China's business, media, and academic elite actively using Weibo than is true of their counterparts in the United States or Europe using Twitter. The reason? In the West, Twitter is just one of many sources of unfiltered information, whereas in China, access to unfiltered information is harder to come by; microblogs are almost the only game in town. This gives the platform special potency in China.

Weibo spreads fact and fiction alike, at warp speed. It has been used by top businessmen to personally announce their resignation ("Friends, relatives and colleagues, I am giving up everything and eloping with Wang Qin," the tycoon Wang Gongquan blogged in May) and meanwhile used by pseudo-scientists to allege that dam construction impacts the weather. Sometimes it's hard to separate the untrue from the merely unusual.

But let's qualify: Weibo users only really have access to initially unfiltered information. Like all Chinese Internet companies, Sina, the company that owns and operates Weibo, must maintain its own in-house censorship staff. Part of what they do is routine: ensuring that topics that are clearly always sensitive (critiques of current party leadership; the Dalai Lama; etc.) do not become flashpoints. Part of what these censors do is respond to real-time government directives about discussion topics that have arisen suddenly and are deemed too sensitive, and so need to be contained. In such instances, through a combination of automated mechanisms (i.e., rendering certain search terms temporarily inoperable) and manually taking down content,the censors try to put the cat back in the bag, as it were. This is what happened in the case of the Jiang Zemin rumors.

Of course, this means that the censors -- both government directors and in-house corporate censors -- are always a few steps behind the rumors, waiting and watching for discussions to erupt and then trying to quiet them again. It's a precarious effort. A few years ago, several competing microblogging platforms existed in China, but Weibo has since emerged as the clear winner -- in no small part because its parent company, Sina, has figured out how to manage the tricky balance between allowing enough discussion to satisfy users and acting quickly to stifle it when need be. Of course, the company needs the government's approval to keep from being shut down, and for now, it's earned it.

Still, the Jiang Zemin rumors, whatever truth lies behind them, seems to have caught everyone off guard -- spreading nationally, and then internationally, extremely quickly. And speculation still simmers.

GOU YIGE/AFP/Getty Images


Free at Last

South Sudan has earned independence, but keeping it won't be easy.

JUBA, Sudan — This Saturday, July 9, Sudan will formally split in two, with the resource-rich south proudly declaring itself the world's newest state. But when the celebrations die down, the young country will need to reckon with the many problems challenging its continued existence.

Managing the aftermath of its "divorce" from the north won't be easy for the young government here, particularly given the ongoing hostilities along the contested border. African Union-supported negotiations between north and south Sudan ground to a halt once again this week in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, meaning the official split will take place without any deal to settle the future of Sudan's oil wealth. The dominant role oil revenues play in both countries' economies -- particularly the south's -- mean that the weeks and months ahead may well be marked by uncertainty and brinkmanship, a characteristic trait of Sudanese politics that has historically produced mixed results for peace and stability.

Foreign relations aside, even domestic security poses a monumental risk for the new country. Many ordinary citizens of South Sudan harbor legitimate grievances against the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which has governed the country during the past six years of fragile peace, for its exclusionary and repressive policies. In the remote but strategic oil-producing areas of the south, for example, local officials have recently been sacked for speaking out against recent fighting between the national army and local militias -- fighting that has driven many locals from their homes. In Juba, meanwhile, motorcycle-taxi drivers and market vendors routinely risk arbitrary arrest by disorganized and often predatory security forces that routinely harass, intimidate, and solicit bribes from citizens.

More often than not, southern politicians and military leaders blame shortcomings and abuses on the northern government. Owning up to some of their own failings could at least be a start for the SPLM in assuring citizens of the government's commitment to upholding the basic rights and freedoms that southerners lacked under northern rule.

At the same time, many here argue that the only reason peace has held to a degree over the past six years in the south is due to the cautious and clever policies of southern President Salva Kiir. The Stetson-wearing, quiet, and unassuming former rebel commander has adopted a "come one, come all" approach to various militia leaders who have challenged the government and its ruling party -- particularly in the past year, after elections in April 2010 split open wartime wounds between rival southern factions. But the International Crisis Group's Sudan analyst Zach Vertin notes that the "big tent" the president has erected may prove to be another pitfall for an army that is dangerously bloated and extremely expensive to maintain. There are currently some 140,000 troops in the army, all of whom are drawing a salary from the impoverished state, but few of whom are fit to fight.

Ultimately, it's that national army that will be the greatest barometer for progress in South Sudan. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has its roots in a guerrilla movement that human rights groups and ordinary citizens hold responsible for egregious violations against its own people. Only if the army is reformed will it be able to serve as a solid foundation for a country that shares dangerous borders with conflict-ravaged countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, not to mention Sudan. To that end, the U.S. government is spending approximately $40 million per year to professionalize the army. That money is being use to fund the construction and operation of army hospitals, to pay the salaries of Ethiopian troops training future elite southern forces, and even to improve the English-language skills of the soldiers, many of whom missed out on schooling, spending their childhood years fighting a bush war.

But the United States is not yet doing enough to monitor what's being done with its funding. Despite State Department efforts to closely follow the work of the American military contractors it has hired to train and equip the SPLA, the army is still acting ruthlessly in its campaigns to rout anti-government militia forces out of three of the south's oil-producing states. According to the United Nations, nearly 2,500 people have been killed this year by the violence.

Moreover, the government in Juba has also yet to reckon with the fact that it will soon need to give greater priority to nonmilitary needs. More than 40 percent of the south's budget currently goes toward its military. After July 9, the citizens of South Sudan will be expecting their government to provide basic services like education, health care, water, electricity, and roads. The government must also reckon with the many promises it has made to the refugees arriving in the new country after being forced from their homes in the north. Thousands show up every day, though few provisions of food or housing have been made for them.

The south hopes to gain a new windfall of oil profits in the coming years, but corruption and mismanagement could still stymie the government's grand plans to build airports, oil pipelines, and railways, among a number of other ambitious infrastructure projects. That said, the news from the new state is not all bad. Lise Grande, the United Nations' top humanitarian official in South Sudan, witnessed the south's horrific famine in the 1990s and has overseen the U.N. assistance in helping the new government build its institutions from scratch in recent years. Grande argues that the government has had a "hell of a start" with "astonishing achievements" over the past six years. But many international officials here in the southern capital fear that after independence, donors will end their support, cutting the southern government adrift.

Official entrance into the international community brings another opportunity for South Sudan to continue to prove the most pessimistic of observers wrong. But its success will largely depend on how other countries respond. The new nation deserves not just a warm welcome from the world, but a promise of continued and carefully conditioned support.