The List

The Great Rumor Mill of China

Something strange is going on in Beijing. Here are the five most virulent conspiracy theories making the rounds -- and a stab at the likelihood of them panning out.

The public hasn't seen or heard from high-ranking Communist Party leader Bo Xilai since he was sacked last week in Beijing, and the Chinese Internet has been awash with debate over what's actually going on behind palace walls. "People are nervous, there's not much information available," Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the National University of Singapore, told AFP. "They are hungry for new information, and if there's nothing new, they will make up new information."

Speculation is rife that a coup might have happened, with the only general consensus being that something big is going on in Beijing. What follows is a curated guide to the "information" -- read: wild rumors and speculation -- floating around online in Chinese about Bo Xilai's surprising fall from grace and what his sacking means for the future of the Chinese Communist Party.

1. Bo Xilai was sacrificed in the name of party unity.

The rumor: Although Bo had widespread support in the high leadership, current President Hu Jintao and former President Jiang Zemin (who's not dead, though this was rumored, too) agreed to kick him out to facilitate a smooth power transition for Xi Jinping this fall. The 85-year old Jiang, an ally of Bo's now deceased father, turned on Bo Xilai for the good of the Communist Party.

Really?: For a party bent on showing a united front to outsiders, Bo Xilai, with his loud populism and his overt (at least for China) thirst for power, apparently proved too dangerous. Analysts sometime classify Hu Jintao as belonging to a different faction of the party than Jiang Zemin, but the two leaders have worked together to houseclean in the past; apparently cutting a deal to depose a powerful Shanghai party chief in 2006.

The source: Various Taiwanese and Hong Kong media websites that tend to mix assertion with fact when reporting on elite Chinese politics.

Likelihood: Possible but unprovable at the moment, at least until someone releases better sourcing or better documentation.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Mao Zedong's grandson will come to power.

The rumor: General Mao Xinyu will be promoted to Bo's position, or another high ranking post, to fight corruption in the name of his glorious grandfather and make the country strong once more.

Really?: General Mao, possibly the world's most obese major general, is a tragicomic figure in Chinese politics. Imagine if Jimmy Carter's embarrassing brother mixed with a slovenly version of Kato Kaelin were the venerated grandson of your nation's founder. Because of his illustrious lineage, though, he still appears at major meetings to present information, with the added benefit of entertaining reporters.

Jamil Anderlini, who interviewed him last year for the Financial Times, writes:

Unlike other "princelings," as the children of revolutionary heroes are known, General Mao has never been accused of using his pedigree to advance his business interests. On the contrary, he is considered incapable of doing much of anything besides memorizing a few tracts of his grandfather's famous quotes, something that every Chinese child in the 1960s and 1970s could do.

General Mao's penmanship is so childish it has even spun a parody account on Weibo, "Mao Xinyu the Calligrapher."

Source: Scattered comments on Chinese microblogs.

Likelihood: Slightly better than the Mayan Apocalypse.

Feng Li/Getty Images 

3. Another high-ranking leader has been purged.

The rumor: Zhou Yongkang, ostensibly a Bo Xilai supporter, has been detained by order of President Hu Jintao in the biggest leadership shake-up, and possibly the most destabilizing, since the Mao's death in 1976.

Really?: Nine men currently sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision making body in China. Zhou, officially ranked last, oversees state security and the police, but some analysts see him as one of the Standing Committee's most powerful men. A former oilman who grimaces even when he smiles, imagine Zhou as a Dick Cheney with a slightly lower rank. Xinhua has reported that the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, which Zhou chairs, will host a training of more than 3,300 provincial, city, and county-level officials in April, but it's unclear what this says about Zhou's grip on power.

The source: A Chinese edition of the Epoch Times (the paper affiliated with the banned-in-China Falun Gong sect) compares Zhou's detention -- which no one else can corroborate -- to the arrests of the Gang of Four in 1976. The paper, however, sources this to "indications." The English edition is a bit more circumspect; in an article entitled "China's Security Chief Zhou Yongkang Pulled from Power?" they qualify their statement with the helpful phrase: "News of Zhou's arrest remains unconfirmed."

Likelihood: Not outside the realm of possibility, but the chance of this happening appears minuscule. It's more likely wishful thinking. The Epoch Times has written good stories and broken news, but on trustworthiness appears to fall somewhere between the Washington Times and Scientologynews.org. The Epoch Times also has an axe to grind here: given Zhou's role in the Falun Gong crackdown, it's a safe bet that many in that newspaper, and its shadowy backers, would be happy to see him go.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

4. The son of Bo Xilai was killed in a Ferrari crash.

The rumor: Bo's son Guagua was driving the Ferrari that crashed on Sunday night in Beijing, killing him and injuring his two unnamed female companions.

Really? Bo Guagua, Bo's dapper, Oxford-educated son, has long been a favorite target of the Internet set. Bo is currently a student at Harvard's Kennedy School, and the snarkier corners of the Chinese web treat him like the worthy subject of Gawker-like attention.

Source: Comments in articles about the mysterious and censored Ferrari crash.

Likelihood: Almost impossible. The Wall Street Journal reported that Bo the younger drove a Ferrari to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for a dinner last year, but that -- and his father's troubles -- appear to be the only thing linking him to the accident. The Weibo account assumed to belong to Bo has been active since, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, just because he hasn't been seen since his father's sacking doesn't mean he died in a Ferrari crash.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

5. Armed chaos in Beijing.

Rumor: Yesterday saw gun-battles in Beijing, the airport has been sealed, and martial law had been imposed on the Avenue of Eternal Peace (the street perpendicular to Tiananmen Square and that runs alongside many important government buildings).

Really? There appears to be something strange afoot in Beijing, but fears of a return to June 4, 1989 -- when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and the capital fell under martial law, a response both to a student protest movement and disagreements among members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- seem outlandish.

Source: Chinese articles published on overseas websites, trying to explain and debunk the current rumors floating around the Internet. Mostly they're just adding to them. As Foreign Policy's Christina Larson pointed out, this is when a Chinese Peter Jennings would be useful.

Likelihood: It's possible there was sporadic gunfire in Beijing -- though it's a city where guns are heavily restricted. But sealing the world's second-busiest airport and imposing martial law on a major thoroughfare in a city filled with millions of bloggers, hundreds of foreign journalists, and thousands of international observers without any credible source reporting this seems, well, impossible.

* * *

So what are we to make of all this? For the time being, it's too early to say. Silence from official channels, and lack of information, has fueled a lot of speculation. Yesterday, in the state-run Global Times, an unsigned essay -- perhaps the longest and most direct mention of what is happening in China in mainstream media -- didn't even mention Bo Xilai by name, instead referring to "The Chongqing Incident." Unsurprisingly, it urged people to place their trust in the highest levels of the Communist Party.

"Because we now have become more diversified, we have other choices, we have realized that trusting in the Party Central Committee, implementing the path of the Party, is more dependable than any methods other people teach us," it reads. It's an odd time to talk about other paths, other teachers. The essay, which has been widely re-posted online, appears to have been taken down from the Global Times website, which could mean that someone chose to comment on a subject before the Communist Party decided the party line.

And when the party line doesn't even know what it wants to communicate, it's fuel to the flames of conspiracy.

TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images 

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

The List

Who Said It: Ron Paul or Ron Paul?

The Republican presidential candidate may be a party-switcher, but he's no flip-flopper.

When CNN's John King asked this year's batch of Republican presidential candidates to describe themselves in one word during a February debate in Arizona, Ron Paul didn't hesitate. "Consistent," he declared, as a proud half-smile crept across his face.

Indeed, while the congressman from Texas has changed his views on certain issues over time -- Paul, for example, has become increasingly skeptical of climate change and increasingly tough on immigration, and now touts his ties with Ronald Reagan even though he denounced the Gipper's policies in 1987 -- he is, in many ways, a rare breed in politics these days: a sturdy sandal in a sea of flimsy flip-floppers.

Long before he was calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and arguing for friendship rather than war with Iran, Paul was the only member of the House of Representatives to vote against a 1981 resolution on U.S. efforts to resolve a conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon. "We need less meddling in the internal affairs of other nations, not more," he explained.

In fact, while Paul is now running as a Republican candidate (just how long the ideological strain he represents will remain in the party is unclear), he sounds remarkably similar to how he did in 1988, when he won less than half a million votes as the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate after temporarily leaving the GOP.

Take technology, for instance. In 1987, he told Texas Monthly that "we're going to start testing our TV in smaller states, on off-channels, and on cable television. People who are looking for ideas tend to be watching independent stations and cable." By the 2008 election, when cable television had long since gone mainstream, Paul was channeling his message through the next edgy, disruptive innovation: the web.  

Or take this interview in 1988 with a 53-year-old Paul. Sure, he's younger. But if you close your eyes and ignore the references to communism, you might just lose yourself in time. There's the same ardent, amused, and slightly squeaky talk of honoring the Constitution, taking a wrecking ball to federal institutions (especially his arch nemesis, the Federal Reserve), reining in out-of-control government spending, restoring a bright future for the country's debt-saddled youth, doing away with foreign aid, and turning America's gaze back toward its own shores and national defense.  

Admittedly, the 76-year-old Paul has lost a step or two. He no longer gesticulates wildly when discussing drug legalization (5:00), the Vietnam War (15:00), and getting "high on the ideas of freedom" (16:50), as he did in this surreal 1988 appearance on the Morton Downey Jr. Show, an ear-splitting Jerry Springer forerunner.

But theatrics aside, it's the same Ron Paul. Still don't believe us? We challenge you to a game. Who said it: today's Ron Paul or 1980s Ron Paul?

1. "This country has been the wealthiest country ever. We've been the freest country. And we've been very, very prosperous. We had the strongest currency. We had the most gold. And what is happening today?... The deficits are out of control, we have borrowed to the hilt ... and we're facing serious problems.... It's an end of an era."

Answer 1: 1987-1988

2. "The U.S. policy toward Libya further confirms our irrational foreign policy.... Bombing a foreign capital and killing innocent civilians ... is an act of war and not authorized by our Constitution."

Answer 2: 1987-1988

3. "I think we're living in the dark ages when we can't even talk to the Cuban people. I think it's not 1962 anymore. And we don't have to use force and intimidation and overthrow of ... governments. I just don't think that's going to work."

Answer 3: 2011-2012

4. ''I would abolish the Federal Reserve, create a sound money system, define the dollar. You deregulate everything and you get rid of all the bums, all the bureaucrats who are running the bureaus.''

Answer 4: 1987-1988

5. "The great strides that we have made have been really on foreign policy. The fact that we can once again talk ... about what Eisenhower said, to beware of the military-industrial complex. Talk about the old days when Robert Taft, Mr. Republican, said we shouldn't be engaged in these entangling alliances. He believed what the founders taught us. He didn't even want to be in NATO."

Answer 5: 2011-2012

6. "How does it help us to keep troops in Korea all these years? We're broke. We have to borrow this money. Why are we in Japan?"

Answer 6: 2011-2012

7. ''Let's say we did not police the world and we had no welfare. Would we need an income tax? Isn't it interesting that the income tax came about the time we changed our foreign policy and got a central bank and started fighting wars overseas? In Woodrow Wilson's day.''

Answer: 7: 1987-1988

8. "They're addicted. It's like a drug addict. And nobody's willing to have withdrawal symptoms. They will keep printing until they destroy the value of money.... The next thing to drop will be the price inflation and a further downturn, much worse than the stagflation of the 70s."

Answer 8: 2011-2012

9. "Instead of those sitting ducks in the Persian Gulf, I'd be happy to have a navy and put it in the Gulf of Mexico.''

Answer 9: 1987-1988

10. "We have accepted the idea of interventionism. Interventionism in the economy, interventionism as far as the personal lifestyles of individuals go, as well as this idea that we know what's best for everybody."

Answer 10: 1987-1988

11. "The Austrian economists -- those are the free-market economists -- predicted that we would be moving into an era of very bad times -- bad times with a high inflation rate, a violent business cycle, and even recession or depression. I became fascinated with this, and convinced also that they had the right explanation."

Answer 11: 1987-1988

12. "We've been at war in Iran for a lot longer than '79. We started it in 1953 when we sent in a coup, installed the shah, and the reaction -- the blowback came in 1979. It's been going on and on because we just plain don't mind our own business. That's our problem."

Answer 12: 2011-2012

13. "Big government is running away with our freedom and our money, and the Republicans are just as much to blame as the Democrats."

Answer 13: 1987-1988

14. "Foreign aid is taking money from the poor people of a rich country and giving it to the rich people of a poor country. There's nothing wrong with staying out of the internal affairs of foreign countries when it's none of our business."

Answer 14: 2011-2012

15. "I'm a free trader and I want as much travel and communication with other countries as possible. This is what the Founders advised. We were never given the authority to be the policemen of the world."

Answer 15: 2011-2012

So, how did you score?

11-15 correct: Foot soldier in the Ron Paul revolution

6-10 correct: Loyal libertarian

1-5 correct: Casual debate watcher

0 correct:  Mitt Romney fan

Thanks for playing!

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