Tea Leaf Nation

How to Say 'Truthiness' in Chinese

Chinese citizens don't think their government should have a monopoly on rumors.

"Official rumors" is more than just an oxymoron. The phrase -- pronounced guanyao -- has become a useful weapon in Chinese Internet users' linguistic guerrilla warfare against government censorship. That battle has intensified during a government-led crackdown on "online rumor-mongering," which has sought to rein in China's rambunctious social media, partly through the arrest or detention of several high-profile online opinion leaders. Making things worse for China's Internet users is a new judicial interpretation, issued on Sept. 9 by China's highest legal authorities, stating that posting defamatory messages read more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times can lead to up to three years in jail.

In the face of these assaults on their right to speak out, grassroots Chinese are trying to turn the mirror back on officialdom by calling out instances where officials or state-owned media made statements that turned out to be false. The result is two types of "rumors" in Chinese argot: minyao, or rumors spread by Chinese citizens which may or may not be true, and guanyao, official rumors, which are falsehoods uttered by Chinese authorities.

According to Baidu, China's most popular search engine, mentions of guanyao -- a pun for state-owned kilns (guan) that churned out the finest porcelain (yao) for emperors in China's dynastic days -- date back at least to mid-2010. But searches and media mentions for guanyao spiked in early Sept. 2013, as the government's crackdown on online speech heated up. Since then, the term has rapidly entered the Chinese lexicon as netizens try to turn the proverbial tables, complaining that citizen lies and official lies are held to two different standards. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, alone, the term has received over 600,000 recent mentions.

Although guanyao can refer to any untruths by government authorities, the typical manifestation occurs at a particular point in the life cycle of a P.R. crisis, when officials or official media react to accusations of wrong-doing with denials or counter-accusations. On Oct. 18, the liberal-leaning Beijing News published a graphic detailing six archetypes of official rumors: "practicing deception," "admitting [the truth] after higher government authorities intervene," "covering up," "not admitting a mistake before seeing the [incriminating] video," "self-deception," and "biting back."

Examples abound. The Beijing News cited the downfall of Liu Tienan, the former chief of the Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA), the entity that governs China's energy infrastructure, as an example of "biting back." In December 2012, journalist Luo Changping took to Sina Weibo to accuse Liu of taking bribes; Liu was removed from his post and put under investigation in May, but not before the NEA's press office insisted Luo's claims of corruption were "pure slander and rumor."

For a classic "cover-up," Beijing News recapped the downfall of Tian Hongzhi, propaganda bureau chief for the medium-sized city of Xiangcheng in Henan province. One May evening, a nightclub in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou had the bad judgment to greet the official with a bawdy neon sign, reading in part, "A Warm Welcome to Xiangcheng Bureau Chief Tian." By late May, a photograph of the sign had spread rapidly on Chinese social media. Tian was removed from his post and punished by month's end, but not before a spokesperson for the city government claimed that none of the six bureau chiefs surnamed Tian had been out of town on business that evening, so the incriminating photographs were "maybe a prank, or maybe the nightclub's effort to stir up hype." As the popular official newspaper China Youth Daily opined, Tian's punishment "should be praised, but in the process, someone lied to the public, and that person was not punished. This should not happen."

The rise of guanyao as a counterpoint to minyao does not mean that the two are equivalent. There's no denying that good old-fashioned grassroots rumors -- minyao -- are legion on the Chinese Web, as they are in any other countries. Officials and ordinary citizens may be equally prone to bend or break the truth, but when officials do so, they have the power of the state behind them. As an Oct. 20 article in the local paper Chongqing Times explains, "Perhaps officials have authority. But authority does not represent the truth, and at least sometimes, officials use their authority to hide the truth." That hypocrisy sets the wrong tone for the government's anti-rumor campaign -- one accompanied by official statements about the need to guide public opinion to be more "constructive." Weibo user Yan Zuyou, a Shanghai writer, put it most succinctly: "To punish citizen rumors, you first must punish official rumors."

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Tea Leaf Nation

Don't Tweet This Chinese Flood

Is censorship of an unfolding disaster in Yuyao backfiring?  

Social media once played a vital role in Chinese citizen's response to natural disasters. When a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province in April 2012, citizens there used Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging platform, to share information and coordinate relief efforts. In July 2012, as heavy flooding engulfed swaths of Beijing, residents used Weibo to offer each other help and shelter. And when they felt their local government responded incompetently to a natural disaster, Chinese took to Weibo to vent their anger.

But that was then. On Oct. 7, Typhoon Fitow hit China's eastern coast, bringing the heaviest rainfall in a century down on Yuyao, a city of over 800,000 people in wealthy Zhejiang province. More than 70 percent of the city's downtown lay submerged, according to state media. Authorities immediately dispatched disaster relief teams after the flood hit, providing emergency generators for hospitals and feeding displaced locals, though some residents in rural parts of Yuyao reportedly went days without aid. But, oddly, they didn't take to Weibo to gripe. With Yuyao, China's once-powerful social media seems to have lost its voice. While the 2012 Sichuan Earthquake, which killed at least 180 people, drew an estimated 5 million comments on Weibo, the flooding in Yuyao generated only an estimated 170,000 posts on the same platform.

What happened? An ongoing government crackdown on online expression -- including a Sep. 9 law that expands the definition of defamation to include vaguely defined "online rumors" read 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times -- has raised the stakes for online expression. Meanwhile, Beijing is trying to bolster trust in traditional media, which it largely controls. To do this, it is trying to sideline influential Weibo users like investor Charles Xue (11.9 million followers) and former Google China chief Kai-Fu Lee (51.8 million followers), both of whom have commented frequently on politics and current affairs.

Yet many Chinese do not trust government-sanctioned sources to tell the truth. In an Oct. 12 interview with Beijing News, a paper known for its political coverage, Yuyao's party chief Mao Hongfang said he thought the government's disaster relief efforts, though imperfect, merited a passing grade of 60 out of 100. State-run Xinhua, China's largest news agency, published a slideshow of soldiers clearing away debris in the city. The Yuyao Daily, a local paper, published an article about a higher-level party boss visiting Yuyao on Oct. 14 and working with soldiers to clear away debris.

But the perception that state-run local media was glossing over the severity of the flooding angered the people of Yuyao and sparked an escalating series of real, if not online, protests. On Oct. 11, residents surrounded a state-owned television crew because they believed that the crew was filing reports that glossed over the flood's aftermath. The next day, several hundred people took to the streets and clashed with police in front of a local government building. And on Oct. 15, protesters amassed in even greater numbers, holding up signs calling for the resignations of the local party chief and mayor. Protestors clashed with riot police, overturned cars, and even defaced a decorative sign outside the local government building, removing the word "People" from Mao's famous saying, "Serve the People." In response, authorities mobilized thousands of anti-riot police to quell the protest. (As of the publication of this article, it is unknown whether the protests have dissipated.) Yu Guoming, vice president of the journalism school at Beijing's Renmin University, told the Communist Party paper the Global Times, "The nationwide indifference to their plight disappointed them, and local media reports became the fuse that ignited public anger."

Social media discussion of the flooding and the protests was eerily limited. Yes, Yuyao residents shared pictures on Weibo of police barricades, injured protesters, and smashed car windows. And some of these photos made their way to Twitter, which is blocked in China. But information on Chinese social media spreads most widely when shared by prominent users. In previous natural disasters, China's active social media would have been abuzz with prominent account holder re-tweeting the photos, asking sharp questions and calling for government accountability. The online response to Yuyao registered at a noticeably lower decibel, even as citizens massed in on-the-ground protest.

One user conjectured that "posts about Yuyao are being deleted at an unprecedented speed." Pang Hurui, a public opinion analyst with the People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, noted that "influential Weibo users who comment on politics and current affairs are falling silent, and markedly fewer people are discussing and paying attention to the flooding in Yuyao."

Weibo users also complained that censors were deleting pictures of the protest. "There was no comprehensive coverage from either official media or citizen journalists [i.e., microbloggers] on the clash that occurred at Yuyao," Xu Yiyou, the deputy editor of the newsmagazine China Weekly, commented on Weibo. (Fittingly, Xu's comment was later deleted.)

Censorship was felt offline as well. Political cartoonist Wang Liming, who uses the pen name "Rebel Pepper," posted a cartoon about the Yuyao conflict on Oct. 15. The caption of the cartoon, which depicted a faceoff between police and protesters, read: "Police, the front line of flood relief in Yuyao is not here. Please go where the people need you. Thanks." On Oct. 16, police detained Wang. The Beijing Times, one of the most widely-read local papers in the capital, claimed that Wang was detained not for his cartoon, but for posting an untrue rumor about the flooding in Yuyao. On Oct. 17, Wang took to Twitter to inform friends he had been released after less than 24 hours, adding, "when I have time, I'll tell you about the interesting night I spent at the police station."

To a growing number of angry Chinese netizens, Yuyao represents the collateral damage from the online crackdown. "During the recent flooding of Yuyao, as the people emptied the shelves in supermarkets, the local government was busy detaining rumormongers," wrote a Weibo account affiliated with the influential liberal paper Southern Metropolis Daily. "Many Internet users fear that their posts would be treated as rumors if retweeted more than 500 times, so information about the disaster couldn't be disseminated widely." As the floods subside, Yuyao has become, as Pang writes, "an isolated island of information."

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