China Fears 'Toxic' Rumours
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China Fears 'Toxic' Rumours

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No governments have ever succeeded in banning rumours.  But that hasn’t stopped many from trying.  The latest to do so is Beijing.  Irked by what it deems as malicious rumours spread through the Internet, and microblogs in particular, the Chinese government has recently announced a crackdown on the so-called ‘toxic’ Internet rumours.

The immediate triggers of China’s latest crackdown were most likely related to the outpouring of public outrage on the Internet over the crash of two high-speed trains in late July, and to the role played by the Internet in mobilizing the protest by residents of Dalian that forced the local government to promise to relocate a (truly) toxic petrochemical complex. 

But the Chinese authorities also seem to have good reason to attempt the impossible – the advent of the Internet and microblogs has now greatly amplified the impact of rumours.  On occasion, rumours have led to tragedies and riots.  In one incident that occurred in the early hours of February 10 this year, for instance, rumours that a chemical plant in Xiangshui county in Jiangsu Province was about to explode sent more than ten thousand local residents into a panicked flight.  Four people died and many were injured in the resulting traffic accidents.

Based on previous records of rumour-suppression, China’s latest crackdown doesn’t look promising.  The reason isn’t that Beijing lacks the muscle or resolve – Chinese censors are hardworking servants of the state and can be counted on to devise ingenious measures to combat rumours.  But fighting rumours in the Chinese social and political contexts requires much more than relentless censorship.  First and foremost, Chinese leaders worried about the harmful effects of rumours must understand that the influence of rumours is directly and positively correlated with the lack of press freedom and the decline of government credibility.  In other words, in a society ruled by an authoritarian regime that tolerates little freedom of the press, but which has an incentive structure that encourages its officials to fabricate critical data (such as GDP growth, inflation, and housing prices) and cover up accidents and communicable diseases, rumours are bound to flourish.

Indeed, 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.

So a long-term and more effective measure to contain the harm of rumours in China is to allow greater press freedom.  Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

An interesting question is why rumours in China have grown more potent these days.  Although many Chinese officials blame the Internet, the real culprit is the crisis in government credibility. One of the most worrisome trends in China in recent years is the erosion of social trust, caused largely by the prevalence of cheating and dishonesty.  The symptoms include fake official rhetoric, fake goods, fake diplomas, fake data, and even fake Apple stores.  While many perpetrators are private citizens intent on making a fast profit, others are government officials who use dishonest means to get ahead. Some understate their age (because younger officials have a better chance for promotion); others embellish their resumes and educational achievements (to make themselves more competitive). A very peculiar phenomenon in China is that many officials claim to have earned advanced degrees. But when you look more closely at how they received their graduate degrees, nearly all of them got their masters or doctorates through dubious part-time programmes.  For these individuals, cheating may have helped advance their personal careers, but the damage done to the credibility of the Chinese state is irreparable: citizens find it hard to trust a government whose officials shamelessly sport fake academic credentials and get promoted.

A second cause of the crisis in government credibility is embedded in the political system of a one-party state. In addition to suppressing the freedom of the press, such a political system is notoriously opaque.  Information is tightly controlled by the state. Eager to maintain its image as a competent regime, a one-party state habitually conceals its shortcomings.

Unfortunately, attempts by government officials to cover up accidents and disasters can endanger the lives and well-being of ordinary citizens. In the infamous case of the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003, Chinese officials hid the truth from the Chinese public for months and therefore greatly exacerbated the destructive effects of the outbreak. In 2008, to cite another example, government officials were aware of the deaths and illness caused by melamine-tainted milk powder produced by Sanlu, a state-owned company, but decided to suppress the information out of fear that the scandal would tarnish the Beijing Olympics.  The result was more deaths, consumer panic, and public outrage.  

The Sanlu case actually shows that if the public paid attention to ‘true’ rumours, more tragedies could be avoided. Before the official media belatedly acknowledged that Sanlu’s milk powder contained melamine, a Chinese consumer in May posted online his complaints about the harmful effects caused by Sanlu formula.  For unknown reasons, the posting didn’t go viral or attract enough public attention to ignite a public firestorm. To the Chinese public, the Sanlu scandal must have been a poignant reminder that they would fare better believing in rumours than trusting government officials.

So it seems that Beijing is fighting the wrong battle again.  Instead of launching a costly and ultimately futile campaign against Internet rumours, the Chinese government would better serve itself – and the Chinese people – by freeing the Chinese press and trying to improve its own credibility.

Comments
31
Lung Sha Shou
November 9, 2011 at 18:34

Your unfortunate assumption that I have any trusting, blind or otherwise in the actual freedoms available to people in the West suggests to me you have criticised without reading and understanding.

Your comment “you will die” while possibly a reference to your belief in my ignorance, is typically expressive of hate and a desire to silence those who disagree with you.

I guess you “Chinese bloggers” (YOUR WORDS) are not big on freedom of speech, or as Voltaire is (incorrectly) rumoured to have said, the notion that ” I may not agree with what you say , but I will defend your right to say it.”

I have noticed it is more your style to be abusive, and hateful. Fascinating that it’s just what the government of the country you support does, whereas the government of my favourite countries are plural tolerant and inclusive.

Because you have no respect for others, your comments generally indicate you have less concern for the welfare of the Chinese people than I do – I regard them as fellow humans – YOU seem to be forever defending their government and never ever ever express concern at the welfare of the people.

Democracies are by no means automatically good or even necessarily good. I would just about call the US not a democracy at all, so Frankie, you’ve got that wrong, because you are only looking at it in black and white terms.

I could dissect and criticise the US government and my own a thousand times more than I could China’s – so you PRESUME because I criticise them that I approve of mine – THATS TYPICAL AND SO SO SO STUPID – You see just because I criticise A doesn’t mean I approve of B – how does that even follow? AH! I get it, that’s the way YOU think, and doesn’t it show right through all your posts?

It’s a case of “Four Legs Good Two Legs Bad” for you isn’t it (That’s from Animal Farm by George Orwell – a novel banned in the USSR and China, although it is probably available now) You really need to develop a little more intellectual sophistication and understand this point.

Your comment “you are worse than a dog” is typical of the weak minded who resorts to insult when the strength of his ideas training and intellect cannot hold up to debate. We call it playing the man not the ball, but you might not get the vernacular.

The comment is like that of a pathetic child who yells abuse when he is on the verge of tears, and for what? Because someone dares to say the country you blindly love is not perfect. Are you a man or a small girl?

Like the typical hypocrite who supports his side but never has the guts to criticise it you make some half-assed pronouncement about the use of the word “nuke” The reason why this is totally and completely fallacious, is that this topic has been repeatedly brought up in the context of great power relations for example a Chinese general referred to it in an article about Taiwan and the possibility of an exchange. That is a topic that would properly come up in the context of these pages.

Oh Frankie, are we not to mention the word nuke because in YOUR opinion it is “used by scared, disturbed, and somewhat insecure(d) characters on the web”?

Maybe it is used by scared disturbed Chinese generals, maybe scared disturbed Americans want to rebuild their arsenal, I don’t know. But insulting Frankie doesn’t want it mentioned. I wonder why?

I guess it doesn’t matter to you because you just want to be abusive, or feel the matter mustn’t be discussed.

I guess I might agree with you in part that the “sentiments of disturbed natures” (!?) are only too evident in your frothing at the mouth at someone not having the view that what you love is perfect. It’s a big world you know, not everything is perfect, most nations have faults, and some are brutal and repressive.

You don’t get to decide what is discussed, no one has that right, and if you think you do then it really says it all. People who seek to impose that upon others deserve to be revisited unto death. You would like that would you killing people who disagree with you?

I know one country where they do terrible things to people who dare to speak out, (even to artists)

lung sha shou
November 9, 2011 at 17:59

John Chan
I am unsure you are actually ware what the straw man fallacy really is. To save you looking it up, involves a incorrectly citing your opponents argument as something and then arguing to your false projection.

In the first instance I doubt very much you would be aboe to provide a single example. That would be a variant of what you are accusing me of.

Since you are attempting (poorly) to examine debate, you go on to name calling, another failur of your type, whose ideas rarely if evert stand on their own, or survive sober examination.

I don’t know where you come form or what your training or defiencies in training are, suffice to say they doon’t seem to involve reasoned argument. Your appraent love of stating “the truth of the XXX is” is cute, but it doesn;t really cut it.

I doubt you have noticed, and your reply proves it doesn’t, that I am severely critical of the Western governments – you don’t seem to get this.

You state that “chinese bloggers are here to expose the lies told about China, correct distorted facts about China, and clear smear painted on China” which is interesting – by your own admission you are nothing but a cheer squad for your team. This is a total bore, you are like the empty mouthpiece of a Western political party, or any one of a bunch of media advisors that simply spin.

Your accusation of racism is absolutley pathetic, you use the idiotic straw man argument which responds to criticsm of a group or position’s behaviour with criticsm of their race. Am I racist because I disapprove of the Holocaust, am I racist because I detest the debauching of American democracy. I have close close friends who are yellow, black and white. My frequent criticsms on this blof are nota matter of race, although people of your cast of mind love to think it is that because you don’t have to think and open your eyes which you seem good at half closing.

I am a ferocious critic of my own government, and those of most Western democracies. You say it has nothing to do with the CCP, but that is hardly true and not quite honest, as many of the things we discuss here come directly from them.

I consider you have insidious intent in that you try to present the behavour of the that country as overflowing with peace and love. You are either misinformed or blind talking of Chine’s integrity as a simple statement does not make it true.. I would not be so stupid as to describe the govt of the US as acting with integrity, but then I am not burdened with the need to see everything about my country or culture as good. Nor do I have a rediculous idea of face. An evil is an evil, a wrong is a wrong. Some things are clear.

As for Dick Cheney he in my opinion is the worst sort of pig that that country has produced. If you knew a little more you would understand the terrible compromises people make in leadership position, that does not excuse Cheney any more than it excuses many of the actions of your country. He was a liar and a fool and a cheat and a wicked man. Maybe one day you will understand that it is not only America that has wicked men. Maybe you will understand that wicked things happen in China. If you had the regard I had for the Chinese people you would consider their interests and not just those of the CCP who decide what happens to the majority of them.

You say 911 is their must study on how to achieve world dominance – I believe their response to 911 was an exercise in stupidity that guaranteed their downfall which should make you happy.

Your closing comment “Indeed freedom will die with people like you claiming on its side” is a curious one, and to me suggests either you have no idea where i am coming from, or alternatively are doing what so many of you so called Chinese bloggers love to do which is to be threatening or express hositlity.

Freedom is dying because of corruption in democracies and greed. Now you’re gonna tell me there is no corruption in China are you?

Don’t you get it yet? Its not about China bashing, its certainly not about my countries being OK, its about fairness, right and wrong, that it doesn’t matter whether you are Chinese or American or whatever people should behave in a decent and fair way and treat others as they want to be treated.

nirvana
September 17, 2011 at 05:32

@ozican,
“absolutely loyal”, Himmler’s Schutzstaffel also qualified for this. Nobody would say today that those are loyal to the German nation, although many genuinely thought they were.

ozivan
September 15, 2011 at 14:49

@Nirvana. John Chan is a true blooded, totally loyal defender of the Chinese nation. For that, I have to take my hat off to him and give him high respect.

On hindsight, I was over ethusiastic or even far fetched, when I said Mao Tse Tung ordered the planting and production of opium. Indeed, I am sorry. Perhaps, I should have phrased it that China did not prevent or stamp out the growing of opium in the golden triangle. In frankness, when I first heard of this information with friends, we were young then, and we felt a great sense of pride and satisfaction that retribution was finally delivered on the Europeans.

Today, of course my views have mellowed.

Despite Mao’s errors of judgement on the Great leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse Tung lives in my heart as the greatest helmsman of the Chinese nation.

At my this late age, I still endear Mao Tse Tung together with Chinese greats like Sun Yat Sen, and even more for Deng Xiao Peng. To many overseas Chinese, each of these leaders is endeared for the different role they played, at different times for the Chinese nation.

Unfortunately, Non-Chinese often sees them in different light due to decades of insidious media attacks, misinformation and disinformation about China by the West.

Huang
September 15, 2011 at 13:18

China does not fear the so-called “Toxic’ rumours-the word “fear” was used to mislead the in-experienced listeners(fools and idiots are one such examples)into believing that the CCP intends to restrict freedoms(speech,religions,and other forms of self-expressions)when in fact,some of the selectively publishized accounts(human-rights activists,some jailed nobel-prize winner in China) in Western news outlets were highly likely to cause instabilities to China’s social harmony. Regardless of what(those blindly follow the Western claims),who,or how people mis-undertood China’s degree of freedom,China’s approach will surely proven to be the ONLY correct course of gradually(easing,while not hasting)reforming the whole political structure to cope with the changes taking place in China(not the US or other countries). Of course,there are some who might not agree with me and I don’t give a damn about what they believe or not believe. Some people,out of stupidities,like to allege that I am a member of the CCP and they are DEAD wrong again and again. Something is NOT natural about the West’s attitudes toward China’s political system. They criticized China’s one-party system while at same they seek to turn the whole World into one-system(Western style Democracy)of government.

Huang
September 15, 2011 at 11:55

@lungshashou There is no need to be so emotional in expressing your opposing views toward my posts. There is no need to degrade yourself by the use of negative terms(dogs,nuke,and that fake lungshashou) you thought would satisfy your pains caused by some posts I wrote. Believe me, sentiments similar to yours are NOT new anymore. As a matter of fact,your very notion of “Live Free or DIE” will be subject to its REAL/ACTUAL test in this evolving and ever-changing global environment. P.S. Don’t be too emotional. Its not good for you.

Huang
September 15, 2011 at 11:20

It is only natural for China to have some enemies and a lot of friends. Since you clearly declared yourself as the enemy China’s(and me),then you are just another one of those remain to be reformed,re-shaped,re-molded back into proper shapes or DIE-that is the similar arrogant response to your twisted and insecured assertions.

Huang
September 15, 2011 at 10:49

“Live free or DIE”? You will die not knowing what freedom actually is by blindly trusting without honestly understanding the degree of REAL/actual freedoms people in most parts of the World are enjoying without boasting their quality of life by some disleading labelings(democracy are good,others are automatically bad). You are worst than a dog,a dog knows whether its master is normal or sick(abusive). The unstable thoughts of using the term “nuke” are usually used by scared,disturbed,and somewhat insecured characters on the web. They DON”T mean a thing. On the contrary,these sentiments of disturbed natures only hightened the awareness of your weaknesses.

Huang
September 15, 2011 at 10:13

If my writings caused some kinds of funny pains to what ever you have inside you,then you should consider NOT reading what I write in the future. These thoughts might not be good for you and I do not want to cause any additional pains to your unique sentimental property. Do yourself a favor-Don’t fake your name to look as though you are Chinese. Your foolish thoughts are giving yourself away already.

John Chan
September 15, 2011 at 00:35

@nirvana:
It seems you are a student of Dick Cheney school of Imperialism, and Joseph Goebbels is your tutor. Your comment is a classic work of Strawman fallacy that is to distort the focus of discussion and lead to smearing bloggers whose opinions are not to your liking needlessly.

1. The western imperialist’s classic strategy to destroy a target is as following. Firstly they spin rumours to discredit the target, then use international framework to condemn the target with the rumours as facts, finally conduct regime change with brutal force based on the rumours in the name of democracy and human rights. The West has been using this formula since WWII. Everybody in the world knows it. Your pretending ignorance of this formula is puzzling, I am not sure whether you are a straight face liar, good snake oil salesman, or you are failing in the Dick Cheney school of Imperialism.
2. Do you think it is rather incompetent for the target not to resist the predatory imperialist West at rumour stage and wait to be hit at regime change stage like Libya? Don’t you agree that your question of why people so upset about rumour against them is rather silly? Why don’t you question where did those rumours come? Why there is no such harmful rumours have ever been spread against the West?
3. Please keep the insidious cold war tricks to the morally bankrupted West. No everybody will use ends to justify means, there is a such thing called integrity, you know.
4. You should not list your point 3 that makes your comment comical.
5. The paragraph attacking “people like John Chan” is just a poor application of Strawman fallacy. I just don’t know how can a debate about the rumour of using opium in cold war have anything to do with “30% wrong of Mao,” “40 million of Chinese died,” “Mao’s thought”, etc., they are totally irrelevant.
6. Most puzzling is the way you are connecting a debate of “cold war dirty trick” to me as a banner holder of Mao’s thought. It seems you can connect anything together like what the predatory imperialist West does as long as it fits your needs and convenience for the destruction of a target. Perhaps this comment is a homework you need to hand in in the Dick Cheney school of Imperialism for the course of Art of Strawman Fallacy.

nirvana
September 14, 2011 at 17:48

(On the rumor of Mao ordering the planting and production of opium in Burma)

It is hard to understand at first why people like John Chan are so upset at this “rumor” as indeed:
1-Such rumors (of government-sponsored drug traffic) is very hard to prove.
2-Even if this is proven, Mao didn’t do anything else than applying “unrestricted warfare”, a doctrine that is widely used by all parties in the Cold War. Opium as a weapon is not the dirtiest trick in the Cold War and the monopoly of any side.
3-The West anti-China propaganda didn’t use this rumor, if fictions and scientific reports on opium cultivation and illegal use/trade are considered Western propaganda.

In fact, for people like John Chan, it is about “integrity and morality”. That of the CPC and above all of Mao’s himself. So here we are, how to present the 62 years of CPC governance of China as acontinuous, absolutely “pure”, success story and Mao’s as a perfect Chinese idol. Perfection is to be understood from the morality point of view. The official 30% wrong that Mao did are absolutely defensible from the point of view of moral and ethic. 40 millions of Chinese died for this just cause, so people like John Chan can hold high the banner of Mao’s thought. That is truth, based on “facts”.

“It does not matter whether the cat is black or white; as long as it catches the mouse” (Deng Xiaoping)

“Morality is contraband in war” (Gandhi)

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