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.