29 June 2007

Sometimes you come across a story that sounds too good to be true. When that happens in China, where the authorities keep a tight grip on the media – and when the news first appears on the Internet, a hotbed of intentionally spread lies – I have learned to ask two questions right off the bat.

Is it really true? And regardless of how true it is, why are we hearing about it now?

So begins “Going Down a News Rabbit Hole in China” by Peter Ford in the Christian Science Monitor.

Ford was following up on a story that hit the Chinese ‘net recently. I first heard about The Tangshan Armored Vehicle, as so many do, from ESWN, who had gotten it from the generally esteemed Southern Metropolis Daily. Yang Shukuan was shaking down mining companies, hiring assassins and terrorizing the population of Tangshan, Hebei with an armored car. As you might imagine, this was popular on the internetz, and as Ford puts it:

Soon, papers and websites all over China – including People.com.cn, the online organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – had published stories on “Three Treasures” Yang, as the mafia boss was known in Tangshan, a city 120 miles east of Beijing.

But when Ford goes looking for the offices of the website (Rule of Law Network, 中国百姓法制网) that first reported the story, they aren’t where they claim to be. Phone calls go unanswered. The police aren’t talking. And then:

By Friday evening, the official shutters were coming down in ways that every Chinese knows is a sign that the authorities have had enough. People.com.cn, the online version of Peoples Daily, had removed its article, for example.

Local government and police officials in Tangshan were refusing to answer questions, referring me to a police statement confirming that Mr. Yang had been arrested, along with a police officer and 36 other suspects, and saying that the case “is still under investigation.” The next day, the Rule of Law Network was “closed for maintenance.”

That apparently didn’t last long, because the Rule of Law Network is running right now, one of their articles about Yang corrupting local cops cited in the Southern Metropolitan Daily story is still there, People.com.cn still has this article with pictures up, and Baidu News throws out 743 articles on the topic.

Ford also mistranslates the pen name of Rule of Law Network’s “reporter”, Bei Dou, as “North Star”. 北斗 means “Big Dipper”. But that’s just nitpicking. Ford definitely has a point: the articles about the Tangshan case are all quoting one another, a common enough Chinese practice. Confirming such reports can be all but impossible. The Internet is a place where people can play let’s pretend. It’s not like before the Internet there were steady streams of reliable information for Chinese citizens - this country has developed a quite unique culture of skeptical readers.

But here’s a question: how about confirmation of Ford’s report? For starters, to find most of the links above, I had to reverse translate names like “Rule of Law Network” and confirm I had the right name through cross-reference because the article doesn’t provide any Chinese names. Second, while the article is about websites, it doesn’t link to any - the single most perplexing omission from the websites of most major American newspapers. Look at the New York Times, or the Washington Post, and usually you will find links that only direct you to keyword searches within their own (subscription only!) archives. Beyond links and linguistics, however, there are also major assertions in the above the report that are completely unsubstantiated:

  1. “the official shutters were coming down in ways that every Chinese knows is a sign that the authorities have had enough” - Which authorities? Where is the confirmation that they’ve had enough of something? Enough of what, exactly? Who is threatened here? And even worse, there are still plenty of articles out there - no shutters actually came down.

  2. Ford quotes Xiao Qiang, of China Digital Times, saying he believes “this is an internal leak through the Rule of Law Network,” apparently since “Bei Dou” blogged that the story was recommended to him by a Communist Party newspaperman. But no one can get Bei Dou on the phone - how do we know that’s really his blog? What do we know of his motives? “Somebody, somewhere, seems to have wanted to draw national attention to a criminal case that had gone unreported. Who that might be, and what the purpose was, remains unanswered,” surmises Ford. Who would leak and why? Why must there be some major authority involved? Why can’t it just be some bitter Xinhua reporter who knows lots of juicy stories he can’t report saying “Hey Bei Dou, you’re a muckraking risktaker with his own website. You oughta break that armored car story!” Hell, Bei Dou apparently lives in or around Beijing, and Tangshan is next door. Maybe a cousin lives there. Maybe HE lives there. To post something on the Internet doesn’t actually require you to be in your office. Maybe after writing about it, it turns out Yang really does do things like hire assassins, so Bei Dou skips town and puts up a blog or three. I’m presenting as much proof for this as Ford and Qiang do of a leak: nada. Well, actually, I’m at least giving you the links.

Oh, and there’s one other people.com.cn article about the case, from a week ago. It questions, just as Ford’s article does, whether the “Rule of Law Network”, or its supposed parent the Association of Chinese Legal Workers, really exist. More importantly, it states that government officials need to make direct and unequivocal statements to the public about such cases, otherwise rumor will triumph in the vacuum. Gosh, that sounds almost like Qiang’s diagnosis: ““We have to wait and see what the official version of events is, and how it differs from the Internet version.” But in the mean time, let’s speculate.

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