The People’s Republic of Rumor

A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the largest of China’s electronic bulletin boards. “Go to Wangyi. It’s not so well known so it doesn’t get blocked so quickly.”

The people were all scanning websites for news about the torrential rain that fell last week in Beijing and surrounding Hebei Province. The official media have reported that seventy-seven people died as a result of the storm, including a policeman killed while trying to rescue some people trapped in their car in a flooded underpass. But the Chinese blogosphere tells a different story: of hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths, and widespread damage and chaos. Apart from describing the flood itself, these reports suggest that, once again, Chinese officials were striving to downplay the scope of a disaster in order to avoid public dissatisfaction.

One post on Wangyi, for example, written by a person describing himself as an eyewitness, said that five entire villages in Hebei Province with a combined population of more than three thousand were entirely wiped out by mudslides and stones dislodged by the inundation. The post was accompanied by cellphone photographs of houses that had been crushed by stones the size of elephants. The accompanying commentary said: “According to the newspapers and television everybody is happy and secure in China. By the time you find out that’s not true, you’re dead.”

There has been nothing in the government-controlled press about these five villages, which raises the possibility that the web posting is incorrect. And to be sure, there’s no way at present of confirming whether the story is true or false—though in past disasters, a lot of information appearing only on the web has subsequently been verified. In any case, the post and the accompanying pictures certainly seemed true to a lot of people, which, for the Chinese government, may be more important: the avid reading of websites in the wake of Monday’s rains seemed confirmation that after living through decades of restricted information, many people are far readier to believe what they read online than what they see on Chinese Central Television. Reading the posts is a sort of pastime. The reports and comments, the cellphone photographs and videos, go up and, if they contain news or opinions that the government has decided to suppress, they are often blocked within minutes, so catching them before they disappear requires a sort of constant attention.

But stories read by some people on the web are also spread by word of mouth. At a lunch party the other day, some members of Beijing’s newly wealthy middle class were retelling a very grim story they had seen online, a story absent from official accounts. A man was trapped inside his Jeep, which was stuck in a flooded underpass at the intersection of Guangqu Road and the Third Ring Road, very near Shuangjing. He tried to call China’s emergency service on his cell phone but the number was busy. He called his wife, who was at their nearby home with their four-year-old son. She hurried to the rescue service, and they accompanied her to the intersection. But when the rescue workers saw that the water was already over the roof of the car, they refused to try to rescue her husband, using as an excuse that their supervisor wasn’t on the scene to authorize the action. The woman fell to her knees and begged the emergency service men, but they didn’t move. When hours later, the water subsided, the man was found with his skull partially crushed and bones broken in his hand, apparently from his desperate efforts to break through the jeep’s windshield. He was dead.

Again, it is impossible to know for certain whether this blogosphere account is true or not. People don’t know whether a story circulating on the web has been kept out of the official press because it didn’t happen or because the censors have been instructed to cover it up, but there does seem to be a tendency to assume the latter. Six decades of official censorship and control of information have produced a deep skepticism about the official versions of things, a credibility gap the government has to contend with. China is a country where there is no truth, though there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that if there is a truth on a subject deemed sensitive, whether about the feelings of Tibetans or the number of dead in a storm, it is to be found online, not in official accounts.

Certainly the prosperous and well-educated people sitting around that lunch table in Beijing—all typical middle-class urban Chinese with no impulses toward political activism—believed that the account about the man in the jeep was true. After the devastating Sichuan earthquake of a couple of years ago, Chinese television repeatedly showed a full-length propaganda movie depicting the heroic and selfless efforts of the People’s Liberation Army to rescue victims, however remote or dangerous the operations were, while it blocked news of demonstrations by parents furious that their children were crushed to death in shoddily built schools. Similarly, following the recent rains, it seemed likely that the Propaganda Department would suppress a story of a group of rescue workers using a bureaucratic excuse not to undertake a risky operation. The very absence of the story from the official media seemed to confirm to the lunch table guests that it did indeed occur.

Wangyi is smaller than the very big microblogging sites in China like Tencent and Sina Weibo—the latter with a reported 300 million registered users—but it is well established and well-known. Like newspapers and television stations these sites operate with government approval, but their electronic nature and their open comments sections make them much more freewheeling. They consist of long lists of topics and news items many of which lean toward the non-political sensational or unusual—like the nineteen-year-old boy who faked an ID from a prestigious university so he could get a reward from his father.

But their open comments sections allow for largely unrestricted participation by ordinary citizens, and here is where information and opinions otherwise banned from public discourse turn up. When it comes to a disaster like the recent rainstorms, the drift of the comments is strongly toward the view that the government is ineffectual, self-serving, and even contemptible. “The drainage system in all of China is garbage,” read one post. “Where I am, if it rains for an hour and a half, the drains are already overflowing. If it rains for a whole day, you can swim. Why?”

Another post asks what happens to all the money paid in taxes. “Tomorrow morning,” it concluded, “I want the government to explain.” Other comments had to do with an announcement by a state-owned bank that five days after the storm, it had made 400 million Chinese yuan (about US $70 million) in loans to disaster victims in Hebei, Shandong, and Shanxi Provinces. There were sixty-one comments on Wangyi, most of them complaining that rather than giving disaster relief the bank was making profitable loans. “Banks don’t do business to lose money,” read one post. Another: “Thankfully it’s school vacation; otherwise the government would be getting the children to raise money”—in other words, so the banks don’t have to do it.

Blog posts on sites like this are often short and sarcastic, and sometimes rather cryptic. “You, dead people, are you calm?” read another post, a parody of government bromides about social order. “Do you feel OK?” Yet another: “Do we have time to dig a drain right now?” Another: “It’s raining. Can we sleep tonight?”

Meanwhile, the question about the alleged obliteration of those five Hebei villages remains unanswered. Did it happen? Fifteen minutes after the eyewitness report appeared saying that it did, the report disappeared from the site.