This week a verdict was reached in what is arguably the Chinese government’s most dramatic, and damaging, court case in decades. But the average Chinese citizen has no idea.
Not since the “Gang of Four” was put on trial in November of 1980 for attempting to overthrow the government has there been a similar case of national interest, or what should be of national interest. Where the trial of the Gang of Four was about wrongs righted, this case carries the potential to shed light on corruption at the very highest levels of the current Chinese leadership.
And yet the “suspended death sentence” the Hefei Intermediate Court handed Gu Kailai, the wife of ousted Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, fell flat here in China. For all the racing heart rates of the Western press, for all the twittering on China’s microblogs, and for all the scholarly discussion taking place around the world, the average Chinese citizen did not know the trial was taking place.
That’s a shame for two reasons.
First, the story has all the intrigue of a spy thriller. The Oliver North Iran-Contra case looks positively straightforward by comparison. After all, Gu was one half of one of China’s most powerful couples. In six months, the woman once called the “Jackie Kennedy” of China now finds herself a convicted killer. She was found guilty of the premeditated murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. According to the prosecution, the two had a falling out over a financial dispute. Heywood has been described as a close family friend and business partner of the couple. Speculation has repeatedly returned to the possibility that Heywood was helping them move hundreds of millions of dollars out of the country and getting too greedy, in their mind, about his fee. Gu, the prosecution argued, killed Heywood because she believed he threatened the safety of her son, Bo Guagua. Bo Xilai was taken into custody earlier this spring and has not been seen or heard from since.
The Chinese people have missed all of this. But second, and far more important: without widespread knowledge within the populace, the chances—as the government well knows—for outrage to organize into mass protest are slim to none. The more successful the government is in micro-managing the story, the tighter the window shuts on freedom of expression.
When it comes right down to it, the Chinese government has won the first round on this story. It would be remiss not to single out Jeremy Page of the Wall Street Journal for not only breaking the news of Neil Heywood’s murder but also dominating coverage. The Wall Street Journal publishes in Chinese (much to the chagrin of the Foreign Ministry). Others have also done astonishingly well with so little information.
But what reallymatters is how much information the average Chinese citizen has access to. This story provides a stark example of how desperate the state of press freedom is in this country.
At the time the verdict was announced in Hefei, at precisely 10 a.m., the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV English ran a long piece about the global crisis of counterfeit cigars. Later in the afternoon, CCTV’s main Chinese channel ran a brief account summarizing the prosecution’s argument and court’s findings, without commentary. Across the board, Chinese mainstream print media placed only brief mentions of the story the following day on pages three or four. Only the Beijing Times carried a court sketch of Gu. Essentially, as far as the average Chinese citizen knows, it was an open and shut case.
Neither does the average Chinese citizen realize that the fate of Bo Xilai remains very much up in the air. I will go out on a very low and sturdy limb and guess that anyone who was not in attendance at Beidaihe, the secretive summer retreat attended by China’s top leaders, has no idea what exactly will happen to Bo. If he is dealt with internally, we may never know. If, on the other hand, he is tried in a criminal court, we may learn a little. But, given that the Gu trial reinforced just how much of a sham the Chinese judicial system is, the sum value could be naught.
How does the government keep things so quiet? As with any public incident the government wishes would go away, the state censorship program kicks into overdrive. By now it’s almost a parlor game to guess which words the government will censor first. “Bo,” “murder,” “Gu,” “poison,” “Chongqing,” and “Heywood” are just a few search terms frequently banned from use these days.
Paradoxically, and worryingly, a recent Harvard study by the Institute for Quantitative Social Science found that, contrary to popular belief, negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state is not more likely to be censored that anything else. Instead, the study found that the government censorship program is aimed at “curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.”
Of course, if the government doesn’t want its citizens protesting over corruption, it will block the search term “Heywood.” But take a moment to consider what else the Harvard study found. It concludes that the vast censorship program run by the Chinese government consists of hundreds of local sites. Each site employs up to a thousand censors, plus an estimated twenty to fifty thousand Internet police. Add to that automated programs sifting and sorting and silencing on a minute-by-minute basis, and one’s shoulders tend to slump. Finally, the study found that when it comes to social movement the posts are sorted into categories that are then read by hand. An automated censor program can delete, but only a human censor can silence a conversation in infancy.
With a censorship program in overdrive on the Gu Kailai–Bo Xilai scandal, how can a Chinese citizen expect to learn anything? Patrick Chovanec, a business professor at Beijing’s respected Tsinghua University, tweeted the day the Gu verdict was read, “I suspect the official message will now be ‘Bo Scandal is over, move along’ (w/ Bo’s real sins dealt with behind closed doors).”
The only problem with that theory is that it assumes Chinese citizens have already stopped to think about, discuss, or comment on the scandal. Those that did may now be directed to move along, but the vast majority of people here never even paused. Which is just as the government wants it.