- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
Last week, controversial politician Bo Xilai, whose relatively open campaigning for a seat on China’s top ruling council shocked China watchers (and possibly his elite peers, as well), was removed from his post as Chongqing’s party secretary. He hasn’t been seen since. Rumors of a coup, possibly coordinated by Bo’s apparent ally Zhou Yongkang, are in the air.
Western media has extensively covered the political turmoil: Bloomberg reported on how coup rumors helped spark a jump in credit-default swaps for Chinese government bonds; the Wall Street Journal opinion page called Chinese leadership transitions an "invitation, sooner or later, for tanks in the streets." The Financial Times saw the removal of Bo, combined with Premier Wen Jiabao’s strident remarks at a press conference hours before Bo’s removal as a sign the party was moving to liberalize its stance on the Tiananmen square protests of 1989. That Bo staged a coup is extremely unlikely, but until more information comes to light, we can only speculate on what happened.
Reading official Chinese media response about Bo makes it easy to forget how much Chinese care about politics. The one sentence mention in Xinhua, China’s official news agency, merely says that Bo is gone and another official, Zhang Dejiang, is replacing him. But the Chinese-language Internet is aflame with debate over what happened to Bo and what it means for Chinese political stability.
Mainland media sites have begun to strongly censor discussion of Bo Xilai and entirely unsubstantiated rumors of gunfire in downtown Beijing (an extremely rare occurance in Beijing). Chinese websites hosted overseas, free from censorship, offer a host of unsupported, un-provable commentary on what might have happened in the halls of power. Bannedbook.org, which provides free downloads of "illegal" Chinese books, posted a long explanation of tremors in the palace of Zhongnanhai, sourced to a "person with access to high level information in Beijing," of a power struggle between President Hu Jintao, who controls the military, and Zhou, who controls China’s formidable domestic security apparatus. The Epoch Times, a news site affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement (which banned in China), has published extensively in English and Chinese about the coup.
Speculation is rife: A Canadian Chinese news portal quoted Deutsche Welle quoting the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily quoting a netizen that a group of citizens unfurled a banner in a main square in Chongqing that said "Party Secretary Bo, We Love and Esteem You," and were subsequently taken away by plain-clothes security forces. A controversial Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, a 73rd generation descendant of Confucius, said on his television show that removing Bo Xilai is similar to "a counter-revolutionary coup;" one news site reported his show has since been suspended.
The Wall Street Journal reports that searching for Bo Xilai’s name on Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, lacks the standard censorship boilerplate ("according to relevant rules and regulations, a portion of the search results cannot be revealed") that accompanies searching for top leaders like Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao. A recent search for other Politburo members like Bo rival Wang Yang and People’s Liberation Army top general Xu Caihou were similarly uncensored. Conversely, searching for Bo’s name on Sina’s popular Weibo micro-blogging service now doesn’t return any relevant results. A censored fatal Ferrari crash on Sunday night has raised suspicions of elite foul play, possibly realted to Bo. The bannedbook.org reports that Hu and Zhou "are currently fighting for control of China Central Television, Xinhua News (the official Communist Party wire service), and other ‘mouthpieces,’" which have been eerily but unsurprisingly taciturn about Bo Xilai.
What we do know, as one message that bounced around Sina Weibo said, is that "something big happened in Beijing."