Chinese citizens don't think their government should have a monopoly on rumors.
- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is senior editor of Tea Leaf Nation. David joins FP after having co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a news site dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media, which was acquired by the FP Group in Sept. 2013. A former lawyer in New York and Hong Kong, David first encountered China as a Peace Corps volunteer. He has appeared on BBC television, Al Jazeera English, Public Radio International, Voice of America, and other outlets as a commentator on China. Originally from the Philadelphia area, David holds a law degree from Harvard and an English degree from Yale, where he was executive editor of the Yale Herald.
"Official rumors" is more than just an oxymoron. The phrase — pronounced guanyao — has become a useful weapon in Chinese Internet users’ linguistic guerrilla warfare against government censorship. That battle has intensified during a government-led crackdown on "online rumor-mongering," which has sought to rein in China’s rambunctious social media, partly through the arrest or detention of several high-profile online opinion leaders. Making things worse for China’s Internet users is a new judicial interpretation, issued on Sept. 9 by China’s highest legal authorities, stating that posting defamatory messages read more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times can lead to up to three years in jail.
In the face of these assaults on their right to speak out, grassroots Chinese are trying to turn the mirror back on officialdom by calling out instances where officials or state-owned media made statements that turned out to be false. The result is two types of "rumors" in Chinese argot: minyao, or rumors spread by Chinese citizens which may or may not be true, and guanyao, official rumors, which are falsehoods uttered by Chinese authorities.
According to Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, mentions of guanyao — a pun for state-owned kilns (guan) that churned out the finest porcelain (yao) for emperors in China’s dynastic days — date back at least to mid-2010. But searches and media mentions for guanyao spiked in early Sept. 2013, as the government’s crackdown on online speech heated up. Since then, the term has rapidly entered the Chinese lexicon as netizens try to turn the proverbial tables, complaining that citizen lies and official lies are held to two different standards. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, alone, the term has received over 600,000 recent mentions.
Although guanyao can refer to any untruths by government authorities, the typical manifestation occurs at a particular point in the life cycle of a P.R. crisis, when officials or official media react to accusations of wrong-doing with denials or counter-accusations. On Oct. 18, the liberal-leaning Beijing News published a graphic detailing six archetypes of official rumors: "practicing deception," "admitting [the truth] after higher government authorities intervene," "covering up," "not admitting a mistake before seeing the [incriminating] video," "self-deception," and "biting back."
Examples abound. The Beijing News cited the downfall of Liu Tienan, the former chief of the Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA), the entity that governs China’s energy infrastructure, as an example of "biting back." In December 2012, journalist Luo Changping took to Sina Weibo to accuse Liu of taking bribes; Liu was removed from his post and put under investigation in May, but not before the NEA’s press office insisted Luo’s claims of corruption were "pure slander and rumor."
For a classic "cover-up," Beijing News recapped the downfall of Tian Hongzhi, propaganda bureau chief for the medium-sized city of Xiangcheng in Henan province. One May evening, a nightclub in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou had the bad judgment to greet the official with a bawdy neon sign, reading in part, "A Warm Welcome to Xiangcheng Bureau Chief Tian." By late May, a photograph of the sign had spread rapidly on Chinese social media. Tian was removed from his post and punished by month’s end, but not before a spokesperson for the city government claimed that none of the six bureau chiefs surnamed Tian had been out of town on business that evening, so the incriminating photographs were "maybe a prank, or maybe the nightclub’s effort to stir up hype." As the popular official newspaper China Youth Daily opined, Tian’s punishment "should be praised, but in the process, someone lied to the public, and that person was not punished. This should not happen."
The rise of guanyao as a counterpoint to minyao does not mean that the two are equivalent. There’s no denying that good old-fashioned grassroots rumors — minyao — are legion on the Chinese Web, as they are in any other countries. Officials and ordinary citizens may be equally prone to bend or break the truth, but when officials do so, they have the power of the state behind them. As an Oct. 20 article in the local paper Chongqing Times explains, "Perhaps officials have authority. But authority does not represent the truth, and at least sometimes, officials use their authority to hide the truth." That hypocrisy sets the wrong tone for the government’s anti-rumor campaign — one accompanied by official statements about the need to guide public opinion to be more "constructive." Weibo user Yan Zuyou, a Shanghai writer, put it most succinctly: "To punish citizen rumors, you first must punish official rumors."