Why you shouldn't believe everything you read about China. Hint: not even the journalists really know what’s going on.


When I reported in China from 2005 to 2011 it was remarkable how little the foreign correspondent community — myself included — really knew about what was going on in the top ranks of the Communist Party.

Ministers and agency heads occasionally talk to the foreign press; senior leaders almost never do. Of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the governing body that runs China, only Premier Wen Jiabao answers questions with any regularity at press conferences (he holds one every year); he’s also pretty much the only figure who has given interviews with foreign media. But when the Financial Times spoke with him in London in 2009, there were 15 other ministers and senior officials in the room, sitting in rows of chairs facing Wen. It was never clear if they were there to support or to monitor him.

Politics was a black box, walled off from the rest of the country in its own private courtyard. In its place are courtly rituals, such as the jaw-dropping National Day parades held every decade and the Party Congress planned for this autumn in the Great Hall of the People. That’s when the hitherto unknown members of the next Standing Committee will make their debut in their new positions. Chinese people, foreign journalists — and, correspondingly, the rest of the world — will on that day learn the identity of China’s new leaders and how they rank by the order in which they file on stage. But not until then.

That, anyway, was how things were supposed to work. Over the last three months, that carefully crafted script has seemingly been torn to shreds. The messy downfall of former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, once widely tipped for a place in the new magic circle, has thrust Chinese politics onto front pages across the world. The surprising thing about the Bo case is not that he was ousted — his shameless self-promotion and ruthless tactics always made him a strong candidate for a back-room putsch — but the sheer torrent of information that has come out about Bo and his family. It is as if modern China, protected by its Great Firewall and army of censors, has in one swoop entered the 24/7 news era, with its mixture of well-informed exclusives and shameless rumor-mongering.

To recap for anyone who has missed the story — and how could you? — it all began to fall apart in February when Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s police chief and one of Bo’s right-hand men, suddenly appeared in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, 300 miles away, seeking refuge. By some accounts, he asked for asylum, by others he wanted a place to hide while central government security officials from Beijing arrived, so that he would not be turned over to Bo’s police. Whatever the plan, he started to talk, leading to Bo’s ouster.

Since then, international readers have been treated to a tour de force of foreign correspondence, shining more light on the realities of power in China in a few weeks than over the last few years. First came the Bo family connection to the suspicious death of Neil Heywood, an English businessman who had a soft spot for linen suits and who helped win Bo’s son Guagua a place at Harrow, one of Britain’s most exclusive boarding schools. Beijing has now confirmed that Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, is under investigation over Heywood’s murder. Businessmen have since come forward with tales of being extorted by Bo’s cronies in Chongqing and, in some cases, tortured. Bo was even somehow able to bug the phones of other senior leaders, according to one article.

Within weeks of his dismissal, the foreign media had also revealed that the extended family of Bo, who built his reputation as a crusader against corruption and had an official salary of around $1,500 a month, had amassed a fortune that Bloomberg put at $136 million. There were directorships on important state-owned companies, dubious share awards, and sweetheart business ventures with the state, such as providing fire extinguishers to government buildings. Western news was filled with tales of torture, murder, and corruption — the charge sheet of a gangster boss rather than a politician.

But as the scandal moves from the immediate circumstances to the broader political fallout, the Bo case could become harder to report. Political stories in China can be like quicksand. White House reporters might not get to talk too often to the president, but they can speak to people who were in the room with him when he makes a decision. In China, foreign reporters have to rely on more removed sources: advisors, Chinese journalists, foreigners who have recently met senior leaders, and lower-level bureaucrats. All sources have an agenda, but the more tenuous their link to power, the harder it can be to decode their bias — or assess their credibility. Even with reporting on Bo’s fall, stories about his phone-tapping antics and links to the death of Heywood depended heavily on anonymous sources. Trying to gauge the political machinations of a group of a few dozen standing committee members, kingmakers, and PLA generals is at best an imperfect task when much of the information is coming third-hand.

At the same time, having been initially stumped by the uncertainty over Bo’s fate, the propaganda authorities now seem to be stepping up their efforts to try and mold the narrative — even if sometimes in a pretty clumsy manner. Time‘s Hannah Beech says that three separate sources in the space of one day repeated the same talking points, describing Bo to her as being like Adolf Hitler. Two others told her his behavior was reminiscent of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Even for hack propaganda officials, the leap from Hitler to Lewinsky is quite a stretch.

But for the Beijing press corps, which finally has an eager audience, the biggest temptation is to turn the Bo saga into a broader political morality play between the hardliners who have stifled political reform since the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the liberal reformers, if there indeed are any. If Bo, who had become something of a hero to Chinese leftists, is the villain of the play with his trampling of the rule of law, then Wen has been auditioning for the role of hero. Shortly before Bo’s ouster, he warned about the danger of a "new Cultural Revolution" and has since talked about "smashing" vested interests in the party.

But that’s only one side of the story. The reporters in China trying to sift through the hints and rumors about political reform face the peril of access — the tricky reality that Chinese liberals and human rights activists tend to view foreign journalists as sympathetic to their views and are more likely to return their calls. The security types, propaganda officials, hard-line generals, and other conservative heavyweights do not. I would be quite surprised, for instance, if any foreign reporter had ever met Zhou Yongkang since he became China’s security chief five years ago — our occasional requests for an interview were usually greeted with a nervous laugh. But in that time, he has often been the power-behind-the-throne, the person responsible the waves of crackdowns on dissidents and lawyers. He was the Chinese official on the stage in Pyongyang on the day in 2010 when Kim Jong-il presented his son as his successor. Chinese officials would occasionally drop his name (but nothing more) into conversation with a raised eyebrow, as if that is all they need to say to explain how a situation would develop.  

So what actually is happening in China, and how should you read the news about Beijing’s political instability?  

China is clearly ripe for a new wave of long-delayed political and economic reform that would include opening the financial system, greater independence for the legal system, and more experiments in democracy. And it is entirely possible that the upheaval over Bo, who was a hero to China’s radical leftists, could help open the way to a new reform push.  

But a backlash from these leftists might already be underway. The dramatic events surrounding the escape of blind activist Chen Guangcheng might have provided one opening. U.S. officials helping Chen get into the embassy in Beijing after he had fled from house arrest could have allowed the security forces to complain about foreign interference in the country. Many of Chen’s friends have been caught up in a new crackdown and scores of foreign journalists who went to the hospital where he is convalescing have been threatened with having their visas revoked. In the debates now roiling the Communist Party, we are only getting the views of one of the factions. The Bo scandal has provided a rare peek into the lives of China’s leaders, but it has not yet revealed how the Party really views the big political questions that lie ahead of it.

<p> Geoff Dyer writes about U.S. foreign policy for the Financial Times in Washington. He was formerly the FT's Beijing bureau chief and is writing a book on China's new global ambitions. </p>