Distrust of the official media is growing in China, with netizens leading the way. Consider the questions raised on the Internet about the following stories in just the past month.
After the Beijing floods, the municipal government raised the death toll from 37 to 77. But people in Beijing who saw the flood’s devastation are still wondering how many people really died.
Liu Xiang, a national hero and gold medal favorite, crashed into the first hurdle in the 110-meter preliminaries at the London Olympics. What was behind that incident?
The police released a photo and claimed that they had shot and killed Zhou Kehua, China’s most wanted serial-killer suspect. The photo triggered questions from online bloggers: Was Zhou killed by the police or by himself? Or was he not killed at all?
And suspicions abound over the hasty murder trial of Gu Kailai, wife of Chongqing’s ousted Communist Party chief Bo Xilai.
Whether or not the people’s questions get answered, one thing is certain: The regime is losing the people’s trust.
The Chinese communists have a track record of deception and lies on major events such as the 1937–1945 Japanese War, the 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and the 2003 SARS epidemic.
Now people are becoming skeptical of the everyday reporting by the regime’s mouthpieces.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, China Central Television once broadcast a training exercise by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force that a Chinese Internet user debunked: The explosion in the training video matched a blast from the final scene in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun.
Today the Chinese people are able to use the Internet to click their way to the truth. It is not so easy to fool them anymore.
In July, when the Beijing municipal government called on residents for donations to help flood victims, citizens not only rejected the offer, but hurled accusations at the authorities, out of anger at the widespread corruption.
Within two hours of the donation account being opened, it received over 70,000 replies. One of the most common messages was “donate your sister” (an action word plus “your sister” is a Chinese way of cursing).
Earlier in 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, rumors were spreading that China would be hit by a radioactive cloud from the Fukushima nuclear accident. Consuming enough iodized salt was said to protect against radiation.
Although the government tried all means to clarify and quash the rumors, cities on the East coast, such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou, continued to see long lines of panicked people buying and hoarding iodized salt from grocery stores.
In a democratic society, a government without support from the people is bound to be voted out. In a China lacking democratic mechanisms, distrust by the people could have an even more profound political consequence.
In June 2008, a teenage girl was found dead when her body was discovered in a local river of Weng’an County, Guizhou Province. Local authorities declared the girl had killed herself by jumping in the river, but family members and residents believed the girl had been raped and murdered by the relative of a senior government official.
The distrust and anger fueled by the arbitrary manner of the local officials led to 10,000 angry people protesting and torching the county’s government office building and police cars. The clash between the police and the locals shocked the central authorities in Beijing, who later fired the head of the county, chair of the local Party committee, and the police chief.
The Weng’an riot was just one manifestation of the growing distrust by the people and the subsequent growing social unrest. Beleaguered Chinese communist officials may have to reckon with the truth of a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
Li Ding, Ph.D. is a senior researcher with Chinascope, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that analyzes Chinese-language media.
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