Baidu, the largest Internet search engine in China by market share, recently appeared to lift a ban on searches for what are normally strictly censored terms, in this case the Chinese phrases “Justice for Jiang” and “Justice for Zhou Yongkang.”
The slogans are featured on banners held by practitioners of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual practice that Jiang Zemin, the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party, led a persecution against in 1999. He appointed a political protege, Zhou Yongkang, previously an oilman, to the public security offices to continue enforcing the campaign after Jiang’s eventual departure from politics.
Typically in China, everything related to Falun Gong, its persecution, and Falun Gong practitioners’ calls for justice on a former Party leader, are strictly blocked as highly sensitive and subversive political issues.
The reason that the searches were allowed recently—Internet users in China noticed it on Aug. 27—is not clear. Baidu was not accommodating to queries, with Kaiser Kuo, Baidu’s spokesperson to foreign organizations, saying “For the record, Baidu does not comment for the record to Epoch Times,” in response to a question via Twitter. Because Epoch Times has reported on events in China without regard for the Chinese regime’s attempts to control the narrative, the regime has been hostile to Epoch Times.
The timing of the apparent unblocking may be suggestive, given that rumors of Jiang Zemin being potentially caught up in a purge have circulated since July 29, when it was announced that Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief, was being officially investigated for corruption.
When searching for the two slogans on Aug. 27, users could find photographs of overseas Falun Gong practitioners meditating in protest against the persecution of their practice. Searches on Aug. 28 from North America did not return the same images.
Timely Lapses in Censorship
It is not clear whether the searches were temporarily allowed as a deliberate measure, a demonstration of a political point, or was somehow a mere accident. Such incidents have taken place in the past around politically sensitive events, and given the usual strictness of the Communist Party’s censorship regime, the timing of the apparent unblocking, and the political sensitivity of what is available to be searched, observers have come to a view that such measures may be deliberate acts of political messaging.
Searches for information on organ harvesting were allowed in March 2012, during a political crisis involving Wang Lijun, the former police chief of the southwestern city of Chongqing, and Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member.
In September last year, when Bo Xilai was put on trial, and in December, when Li Dongsheng, former deputy director of the Public Security Bureau, was sacked, Baidu also appeared to temporarily allow searches for material on Falun Gong. No official explanation from the company for these apparent lapses, or deliberate measures, has been forthcoming. Baidu, as the most used Internet search engine in China, is tightly connected with the Chinese regime’s Internet management policies, and was the direct beneficiary of the departure of Google from China.
The persecution of Falun Gong has been one of Jiang Zemin’s most sensitive and personal crusades, pursued to the detriment of other national priorities, and unsupported among top leadership at the time.
Tens of millions of Chinese have been targeted in the campaign, an unknown number detained in labor camps, brainwashing centers, and prisons. Minghui, a website run by Falun Gong practitioners which provides first hand reporting on the persecution in China, documents 3,700 deaths in the campaign, though estimates of the number of fatalities in the campaign run into at least the tens of thousands, due to state-organized organ harvesting. This was most recently documented in a book by journalist Ethan Gutmann, The Slaughter.
Given the violence of the campaign, and the importance that it not be stopped and he be held to account, Jiang installed key cronies upon his formal exit from Chinese politics in 2002, men who would continue his legacy of persecution and in doing so protect those responsible for the crimes committed from being held accountable.
These appointments include Zhou Yongkang, who was in charge of China’s security apparatus and law enforcement institutions, and who closely followed Jiang’s orders to carry out the persecution, using the court system, the state prosecutor, police and secret police, and intelligence agencies.
This is a political configuration that Xi Jinping, who took power in late 2012, has been slowly unwinding for the last more than 18 months.
The apparent unblocking on Baidu came along with other veiled references to Jiang in the state press recently. On Aug. 27, an article emphasizing that retired officials should not intervene in state affairs was published by the Party-run mouthpiece Global Times, and was then widely reproduced on other websites.
The report lists a number of retired high-ranking officials who are to be taken as models for not meddling in politics after their retirement. Jiang—notorious for his own meddling for years after retirement—was not on the list, and Chinese Internet users quickly drew attention to the matter.
Testimony about the salutary nature of staying out of politics was given by Tian Jiyun, a retired politburo member, who said: “Retired officials must not intervene with state affairs using various personal networks, nor pointing fingers at current leaders.”
Huanxicheng Dezhu, a user of Sina Weibo who comments on current politics, wrote: “Publishing such a report at this time has a purpose. It makes people immediately think of that big toad.”
Jiang Zemin has for years been referred to as a “toad” by Chinese netizens, partly because of his allegedly toad-like features, and also because all top communist leaders need nicknames that Internet users can use in order to evade censored keywords. Once the authorities catch on to the code words, however, they too can be deleted. (And Huanxicheng Dezhu’s remark was.)
On August 25, Wang Qishan, the Communist Party’s top anti-corruption official, seemed to give a subtle hint that other “tigers,” the standard term for a powerful corrupt official, may be targeted in the anti-corruption campaign.
When asked that question directly, Wang simply smiled and did not answer. When prodded, he said “You’ll understand by and by.” The response, in the context of the rumors about Jiang, caused further speculation on the Chinese Internet.