(AP/Muhammed Muheisen)
(AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

Chinese censors target tomatoes amid Bo Xilai scandal

Chongqing hotpot = King of the Southwest = King Who Pacifies the West = Minister of Yu = Tomato

What do these words have in common? They are all coded references to Bo Xilai, the disgraced former Communist Party leader in southwestern Chongqing, and they were all censored in China on Tuesday, according to the Berkeley-based China Digital Times website. Bo was removed from his post in March, and state media reported Wednesday he had been suspended from the governing Politburo and Party Central Committee. Propaganda officials censored speculation about Bo’s downfall and its implications for political stability, so Internet users adopted terms like the ones above to avoid triggering keyword filters. Now these, too, have been blacklisted, according to China Digital Times. Will this senseless battle to hide information ever end?

Over the past few weeks CPJ has made the case that censoring this story implies there is something to conceal. There is no better way to start rumors of the kind that Communist Party leaders say they are trying to stamp out. What’s more, it’s a losing battle.

First, audiences pay money in movie theaters and bookstores for this kind of compelling political drama. The latest revelation: Bo Xilai’s wife and housekeeper have been detained on suspicion of murder after police re-opened an investigation into the death of British citizen and one-time Bo friend Neil Heywood in Chongqing last year. At the time, Heywood was reported to have died as a result of a drinking binge, international news reports said. On reading news like that, from no less a source than state news agency Xinhua, who wouldn’t go looking for more details? Yet the wife’s name, Gu Kailai, and the word “housekeeper” are blocked from searches on the Sina corporation’s microblog platform Weibo, China Digital Times reports. That’s not a war on misinformation. It’s a war on human nature.

Second, if a word like “tomato” can be so quickly substituted for “Bo Xilai,” there may be no way to stop the conversation. (Another favorite is “carrot” for President Hu Jintao, according to the Offbeat China blog.)  If those terms are blocked, there are thousands more to choose from. Meanwhile, discussions about actual vegetables are stymied.

Propaganda officials may think this is a small price to pay for control. But CPJ research has found that Chinese citizens are willing to push back when censors interfere with non-political online life. This is turning into one of those cases: Even the name of the city “Chongqing” yielded no results on Weibo following Tuesday searches. Can you imagine Twitter obeying government orders to block mention of, say, Phoenix, because of a political storm in Arizona? The storm wouldn’t go away, and you’d have angered everyone from Sunbelt vacationers to fans of the NBA Suns in the process. It makes no sense politically and economically, not to mention ethically.

The Bo Xilai story is a good one in itself, but the way it is circulating online makes it doubly compelling. Responsibility for that lies with the information authorities–their control of the story has become a major part of the story. That’s always been the case for observers outside China. Now it’s true for any Weibo user with a passing interest in Chongqing.

Whatever Bo’s fate, the alleged misconduct of a top leader is a public interest issue, and input from journalists and online commentators would ultimately benefit the government. Instead, censors have succeeded only in convincing everyone that some sort of cover-up is under way. It’s fascinating to watch, but it’s not a successful information strategy. The propaganda department can reassess who its enemies are. Or, it can waste a lot more resources going after gossip posing as produce.