Bo Xilai Murder Scandal a Game Changer for Chinese Social Media

Bo Xilai - H 2012
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Bo Xilai - H 2012

As state officials attempt to control the story, the local blogosphere has devised its own coded language to circumvent censorship.

In the West, it's risen as high as page one of The New York Times, but in China, the real-life murder mystery that has rocked the political establishment and brought down ex-senior official Bo Xilai and his family is the biggest scandal of a generation. From taxi cabs to corporate water coolers, the imbroglio is all the talk of every Chinese town and megacity. 

It is an almost impossibly rare occurrence in China that a controversy involving a high-level government leader has pushed past the censors and onto the front page of the country’s newspapers and web portals, but the Bo Xilai story is no ordinary scandal.

Last Tuesday, Chinese authorities seemed to admit that they had no choice but to face the events head-on, officially announcing that Bo – once a rising political star and the Party Secretary of Chongqing, China’s largest municipality with roughly 30 million people – had been removed from all positions of power. He was detained along with his wife Gu Kailai and the family’s housekeeper, Zhang Xiaojun, both of whom were being held separately on suspicion of murdering British businessman and former Bo family confidante Neil Heywood over a financial dispute – potentially involving illicit funds garnered via corruption.  

In a further State effort to “own the story,” two days later all newspapers and TV channels were forced by propaganda authorities to run an editorial emphasizing that China is a just nation and that any breach would “be handled according to the law, without indulgence.” That commitment was followed up Wednesday with another editorial promising a thorough investigation of the scandal.

Online, meanwhile, Chinese netizens have been engaged in a spirited game of cat and mouse with State censors, inventing a rich array of code words to gossip about the scandal and its many salacious details and rumors – a purported secret love affair gone wrong between Gu and Heywood, chief among them – despite the government’s best efforts to delete any mention of the events on the country’s wildly popular Twitter-like micro-blogs. For example, many micro-bloggers have been employing the word “tomato” to refer to Chongqing, because of the similarity of the pronunciation of one element of the city’s name to the color red. “Bo” also happens to mean “thin” in Chinese, so some micro-bloggers have also cannily taken to using the expression “the not thick king” to discuss the disgraced leader. Additional neologisms abound and are in a constant state of revision and invention.

As some in the Western press have noted, the government's frantic attempts AT suppression and censorship might just be fanning the flames.