The carrot, the Teletubby and the wood-son have won the war along with the study machine. This sentence might appear to make little sense, but it has been pinging around the mysterious corridors of Chinese cyberspace in recent days.
China's online community of more than 300 million microbloggers has a reputation for being a vibrant contrast to carefully-controlled State media. In recent weeks, in the midst of a rare scandal that has seen the sacking of one of the country's most famous politicians, it has only bolstered that image, coming up with code-words and puns to debate sensitive political issues and find cracks through the firewalls erected by State censors.
The sacking of fast-rising Politburo member and Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai last week prompted a never-before-seen storm of discussion online, generating more than 200,000 comments within just 24 hours of the sparsely-worded statement declaring that he was being replaced.
In recent days, censors decided to stem the tide, banning searches for Mr. Bo and other leaders on the popular Sina Weibo microblog, a Twitter equivalent that boasts three hundred million users. And, in the absence of official comment, rumours and speculation — most unfounded — proliferated.
Thousands of posts by Internet users discussed political infighting at the highest levels of the party, with online speculation about an attempted coup and bloggers claiming that gunshots were even heard in central Beijing.
The coup rumours, seen to be originating from a U.S.-based website related to the banned Falun Gong, were even picked up by some foreign media outlets. They were, however, rubbished when the leader named, the security chief Zhou Yongkang, appeared with the rest of the leadership on Friday evening in meetings with Indonesian officials. The Chinese capital too remained calm, with the only visible security deployed at a football match.
Yet in the absence of any clear information about Mr. Bo's fate, other rumours about political infighting soon filled microblogs over the weekend.
With censors blocking searches for the names of leaders involved, bloggers took to clever codes. Read one widely-forwarded message referring to the coming 18th Party Congress that will see a once-in-decade transition: “The 18th tug of war has a winner. The winner is the team of dragons, led by carrot and his team mates Teletubby, Subor study machine and wood son Li.”
As the website Offbeat China decoded, carrot (hu luo bo) referred to President Hu Jintao, while the reference to the Teletubby (tian xian baobao) cartoon was to Premier Wen Jiabao. The Subor study machine (xiao bawang xue xi ji), a popular brand, was a substitute for Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping, while wood-son Li was Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
“Master Kong is no longer instant noodles,” read another widely-circulated message, referring to a famous instant noodle brand that sounds like the name of security chief Mr. Zhou, seen by some to be close to Mr. Bo. By Saturday, “master kong” was the seventh most searched term on weibo, with 45,550 references.
Chinese media analysts pointed out that the fact that unfounded rumours gained so much traction only underscored the growing thirst for information among the Chinese middle-class and the online community even as the system remains rooted to a culture of secrecy.
“It's simple enough, sure, to suggest that the more extreme plot lines are pure fabrication. But even if they are, the abiding sense of uncertainly and insecurity about what is happening at the top nonetheless exposes the volatility of Chinese politics,” pointed out David Bandurski of the Hong Kong University-based China Media Project (CMP).
The removal of Mr. Bo, which has been seen as reflecting political tension ahead of the transition, has prompted calls for openness from both his critics and supporters. The failure to be more transparent, warned several scholars, would only lead to the proliferation of more rumours.
“Hegel once said that wisdom was like an owl, and that it took flight only at dusk,” wrote scholar Wu Jiaxiang, in a post reported by the CMP. “But his was a nation of philosophy. Here in our country, we have no owls, only bats. Those bats are rumours, and they take flight after midnight from the microblogs that are their caves.” That message, too, was deleted.