Coup Chatter Wakes The Great Firewall

Foreign Policy’s Passport blog surveys the wealth of rumors that have emerged about a coup in Beijing orchestrated by allies of the recently-deposed Bo Xilai:

Western media has extensively covered the political turmoil: Bloomberg reported on how coup rumors helped spark a jump in credit-default swaps for Chinese government bonds; the Wall Street Journal opinion page called Chinese leadership transitions an “invitation, sooner or later, for tanks in the streets.” The Financial Times saw the removal of Bo, combined with Premier Wen Jiabao’s strident remarks at a press conference hours before Bo’s removal as a sign the party was moving to liberalize its stance on the Tiananmen square protests of 1989. That Bo staged a coup is extremely unlikely, but until more information comes to light, we can only speculate on what happened.

Mainland media sites have begun to strongly censor discussion of Bo Xilai and entirely unsubstantiated rumors of gunfire in downtown Beijing (an extremely rare occurance in Beijing). Chinese websites hosted overseas, free from censorship, offer a host of unsupported, un-provable commentary on what might have happened in the halls of power. Bannedbook.org, which provides free downloads of “illegal” Chinese books, posted a long explanation of tremors in the palace of Zhongnanhai, sourced to a “person with access to high level information in Beijing,” of a power struggle between President Hu Jintao, who controls the military, and Zhou, who controls China’s formidable domestic security apparatus. The Epoch Times, a news site affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement (which banned in China), has published extensively in English and Chinese about the coup.

As noted by Foreign Policy and others, coup chatter has centered on a potential standoff between President Hu Jintao, and Premier Wen Jiabao on one side, and domestic security head and Bo supporter Zhou Yongkang on the other. But whether or not the rumors have validity, The Wall Street Journal reports that the Great Firewall of China has noticed:

For several days after his ouster, censors took a hands-off approach to online gossip, letting speculation flow freely. That changed this week as popular microblogging site Sina Weibo reinstated an earlier block on searches for Mr. Bo’s name and additionally blocked a wide range of user-invented code words for Mr. Bo, including the term “not thick”—a play on Mr. Bo’s surname, which means “thin.”

Searches for Mr. Bo’s name, “not thick” and other related terms were also blocked on Tencent Weibo, another of China’s popular microblogging sites, which often impose their own blocks in anticipation of what the government will deem sensitive.

“I don’t recall ever seeing anything like this on the Chinese Internet,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a website that tracks Chinese media, of the recent proliferation of political gossip. The presence of so much rumor online is one likely explanation for the stepped-up censorship, he said.

“Things are getting a little too out of control, so they’ve decided to rein it in,” Mr. Goldkorn said, adding that it was difficult to say whether the decision to block searches came from government authorities or the websites’ own in-house censors.