Since its declaration of war on online rumors, the Chinese government has been fighting “Internet rumormongers” for almost a year. But the crackdown looks increasingly like an act of a rumormonger calling, “Stop, rumormonger!”
During the past weekend, the northwestern city of Lanzhou was hit with a drinking water crisis after excessive level of benzene, in fact, 16 times the national limit, were found in the city’s tap water.
Worse than the crisis is the fact that it’s entirely avoidable. Just a month ago, when local residents complained about a strong strange odor in tap water, Lanzhou government immediately called the reports “rumors”. And those who spread such “rumors” have reportedly been “dealt with.”
At the other end of China, in the eastern city of Hangzhou, local government announced plans of restricting car sales at the end of March, in an attempt to curb both snarling traffic and heavy smog. And guess what? Just a few weeks ago, local administration of motor vehicles denied the “online rumor” that the city will start restricting car sales.
Stories like these are exactly why many Chinese netizens hold that “a piece of information is never true until the government calls it a rumor.” It’s also why Beijing’s efforts to rein in social media and restore government credibility aren’t going to accomplish anything.
In response to last week’s “rumor-refuting” headline in Lanzhou that “multiple investigations show city tap water meets all safety tests,” one netizen 魚小楽 angrily commented: “Now we know who the biggest rumormonger is in China!”
“If a rumor that has been refuted is later proven true, then the one who refuted the rumor is the rumormonger.” Commented another netizen 作家崔成浩.
A more important question to ask, in this case, is who should be responsible for fighting “government rumors”? There has always been a hierarchy of rumors in China. On one hand, there are “people rumors (民谣)” by ordinary citizens which are subject to government crackdown. On the other, there are “government rumors (官谣)” by the country’s different levels of governments which are used to cover up information that has the potential to shack “social harmony.”
“Lanzhou government told lies in broad daylight, and yet they vowed to punish ‘people rumormongers’. What a joke!” Commented one netizen 诗人潘婷.
The news came in an especially sensitive time when controversial “people rumormonger” Qin Zhihui, better known by his online name, Qin Huohuo, pleaded guilty last Friday for fabricating and spreading rumors online.
According to his confession, he spread false information about Lei Feng, the country’s most famous Good Samaritan, accusing the once national role model of living a luxurious life. He also exploited the Guo meimei scandal and thus caused damage to the reputation of China Red Cross (however little reputation left to be damaged…).
But in the eyes of Chinese netizens, government rumors, such as the one happened in Lanzhou, are capable of dong far more harm than someone like Qin Zhihui could ever achieve.
Qin confessed that netizens should be manipulated to believe that they are the “victims of social injustice.” The irony is that nothing better confirms social injustice than the exposé of a “government rumor.”