China’s Bo Xilai scandal revs up news media run by exiles
BEIJING — “Beijing power struggle heralds end of China Communist Party,” screams one headline.
More sensational headlines purport to reveal how the wife of recently sacked Politburo member Bo Xilai poisoned an Englishman, who may have been her lover.
And if that weren’t enough, other stories claim that “Bo planned airline crash” and “slept with more than 100 women.”
It’s payback time for Chinese exiles, especially those with a printing press, television station or just a computer at their disposal. From the newspaper and television network run by the banned Falun Gong to independent Chinese-language news sites in the United States, opposition media are having a field day covering sensitive topics that would be zapped by censors in China.
China is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, which has precipitated a political schism and a cascade of salacious scandals. But hardly a word of it appears in the mainland news media, forcing political junkies to look offshore for their fix, either watching with satellite dishes or surfing the Internet with virtual private networks to get around the government firewall.
The exile news sites, often stridently anti-communist, once had all the credibility of supermarket tabloids trumpeting tales of UFOs. But like some non-mainstream media in the United States — the National Enquirer broke the story of John Edwards’ affair, and the TMZ celebrity news site was first with reports ofMichael Jackson’s death — these operations have had their genuine scoops.
“We used to read these sites mainly for fun. Nobody took them seriously. But now some of these astonishing things have turned out to be true,” said Jin Zhong, editor of the respected Hong Kong-based Open Magazine.
While the Chinese media were silent, the offshore sites were reporting in early February that Wang Lijun, a top police official who was Bo’s henchman in the city of Chongqing, had been removed from his post and was under investigation. That proved to be the first domino in the unfolding scandal: Shortly afterward, Wang took refuge in the nearby U.S. Consulate, claiming that Bo was plotting to kill him.
The biggest scoop came when Boxun, a website operated from North Carolina by an electrical engineer turned journalist, broke the story five days before the Wall Street Journal that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was under investigation in the death of Neil Heywood, the British expatriate whose demise late last year had been attributed to a heart attack brought on by excess alcohol consumption.
Gu has since been detained.
The news media in Taiwan and Hong Kong also cover mainland politics closely, but not as voraciously as they once did. “They are not as anti-communist as they used to be,” Jin said.
Among the biggest beneficiaries of the scandal are the print and broadcast operations run out of New York by Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government, which deems it a cult. It runs the newspaper Epoch Times, which carries a daily litany of unflattering stories about the Chinese government in 19 languages as well as tales of persecution of Falun Gong members.
Talk shows on the group’s New Tang Dynasty Television explore the recent escape of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng and a rumor that Premier Wen Jiabao might resign during the turmoil.
“CNN made its name in the Gulf War. Al Jazeera in the ‘Arab Spring.’ The political changes in China this year will make us a top media player,” Samuel Zhou, a vice president of New Tang Dynasty, said this month in a conference room at the network’s New York headquarters. Viewership has increased at least fivefold in recent months, with at least 500,000 watching on the mainland, Zhou said.
Revenge is particularly sweet in the current political shake-up because Bo was a key figure in the persecution of Falun Gong members in China. The Falun Gong’s key nemesis, public security chief Zhou Yongkang, is also believed to be in political jeopardy as a result of his support for Bo. And almost every day an Epoch Times headline gloats about his decline. “Power taken from Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang,” read one last weekend.
More objective, though not always more accurate, is Boxun. Founder Watson Meng was a tech-savvy Chinese student in the U.S. in the early 1990s when he started compiling articles about China published abroad for his friends back home to read. In 2000, he turned his hobby into a proper business, establishing Boxun in Durham, N.C., where he had settled after attending Duke University’s business school.
“I don’t ally myself with any party or religion. Boxun carries voices from all groups,” the 47-year-old Meng said by telephone.
Although Meng doesn’t consider himself a dissident, his Boxun was the main site last year carrying anonymous calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China in sympathy with the Arab Spring revolts. The site has often been hit by cyber attacks originating in China, and Chinese contributors have gotten prison terms for posting articles on the site.
Boxun often re-posts articles that have appeared on Chinese microblog sites such as Sina Weibo and takes anonymous contributions without verifying the content. Many of its “exclusives” are questionable, such as the accusation that Bo plotted a 2002 plane crash and reports in March that Zhou and Bo had attempted a coup.
Meng acknowledges that the site doesn’t live up to professional journalistic standards: “Boxun has many things it needs to improve. We’d like to become more professional.”
Another site, Mingjing News, based in New York, is run by a professional journalist, Ho Pin, who worked for a Chinese government-run paper and left in disgust after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. He is nevertheless considered somewhat closer to the Chinese government; another news site he’d started earlier, Duowei, was sold to pro-Chinese government investors.
“We do not simply expose and criticize the Communist Party, but we try to provide points of views and opinions different from the official or mainstream media,” Ho said in an email.
The exile news sites have gotten so many scoops this year that some suspect that high-ranking officials in Beijing are leaking tidbits to smear Bo and his allies.
Even more staid journalists inside China acknowledge that the exile media are now essential reading, if often taken with a grain of salt.
Wu Si, the editor of a prominent Beijing magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu, said his staff compiles a summary for each morning’s news meeting of what is on the outside news sites.
“We judge it by whether it fits the patterns of the Communist Party,” Wu said, “and whether it is plausible.”
Since the investigation of the Englishman’s death became public, Boxun, in particular, has become a darling of the British tabloids, which have re-reported the scandals with the same gusto with which they reveal the foibles of the royal family.
“Killed by cyanide over China love affair,” announced the Daily Mirror, attributing its story on the Heywood case to “respected Mandarin-language websites.”
Demick also reported from New York.