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China enters internet 'battlefield' over Bo

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
April 21, 2012 -- Updated 0733 GMT (1533 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many questions remain regarding alleged crimes of China's Bo Xilai
  • Politician has now vanished, along with his wife, amid a murder probe
  • Similar official silence in 1971 after the disappearance of General Lin Biao
  • Experts say China seeks to occupy internet "battlefield" of Bo rumors, speculation

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- China is now gripped by one of the most sensational political scandals in decades.

At the center of the maelstrom: Bo Xilai, 62, China's brash and controversial politician.

A popular "princeling" with impressive revolutionary pedigree, Bo was expected to move up in the Communist Party leadership.

Instead, the former party chief of the southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing has been removed from the party's top ranks.

He has now vanished from the scene, under investigation of unspecified "serious breaches of (communist) party discipline."

Also vanished is his wife Gu Kailai, now detained in connection with the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood, a long-time friend of the Bo family.

Inside hotel of murder mystery in China

In a terse news bulletin issued several days ago, the official media said Heywood and Bo's wife had "economic conflicts."

What does Bo scandal mean for China?

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What kind of conflicts — and why they could have led to Heywood's death — remain unclear.

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Rumors and speculation abounds.

Media reports say that Gu and Heywood had quarreled. Reuters reported the two argued over how much of a share he would get as they allegedly planned to move a huge amount of the Bo family's money out of China.

There were many other rumors, mostly unsubstantiated, and there have been more questions than answers.

So far, one month after Bo's downfall, the government has yet to provide a definitive explanation.

It is not the first time this has happened in China.

In August 1971, when I first arrived in Beijing, our Chinese hosts could not stop talking about the greatness of Chairman Mao and the brilliance of General Lin Biao, his presumptive successor.

One month later, however, China's No. 2 leader vanished.

What happened to Lin Biao? Official silence.

News of Lin Biao's death, allegedly in a plane crash, took months to emerge. The "ever victorious general" was labeled a traitor, accused of fleeing China en route to Mongolia after a failed coup.

Says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.com, a website and research firm that tracks the Chinese media and internet, "We know less about what really happened to Lin Biao than we do about the fall of Bo Xilai, and the Bo case isn't over yet."

This time, the Chinese government is also trying to contain the crisis, but it has become too big to control in ways they have done before.

"We live in the post Wikileaks age," says Goldkorn. "China is no different from the rest of the world, except that many parts of its government have always been excessively secretive."

In recent years, the internet has forced the government to allow a certain amount of transparency.

In 1995, for example, when a Tsinghua University student named Zhu Ling was poisoned with thallium, allegedly by an official's daughter; the crime was exposed online. The Wenzhou train crash of July 2011 and now the Bo Xilai case show the critical role of the internet.

"With more than half a billion Internet users and websites like (Twitter-like) Weibo, information can spread nationwide in a few minutes," says Goldkorn. "These trends are irreversible, barring a complete shutdown of the Chinese internet, which may be possible but is very unlikely."

These trends are irreversible, barring a complete shutdown of the Chinese internet, which may be possible but is very unlikely
Jeremy Goldkorn, Danwei.com

Still, experts say the government selectively censors and manipulates the internet, which it considers as a "battlefield."

"The Party does not seek to shut down such battlefields, but to occupy them," says David Kelly, a political analyst based in Beijing. "It was aggressive in getting its own rumors on the Bo case aired on Weibo."

Notes Goldkorn: "A certain amount of negative commentary on Bo has been allowed to circulate on the internet and, according to some commentators, some of these gossip, stories and rumors about Bo actually originated from people inside the central government."

"The party has been quite skillful in exploiting the internet and Weibo," agrees Willy Lam, a veteran China-watcher. "Beijing wants to focus just on the crimes and murder charges against the Bos without touching upon the fact that everyone is corrupt, especially those at the top and the princelings."

The past days, the mainstream media has harped on the need for unity, usually a sign that what is called for is lacking.

"It's not sure whether this spin doctoring is working," says Lam. "Most netizens have seen through Beijing's tactics. But it's also true that the Bo case has contributed to overall cynicism about politics."

Meantime, Party officials are pulling all the stops to keep the crisis under control.

There is significant moderation, too.

Unlike in the post-Lin Biao scenario in the early 1970s, there are no ubiquitous wall posters and incendiary slogans. There are no street protests and no mind-numbing "political-study" meetings.

Top officials project a "business-as-usual" appearance. Hu Jintao and other top officials have met visiting dignitaries in Beijing -- or have embarked on overseas trips -- as scheduled.

But the biggest test -- managing the once-every-decade political transition later this year -- is yet to come.

A few vacancies are expected on the all-powerful nine-member Standing Committee of the party.

If factional quarrels break out, the crucial issue will be which party leaders will fill these places.

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