Murder, adultery, corruption, political intrigue. The Bo Xilai case has got it all. The New York Times even claimed the once-mighty Bo was wiretapping top Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, an unforgivable offense that hastened Bo’s downfall. As an op-ed in the China Daily put it, “the media melodrama featuring Bo Xilai and his family [has] the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster.”
But is this sensational story really true? Although the Times confirmed its account with “nearly a dozen people with party ties,” none would go on the record. That’s led some in China to question the accuracy and fairness of Western reporting on Bo.
An editorial in the Global Times, a state-owned tabloid, says that Western media sources are publishing rumors and falsehoods in order to “turn a profit.” It also accuses them of “Cold War-era” bias. On April 18th, the paper published “Don’t Make Political Hay from Bo Xilai Case,” arguing that Bo’s downfall was “an individual criminal case” and had nothing to do with a power struggle at the top of China’s Politburo. Around the same time, the Jakarta Post ran a piece from a China Daily writer titled “Bo Xilai Scandal Not a Power Struggle.”
Hard truths cut both ways
If the Western media might benefit from reporting on the sensational side of Bo’s story, it’s also in the interest of the Chinese government to play down the spying angle. A powerful party figure jailed for corruption and accessory to murder? Bad. The prospect of exposing weakness, division and illegal spying among China’s top leaders? Worse.
As a result, some Western reporters believe the government has orchestrated a media campaign to minimize fallout from the Bo scandal. Hannah Beech, who wrote a Time magazine cover story on Bo, reports that while interviewing Chinese journalists, academics, and officials, the same talking points kept coming up. Some of them, like comparing Bo to Hitler, seemed too outlandish for their repeated mention to be coincidental. She was also struck that two sources gave her “the exact same convoluted explanation of how Bo’s transgressions were worse than that of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair.”
Meanwhile, a story from NPR suggests the Chinese government may have let false rumors about Bo’s personal life proliferate on the Internet in order to distract attention from claims he was wire-tapping. “It’s possible that they are releasing lots of false information on purpose to confuse people, so no one can tell what’s real and what’s false,” said the Chinese journalist who broke the story of Bo’s connection to murdered British businessman Neil Heywood (the journalist’s blog was later shut down as he delved into the politics of the case).
As LatitudeNews browsed the English-language Chinese media, we also noticed some similarities in Bo coverage. One recurring theme: the Western media treated the case like something out of a Hollywood movie. Another: foreign reporting on Bo mirrors stories on the Falun Gong, a religious group banned by the Chinese government in 1999, by using anonymous insiders to create a narrative of political struggle.
Wait for the sequel
Even if there is no official campaign to tamp down the “Bo the spy” storyline, Chinese government censors have plenty on their plate. The U.S. recently confirmed that the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, although he has not yet filed a claim for asylum. Chen’s case has the potential to spark a serious international incident. It also might make a pretty good Hollywood movie.