Reading the news about Charles Xue’s taped confession over the weekend, it’s hard not to feel disheartened. If you missed it, we covered the story yesterday but the short version is that Xue, who was arrested for soliciting prostitution, appeared on Chinese state TV over the weekend confessing to his “crimes” as an activist and opinion leader on Sina Weibo.
This is depressing in a number of ways. First, it more or less proves that the arrests of Xue and other prominent bloggers on charges unrelated to microblogging are shams. I have no idea whether or not Xue actually solicited prostitutes; perhaps he did. But if that’s truly why he was arrested, why is the government airing taped confessions about his microblogging, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the prostitution charge? It makes no sense, and it’s pretty uncommon that this sort of confession would be aired on TV anyway. Xue’s arrest and subsequent very-public confession for “crimes” that had nothing to do with his arrest is meant to send a message to the microblogging public in China: shut up.
So what were Xue’s microblogging crimes? Spreading rumors, presumably; the CCTV report cites a couple speculative posts he passed along without verifying. But unfortunately, what Xue is most known for online is probably his involvement in positive social campaigns like the anti-kidnapping campaign that launched his Weibo “career” or Deng Fei’s clean water campaign. When we saw Xue at GMIC last year, he spoke passionately about Weibo’s power to do social good. But who will have the courage to undertake social projects on Weibo after watching that same man confess on national television while wearing a prison vest?
No one. And that’s a disaster, because for all of its rumormongering nonsense, Weibo has done some very good things. Aside from the projects I just mentioned, for example, it was in large part pressure from Weibo that caused the government to change its air pollution policies and begin the timely public reporting of PM 2.5 levels. Pressure from Weibo has felled corrupt and incompetent officials. But I fear that the war on rumors has brought those days to an end.
I don’t want to give the impression that allowing rumors to spread freely online is a good thing. China, like any nation, needs libel and slander laws to punish people when things get out of hand. But the reason China in particular has a runaway problem with online rumors has nothing to do with its slander laws and everything to do with the lack of trust the public has in the government and the media. When an absurd rumor spreads online in the US, there’s generally no need to bother with any sort of legal action because the government or the free press can quickly investigate and squash it, and regardless of whether or not they should, most Americans do trust what they read in the newspaper. The same is not true in China, where years of “public opinion guidance” and information control have trained the public to be skeptical of everything that comes from an official source.
Until China addresses that problem, the root cause of all the rumors will still be there. Locking up popular Weibo posters is treating the symptoms rather than curing the disease; it will serve to stifle online discussion but do nothing to improve trust in the government. Perhaps that’s all China’s government wants; perhaps it doesn’t matter if people trust the government so long as they’re too scared of the legal implications to question it publicly. But it sure is a raw deal for China’s internet users and all of the people with real problems that Weibo campaigners like Charles Xue was helping before the crackdown began.