CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS A man uses a mobile phone at a shipyard on the Yangtze River in Fengjie, China, August 2012.

China's Rumor Mill

Why Beijing Is Cracking Down on “Unverified” Information Online

Find the common thread in the following statements: 1) The death of Alibaba founder Jack Ma's son proves that wealth can't buy happiness; 2) Bras with pads cause breast cancer because the padding hinders "breast breathing"; 3) NASA confirms that the earth will enter darkness for six days on December 16; 4) A drop of water falling from a high enough altitude can kill a person; 5) After former Communist Party Head Zhou Yongkang is ousted, there will be less corruption and greater liberalization.

Give up? All five come from posts that Chinese authorities deleted from the blogging platform of WeChat, a mobile chat application and China's hottest social network. And all five deal in what Chinese censors consider "rumors," a modern-day dirty word that officials in Beijing use as a catch-all term to describe speculation, unverified commentary, and false information posted online.

Throughout modern Chinese history, rumor has been a flexible category that has included not only speculation and falsehoods but also unsanctioned opinions about contemporary events. During the Mao era, the historian Steve Smith has written, rumors were considered to be "any information or opinion at variance with the official construction of reality"—even when that information or opinion was mostly factual. That sensibility has since been codified through regulations such as the State Internet Information Office's so-called WeChat Articles, which aim to prohibit non-government-approved Web users from posting political news items.

A display promoting the Chinese social network WeChat in Hong Kong, March 2015.

A counter promoting a WeChat service for the blind on display at a news conference in Hong Kong, March 2015. 

Rules like these allow Chinese officials to take a surprisingly expansive view of what constitutes malicious gossip. State media even compares rumors to drugs, illnesses, and weapons—used by China's critics, of course, in their efforts to destabilize the country. It was on such grounds that Chinese authorities managed to justify the detention of scores of individuals for promoting "disorder" during China's recent stock market fall—among them, one journalist who merely opined on possible government responses to the market volatility.

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