China has finally revealed the types of dangerous rumors that apparently justify its draconian online censorship regime.
The government’s official mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, listed ten of the most menacing rumors on its front page Monday, which Danwei, a site that tracks Chinese media for an English speaking audience, helpfully summarized.
“Dangerous rumors,” keep in mind, are the government’s preferred justification for a recent censorship clampdown on the country’s burgeoning, free-wheeling microblogging services. This has included old-fashioned keyword search-and-delete methods, as well as requiring real-name registration on the country’s Twitter-like microblogs, and shutting down social media comment sections entirely for four days at the end of March.
Spreading rumors with the intention to disrupt public order is a crime in China and is punishable with a 10-day detention and a fine of 500 yuan.
What’s instructive about The People’s Daily article, which we’ve summarized below, is how little effort the paper makes to describe how the rumors were actually dangerous. In the most absurdly harmless case, for example, students at an engineering school in Chongqing apparently spread rumors that acupuncture needles were too hot. The rumors may or may not have torpedoed the acupuncture industry in the city (the paper doesn’t elaborate). Regardless, Chongqing appears to have stepped out of this acupuncture cataclysm unscathed (though there are far more serious political troubles facing the city of 30 million).
The easiest way to rein in truly dangerous rumors is with an unfettered and free press. Indeed, you don’t need a Ph.D. in political science to realize that China’s “dangerous rumors” can, and are, easily conflated with unwanted truths.
Here’s The People’s Daily’s list of dangerous rumors:
- A text message circulated in China’s southwestern Sichuan province warned of an uncomfortable outcome for anyone eating tangerines originating from a certain Chinese city. The outcome in question? A mouthful of maggots. According to The People’s Daily, this rumor caused the price of tangerines to plummet, leading to about a $240 million loss for the agricultural industry.
- In Shanxi, a text message warned of an imminent earthquake. No word on what problems this caused, but apparently the people who started the rumor were detained and fined.
- In Jiangsu province, four people were killed in a car accident after fleeing an area they believed had been contaminated following an explosion at a chemical plant. The explosion was just a lie spread online, however.
- A website alleged that unscrupulous businessmen were adding leather waste, animal hair, and other unsavory things to their powdered milk, hoping to raise its protein level. Considering China’s recent, very real gutter oil scandal, this scandal hardly hits far from the truth.
- The Fukushima power plant meltdown led to panic in Chinese coastal cities, thanks largely to a rumor spread on social media warning that Chinese were at threat of radiation exposure. “This caused a run on the salt market as people believed iodized salt could prevent or treat health problems caused by exposure to radioactive materials,” Danwei wrote. The price of salt skyrocketed.
- Someone impersonated China’s equivalent of the IRS and announced revisions to the personal tax code.
- Students at a Chongqing university spread a rumor about acupuncture needles being too hot.
- Rumors spread through text messages and chat services that the HIV virus was transferable through food.
- In February 2012, microblog user “Mirador Ma Ma” spread false warnings that a mutated version of the SARS virus had evolved. The post “caused mass panic,” according to The People’s Daily. The people responsible “were sentenced to two years of education through labor.”
- In March 2012, China’s microblogging services lit up with rumors of a coup attempt related to the ouster of powerful party member and rising political star Bo Xilai. Six people have been detained for fabricating and spreading the rumors.
Photo by lele