Chinese Censors Hamstrung by US Site
Since Bo Xilai was ousted as Chongqing Communist party secretary last month, Chinese censors have gone into overdrive to prevent the drama from ballooning into a public debate about corruption and power struggles within the party.
But much of their efforts have been undone by Boxun, a US-based website which has been reporting on every twist and turn of the Bo Xilai case — with unusual accuracy.
From his home in Durham, North Carolina, Watson Meng, the creator of Boxun, has been picking through information handed to him about the case by email, in Chinese internet chat rooms and sometimes over the phone.
Boxun received a lot of attention in February last year when it published anonymous appeals for a “Jasmine revolution” in China — at the same time as the Arab spring was unfolding in north Africa and the Middle East — triggering a crackdown in which many critics of the Communist party were jailed.
In recent weeks, however, Boxun has become one of the must-read Chinese language websites for people following the downfall of Mr Bo, who until his purge was competing to become one of the nine members of the Politburo standing committee, the most powerful political body in China. The Chinese government has also arrested Mr Bo’s wife on suspicion of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.
Mr Meng, 47, studied electrical engineering and IT at Duke University before returning to China in the 1990s. He says he worked for a number of multinationals in China, including Motorola and Unilever, before heading back to Durham.
In 2000, he set up Boxun to publish the kinds of reports that are largely banned in Chinese media — but which he says people should be able to read — on subjects such as human rights abuses, the dissident movement and top-level corruption. While his first posts were based on media reports, he later started receiving information from China, largely anonymously.
“It became more like citizen journalism [although] I had never heard of the term at the time,” Mr Meng explained in a phone interview from California on Sunday.
In the current political upheaval in China, however, some contributors to Mr Meng’s site, could be more than citizen journalists. Some have speculated that his site is now being used by people who wanted to engineer the downfall of Mr Bo.
“Much of the information must have come from party cadres pushing their faction’s agenda,” says an executive at a state enterprise in Chongqing.
In the past, Boxun was mainly seen as a receptacle for wild rumors. In recent weeks, however, it has been surprisingly accurate in predicting many of the developments in the Bo Xilai case, including most notably the move on April 10 to strip the charismatic Chongqing politician of his remaining party posts.
“It is not often the case that our reports have been confirmed by the government — this time, the government has exposed itself,” said Mr Meng.
The first reports on the Bo Xilai case started pouring into Boxun roughly when the Chinese internet lit up with the news that Wang Lijun, the former Chongqing police chief who had led Mr Bo’s infamous crackdown on crime in the city, had taken refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu, another large Chinese city.
“We reported on the many people who tried to get into the consulate and get him out,” said Mr Meng.
Most of the information that Boxun has received since then have been anonymous. But Mr Meng says one particular source has been consistently accurate, so that he feels comfortable running the reports.
Mr Meng concedes it is possible that the website might be being used by different factions jockeying for power but says this is not a consideration for him.
“If we think it is true, we just report it,” he said.
While Boxun’s reports may have favored Mr Bo’s political foes, Mr Meng himself has made some enemies along the way. In recent days, he has had to switch servers a couple of times because of a big hacking attack. While the site has been attacked before, the scale has recently magnified, says Mr Meng, who shows no sign of letting up.
“Our judgment is that Bo [Xilai] will receive a sentence around July — that is the important season for leaders’ meetings,” he says.