Sometimes you come across a story that sounds too good to be true. When that happens in China, where the authorities keep a tight grip on the media – and when the news first appears on the Internet, a hotbed of intentionally spread lies – I have learned to ask two questions right off the bat.
Is it really true? And regardless of how true it is, why are we hearing about it now?
Those leaped to mind last week when I came across a story on the Web about a Chinese mafia boss with apparent connections to high-level Communist Party officials and a lifestyle Al Capone would have blushed at.
Trying to pin the story down, though, I found myself disappearing down an information rabbit hole, discovering how news can be used – and abused – for all sorts of purposes in China. I drew blanks at false addresses and with sources hiding behind false names, watched articles disappear from websites overnight, and realized that little was exactly as it seemed and practically nothing was verifiable.
"The Web is becoming a political terrain that all kinds of political forces are trying to use for their own purposes," says Xiao Qiang, who heads the China Internet Project at the University of California. As the key forum for debate in China, enjoying more freedom than traditional media, the Web is harder to navigate reliably here than elsewhere. "All kinds of political and economic agendas are competing. It can be very hard [to sort truth from fiction] because people are deliberately manipulating this medium," he adds.
This story began three weeks ago, when a little-known website, the China Citizens' Rule of Law Network, published an article about a mafia boss in the city of Tangshan who had reportedly extorted more than $100 million from local firms – said to be the biggest such racket uncovered since the People's Republic's founding in 1949.
With protection from a senior police officer, the article implied, Yang Shukuan had driven a private armored personnel car and a stretch limo around town kidnapping and threatening victims, indulged in drugs, forced a gang member's wife to be his mistress, and amassed 38 illegal firearms and 10,000 rounds of ammunition before being arrested last March. The policeman was detained a few weeks later.
Sex, drugs, guns, underworld kingpins, corrupt policemen – this story had it all, plus a suspicion that more senior officials than the policeman must have been involved.
Soon, papers and websites all over China – including People.com.cn, the online organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – had published stories on "Three Treasures" Yang, as the mafia boss was known in Tangshan, a city 120 miles east of Beijing.
All the stories quoted one another, however. In the end, the trail of attributions led back to the Rule of Law Network. Nobody answered repeated phone calls to the number published on the site's home page, so early on Thursday morning last week, my assistant and I set off to find the address it advertised.
After an hour's drive into Beijing's western suburbs, we located the place – a nondescript hotel in the shadow of a highway that rented out a few rooms as offices. None of them was rented to the Chinese Citizens' Rule of Law Network, nor to the Association of Chinese Legal Workers, to which the site claims to belong. Indeed, there is no such association, we were told by an official at the clerk's bureau of the Ministry of Justice, which registers such organizations.
Curiouser and curiouser. The posted articles about Mr. Yang appeared under the byline "Bei Dou," a pen name meaning "North Star," which did not give me much to go on. When somebody finally answered the phone at the site's office, he refused to identify himself or to respond to questions and hung up on me twice.
By Friday evening, the official shutters were coming down in ways that every Chinese knows is a sign that the authorities have had enough. People.com.cn, the online version of Peoples Daily, had removed its article, for example.
Local government and police officials in Tangshan were refusing to answer questions, referring me to a police statement confirming that Mr. Yang had been arrested, along with a police officer and 36 other suspects, and saying that the case "is still under investigation." The next day, the Rule of Law Network was "closed for maintenance."
"North Star," though, had opened blogs on five blog-hosting sites and posted on them the articles that first appeared on the Rule of Law site.
On one, he identified himself as Pan Shupei, a reporter for a state-run agency whose personal motto is "Restore the reality of news and report the news behind the news."
He said his boss had closed the website down for a while because the Tangshan story had attracted too much attention. He wanted to cool the issue down now that it had become a national Internet "cause célèbre."
"This was an easy case to spread because people hate corrupt officials' connections with powerful rich people," says Mr. Qiang, who tracks Chinese websites. Who wanted to spread it, though? And is it true?
The day before he shuttered his site, "North Star" recounted in a post that he and his colleagues had decided to publish the article they had received about Yang and his gang because, "It was recommended by an editor from a very important Communist Party newspaper."
"This is an internal leak through the Rule of Law Network," Qiang believes, which suggests that, while the site may not have a real address nor a genuine sponsor, it does enjoy the support of one government or party agency or another.
"How true it [the leak] is is another matter," Qiang adds. Somebody, somewhere, seems to have wanted to draw national attention to a criminal case that had gone unreported. Who that might be, and what the purpose was, remains unanswered. "We have to wait and see what the official version of events is, and how it differs from the Internet version," says Qiang.
The reasons why that version has emerged are still obscure. But despite the manipulation, Qiang argues, the Internet in China provides a megaphone for such stories. As such, he says, it remains "a force to make the truth come out."