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David Wertime

Chinese Netizens Complain "Double Standard" Applied to Bo Xilai

Really, just me?

Is the treatment of Bo Xilai–China’s former contender for high office, now in detention as he and his wife are investigated respectively for corruption and murder–a victory for the rule of law? Or selective enforcement? Netizens are making their opinions clear: It’s the latter.

On April 19, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported (in both English and Chinese) that unspecified “authorities” had opened an investigation into Bo Xilai’s billions of dollars worth of spending while Party Secretary of Chongqing, a mega-city in China’s interior. While Party Secretary, Bo embarked on a spate of infrastructure and urban improvement projects that helped the city’s economic growth rate rocket up to 16.4% in 2011. Now, it appears Bo may not have been a competent steward of the city’s balance sheet.

It’s a big forest–Bo’s not the only crow

But netizens commenting on the WSJ report on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, almost universally felt the Party’s treatment of Bo amounted to achingly selective enforcement. Although Bo Xilai and spouse-cum-murder-suspect Gu Kailai’s names remain blocked from Weibo searches—even their relatively common surnames, searched alone, yield zero results—Weibo’s threaded comment feature continued to provide a wealth of (non-searchable) fodder revealing netizen sentiment. An exceedingly common refrain has been: Why is only Bo’s budget being scrutinized?

Sentiment that Bo was being singled out personally, and not by operation of law, pervaded even among netizens who refused to defend Bo. @来海边找贝壳’s comment was typical: “I don’t want to speak for Bo. Yet if they’re going to investigate him they should investigate every city and province carefully and publish the results. This is the only way to show we believe in rule of law in a socialist society, with equality for all.” Similarly, @途说道听4世 complained, “Isn’t this a double standard? How are other cities and other provinces not being investigated at the same clip?” @忘却的1973 took the argument a step further, writing, “If you want to investigate you have to start with the State Council, every ministry and every commission.” 

Too little, too late

Many netizens wondered aloud why, if the central government was concerned about Bo’s expenditures, it began the investigation years (not to mention billions of dollars) late, only after Bo’s right hand man Wang Lijun set an international drama in motion by turning himself in at a nearby U.S. consulate. @牧女SMD asked, “What was the Central government doing earlier? Was it asleep, or in a coma?” The implication of this widespread complaint is clear: Corruption (or at least mismanagement) is viewed as endemic. As @等风的旗2162726121 wrote, “If all of China’s bureaucrats were examined in this way, how many would be brought to justice?”

Bo Xilai, officially unamused (Reuters)

Other commenters pointed out that no one in particular seemed to be in charge. Well-known microblogger and real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang asked, “Isn’t the National People’s Congress supposed to manage the budget?” @若尘1968 responded using Chinese wordplay to the effect that “The National People’s Congress are not the big boys; the big boys lead the National People’s Congress. ”{{Chinese}}[[Chinese]] 不是人大是大人,大人领导人大.[[Chinese]] 

And in Bo’s corner…

Although most commoners did not mount direct defenses of Bo’s behavior, a strong minority lauded him for bringing “material benefits” to Chongqing’s people in the form of concrete economic development that gave him a lasting “place in our hearts.” In a comment typical among Bo defenders, @宗造 wrote, “Whoever gives commoners material benefits will win the peoples’ hearts. Thank you to Bo for bringing so much change to Chongqing over the last few years.” @重庆爱吃鱼的猫猫, another Bo defender, invoked the widely-cited doctrine of former Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping, father of the country’s economic reforms: “Didn’t [Deng] Xiaoping once say, it doesn’t matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat, if it catches mice it’s a good cat?”

If a black cat and a white cat are the same, a foreign cat and a domestic cat are not. Many netizens were irked that a foreign news outlet had scooped the (often muzzled) Chinese state media. @耕者刘耘 wanted to know, “How come when it comes to this type of information, the foreign media is always a step ahead?” @途说道听4世  wrote ruefully, “Once again the Wall Street Journal and these other foreigners are the true masters of our celestial dynasty [slang for China], always the ‘first to know.’”

Next time, the foreign media might not be able to pass along what it knows so easily. Many netizens reported difficulty opening the cited WSJ article, as well as gaining general access to the WSJ and Financial Times websites in recent days. This means that China’s censors are closely watching the Bo Xilai-related chatter, without eliminating it altogether. What’s left should provide China’s authorities with enough evidence to know that netizens are staring right back at them over the digital divide.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.