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David Wertime

Weibo Rumor Watch: Did a Chinese City Just Become a Ghost Town Overnight?

The city of Shenyang, here looking quite lively. Via Wikimedia Commons

China’s blogosphere has shown the power of information–or is that misinformation?–yet again. Yesterday, netizens there promptly begin reporting that parts of Shenyang, a sub-provincial city in Liaoning Province in northeastern China with a population of over 8 million citizens, had turned into ghost towns overnight.

Netizens on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, posted images showing seemingly dead urban streets (see below). According to Chinese-language media, shops throughout the city–including laundromats and pharmacies–have been forced to shut down. One news account, (@凯迪网络) complained that people “cannot even buy a bottle of soy sauce!” 

Those toothpicks cost how much?

What could have caused this? According to Weibo chatter, Shenyang police and other law enforcement are issuing small business owners hefty fines for minor violations in order to collect money for a national sports competition that Shenyang is preparing to host. 

Netizens have written in with breathless accounts of overzealous regulation meant to collect extortionate penalties–and perhaps worse. Blogger Li Haipeng (@李海鹏), in a tweet that has since been deleted, wrote, “My mom said that all over Shenyang city there have been big fines [for as much as] tens or hundreds of thousands of RMB; all the stores have closed their doors…basically the whole city is at rest.” {{1}}[[1]]我妈说,沈阳全城大罚款,动辄几万十万的,店铺都关门了,几个著名市场没人了,买菜白天都买不到,得晚上买,饭店就更甭提了。我家有个小生意也歇业了。听说电话也不能随便接,饭店关了,招牌上有电话,有人电话订位你答应了,也算营业。总之全城休息,玩不起,不玩了。”[[1]]

User @歪楼 cross-posted a long text file via a Tencent Weibo user named Simon, which described authorities deliberately focusing their energies on small business owners from outside Shenyang, and described the plight of one old woman who sold tofu being fined 2,000 RMB (about US$300) for not wearing a face mask. Others have even described workers or owners being held in custody, released only when a large fine is paid.

One netizen was quoted as writing,  “I have a friend from Shenyang who lives in Beijing and didn’t believe [the chatter], so he called up his wife in Shenyang and she said, ‘the convenience store, the beef noodle shop, and barbecue stand downstairs are all closed.’” A number of netizens have written about a supermarket fined 6,000 RMB  (or was it 5,000 RMB?) for selling toothpicks without a forestry license, and a hotel forced to hand over 10,000 RMB after authorities found one fly. One user averred, “If you don’t believe it come to Shenyang yourself.” 

The waters get muddy, bloggers begin to retreat

There are good reasons to doubt the chatter. Most of the evidence given so far is second-hand hearsay at best. For those who cannot make an in-person visit to the city, it is worth nothing that many of the above anecdotes have been repeatedly paraphrased by many users. Given the dynamics of social media, this could be an indication of the stories’ falsity just as easily as it could be an indication of their veracity. Notably absent from many tweets is the citation to a source; instead, many are simply writing their information comes by way of rumors or chatter.

While many netizens have reacted with outrage, others have expressed disbelief or at least called for caution. There has been no official statement from a Shenyang government organ, save for a widely circulated image that purports to be a posting from a public security substation ordering businesses to re-open. @梅新育 wrote that @歪楼‘s above post was “probably a misunderstanding, [or] speculation…is the [local] economy not doing well? Are taxes too high? Are rents too high?”

Indeed, photos of shuttered businesses, taken alone, are far from dispositive proof of a city-wide shutdown induced by government avarice. It’s worth noting that photos of the alleged government hijinks themselves have not appeared to enter circulation.

Even Li Haipeng seemed to retreat from his earlier account. In another tweet that has since been deleted, before going to bed Li wrote these careful words: “Inferring from common sense, the most likely scenario is a large-scale enforcement action where the scope of fines or their frequency exceeded the norm, [which] some small businesspeople were unable to bear…the media was then irresponsible, leading to too much panic. The big problem is that government is too powerful and society too fragile. Goodnight everybody.” {{2}}[[2]]常理推断,可能性最大的是运动式执法,处罚尺度或概率超越以往,令一些小商户难以承受,由于普遍性的对执法单位、媒体声音缺乏信任,引发过度恐慌。政府强大而社会脆弱是大问题。各位晚安。[[2]]

So whom should our dear readers believe? As with all things Weibo, an abundance of caution is advised. Until more definitive evidence emerges, TLN will store this news squarely in the category of a “Weibo rumor,” albeit a rumor meriting continued attention. But just in case the chatter is true in whole or in part, dear readers planning to head to Shenyang for a day trip in the near future may wish to bring their own bottle of soy sauce.

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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.