Internet Rumors in China

With the advent of Civic Morality Promotion Day (yes, there is such a thing) in China, various websites have featured Internet surveys and discussion forums against uncivil behavior on the Internet.  There is a web survey that is carried by a number of prominent websites.  Respondents are shown a list of behaviors and asked to select the one (and only one) that they revile most on the Internet.

This is a close-ended, forced-choice question.  Why?  Operationally, it is expensive to run an open-ended survey question.  People can type in text freely, and it will require human coders to map them into categories for reporting purposes.  More importantly, an open-ended survey question may bring up an unexpected (or very much expected but highly undesirable) answer, such as "I hate the Central Propaganda Department for suppressing the news about what is really happening."

Since this survey was conducted across multiple websites over an extended period, there have been various interim reports on survey results.  For discussion purposes, I will use cite this one (via MediaChina) from with 23,651 respondents.

The surveys from other websites at various times may not have the same rankings.  Still, the trend is that the revulsion seems to be fairly evenly spread and no one single issue dominates over all else.

In going through this list, it is clear that some of them are deplorable and without any socially redeemable value.  Who is going to defend the virtues of stealing someone else's financial account information?  Internet fraud?  Spam emails?  Is that true for everything on this list?

Alas, surprise!  Someone was in fact willing to defend spreading rumors and false information on the Internet!  Here is the summary from a Nanfang Metropolitan News article.

The reason why rumors come into existence is not because of the existence of a quick and easy communication channel; rather, the reason why such rumors are dispelled is because such a channel exists.

Rumors are created for two reasons: first, someone created them deliberately; second, it was a misunderstanding.  Rumors are disseminated for two reasons: first, information communication is not smooth; second, information flow was artificially controlled.

For those people who have deliberately created rumors, the Internet has not doubt helped them greatly.

Once the rumor-makers have created the rumors, they look for communication channels to spread the information.  In ancient times, they would have written songs and they gave candies to children to sing those songs.  With the Internet, all they have to do is to post the rumors at the bulletin board systems or blogs and then the netizens will propagate the information.

So the channels for rumor spreading are smoother nowadays.  On the Internet, there are even posts on "Instructions on how to create rumors" (谣言制作教程), including basics on how to make up news reports.

Yet within all these rumors, how many of these have been able to realize the goals of the rumormongers in the way of the ancients?  In medieval Europe, the plague broke out everywhere with many deaths.  Someone said that people must repent, then self-flagellation with blood and skin flying occurred everywhere.  Then someone said that the Jews were poisoning the people, so numerous Jews were burned to death.

When 9/11 came, there were also numerous rumors in New York City on that day.  For example, the figure of Satan was visible in the heavy smoke and the airline insignia was that of a skeleton head.  But those rumors had no substantive impact and dissipated quickly.  Did not the Internet show its ability to quickly and effectively dispel those kinds of rumors?

There are definitely a lot of rumors on the Internet right now.  In the future, there will probably be many more.  The issue is how we must deal with the rumors.  How do we avoid the deleterious effects of those rumors?  The only way is to have an even smoother channel of communication to let more information be disseminated.

The Internet did not help to propagate rumors.  On the contrary, it has effectively stop the further propagation of such rumors.

It is common wisdom that rumors are stopped by better knowledge.

Do you think that you've got the heroic message?  

Here is something else from the writer Hong Ying (虹影) published in Chinese News Monthly.  I summarize as follows:

Someone told me that people in mainland China have accused Ha Jin's award-winning novel War Trash of plagiarizing from the memoirs of a Chinese volunteer in the Korean War.  I got on Google to check.  Between July 25 to July 30, there were 5,800 listings on Haijin and plagiarism!  ... In my experience, if this matter should ever go to a court trial, then if "the court decided that Haijin was guilty of plagiarism", we will see 100,000 listings in Google, whereas if "the court decided that Ha Jin was innocent," then there would only be only 10,000 listings.

The media are the media and the immutable fact is that they will only publish sensationalistic material.  The Chinese media will do two things:

First, they would want to destroy anyone who has received awards outside the country.  What will that prove?  If Ha Jin's plagiarized book received the Faulkner Prize, it will prove that the foreigners have no understanding of literature.

Second, they would want to destroy any writer living overseas.  Anyone living in China may be an official in the Writers' Association and therefore one may find it embarrassing to run across them again some day.  But an overeas Chinese is fair game, and you can even invoke patriotism in the process.

In July last year, Chinese newspapers and websites published many reports that claimed that my novel Greensleeves was "suspected of plagiarizing" Marguerite Duras' .  Hiroshima Mon Amour.  Some newspapers even listed this as one of the Ten Most Ugly Incidents on the Literary Scene.  What is the source of that information?  It was a professor from the Shanghai Normal University.  One newspaper actually interviewed him later and he said, "I absolutely said no such thing.  I only said that Greensleeves and Hiroshima Mon Amour have similar themes about transnational love affairs during a time of war."  But only one and only one newpaper published the professor's clarification.  I made a clarification but the press only said, "Ying Hong wants to sue!" 

I recall that Ha Jin wrote a book titled Madness about how a professor went mad after being besieged by big character posters during the Cultural Revolution.  These days, the big character posters on the Internet are even rougher than the old days.

Nothing is ever simple ...