The Fictive Wu Jinglian Spy Case

(Caijing)  By Wang Duan.  September 3, 2008.

[in translation]

An absurd and malicious rumor was propagated by overseas websites and created an uproar overseas.  In tracking down the maelstrom around the "espionage case" of Wu Jinglian, people should giver thought to the ancient saying that "three people make a tiger."

Recently, there was a rumor overseas that the Development Research Center of the State Council researcher Wu Jinglian was taken away for investigation because he was suspected to be spying for the United States.  In one version of the rumor, the Morgan Chase top Chinese economist Gong Fangxiong was also involved.  The investigation by the Caijing reporter showed that this rumor was patently false.

Over the past couple of days, certain overseas media have featured this story.  The Caijing reporter has examined more than a dozen overseas reports.  There were three media reports that claimed to be "an original story" or "an exclusive report."  The other media reports were based upon these three media reports or a combination thereof.

The first to break the case is the US-based Boxun website.  On August 28, Boxun (which is based in North Carolina) published an unsigned report that cited "an unnamed informed source" who claimed that famous Chinese economist Wu Jinglian is being investigated by the National Security Department for suspicion of espionage on behalf of the United States of America.

In a later report, Boxun continued to point out that the information had been circulated in China before their publication.

As soon as the news came out on the Internet, there was a storm.  The Hong Kong media began to report the story.  Oriental Daily (Hong Kong) called the Caijing reporter for confirmation.  The story in Oriental Daily cited Boxun.

When the relevant person at Boxun was interviewed by the Caijing reporter over the "espionage story", he said that the news came from a reader's tip.  This person said that they heard that this rumor was already going around in China and therefore they okayed the dissemination of this piece of information.

When the Caijing reporter asked Boxun whether they contacted Wu Jinglian or other relevant persons before publishing the story, this person said that they didn't have Wu Jinglian's phone number and "since we had no way to verify the story, we decided to publish it first."

As for the reader who sent in the tip, the Boxun person said that they have no clue because the website uses an anonymous IP system.  They do not know the identity of the tipster nor even the location of that person.  Nevertheless, the Boxun report on August 28 cited "an informed mainland person" as the source.

Boxun was founded as an electronic weekly magazine in 1998.  It sent out information to subscribers mainly through electronic mail.  The contents included important news plus commentaries.  In May 2000, the Boxun news website was established.  The idea was that "everybody can act as reporter to provide information."  The news was to come from the readers.  The stories do not have to be signed and there is no compensation.  Therefore, it is not hard to become a Boxun reporter.  The Caijing reporter personally went through the registration process to become a Boxun reporter.  By filling out a penname, country, email address and hobbies, one can complete the process in seconds.

Boxun said that the registrant will receive an email notification within a week.  The email will include a website ID as well as password.  Afterwards, one can publish freely.  The reports from new reporters will be reviewed.  Old timers can publish directly.  In order to encourage tips, Boxun and its forum does not record the IP of the visitors in order to protect privacy.

On the next day (August 29) around noon, another Chinese-language website followed Boxun.  In an "exclusive" report, it was pointed out that Wu Jinglian had not been arrested yet.  But his activities and speech were placed under restriction while the investigation was going on.

That report pointed out in lurid detail that 78-year-old Wu Jinglian fell for a "female spy" and disclosed certain secrets to this American-Chinese female.  The report also claimed that people who know Wu Jinglian are shocked because they cannot believe Wu could spy for the United States.

The DWnews news editor told the Caijing reporter that the story about Wu Jinglian had been around for several weeks already.  The news was on the Internet already.  "Therefore, we published a story that combined various pieces of information.  But we emphasized that informed sources are saying that this was impossible and that the story has not been officially confirmed."

Two hours after DWnews published the information, Taiwan's Central News Agency cited information from the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Information Center about Wu Jinglian being investigated.  CNA also linked the story to another important figure at the moment: Morgan Chase's top economist Gong Fangxiong in Greater China.

The reporter said that Wu Jinglian leaked the information that the central government intends to bail out the stock market to Gong Fangxiong.  On August 19, Gong Fangxiong reported that the central government intends to invest 200 to 400 billion RMB to stimulate the economy.  On August 20, the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock market indices went up by more than 7%.

This story was subsequently carried by the Hong Kong and Taiwan media.  Some of those media added speculations such as insider trading, the struggle between the reformers and the conservatives, and so on.

Gong Fangxiong denied this rumor to the Caijing reporter on August 31.  He said that "he has not met professor Wu in years and they have not spoken during that time either."  Gong Fangxiong also pointed out that the story about the hundreds of billions from the central government to bail out the stock market had been mentioned in the quarterly and monthly reports from Morgan Chase many times before last month.

The Central News Agency reporter who published the story told the Caijing reporter that the information had been faxed exclusively to them from the China Human Rights Information Center.  CNA merely published the original story in its entirety.  According to information, the story had been written out by hand and faxed to the Hong Kong office of the Central News Agency.

According to what this reporter found out, the China Human Rights Information Center was founded by the mainland Chinese person Lu Siqing now residing in Hong  Kong.  The operational method is identical to Boxun in that information comes from outsides and is re-written and distributed to the media around the world.

According to people who know Lu Siqing, the work at the Center is done by him alone and he never takes phone calls.

The reporter attempted to contact the Center by telephone and email many times, but so far no one has picked up or replied as of the deadline for this article.

On the morning of August 29, Wu Jinglian was attending a conference in Tianjin and he was interviewed by a Caijing reporter.  He spoke about on the thirty years of reform in China.  He emphasized that "the only way to go is to persist with the reforms."  He said that public opinion should pay more attention to the subject of the reforms after the Olympics is successfully concluded.  He was also interviewed on video by the Caijing reporter.  While talking about the reforms, he indirectly spoke about the rumor of the "espionage case."

On the afternoon of August 29, the Development Research Center of the State Council website displayed a prominent notice on its home page to dispel the rumor about Wu Jinglian being involved in an "espionage case."  Wu Jinglian was said to be working as usual and leading a normal life.

Although many media followed the crowd, some Hong Kong media made careful reports.  On August 30 (the third day after the story first appeared), Ming Pao (Hong Kong) published an opinion column to point that Wu Jinglian was falsely reported as being involved in an espionage case.  The author said that she contacted Wu's family and "the Wu family said that he is absolutely safe and sound."  The English-language newspapers South China Morning Post and The Standard in Hong Kong did not follow the crowd either, and they only issued clarifications afterwards.

Most of the mainstream English-language overseas media did not report on this case.  On August 29, BBC News and UPI reported that the rumor was false.  Xinhua also published an English-language story to dispel the rumor.

But since Wu Jinglian is famous inside and outside of China, this rumor caused some negative impact.  Zhou Nan, the wife of Wu Jinglian, told the outside world that the two of them have received phone calls expressing concern.  A Chinese engineer in Boston told the Caijing reporter that when he heard the news, he was very "shocked."  He said that most Chinese people knew and were concerned about the progress of this story.  He was also worried and perplexed how such a story can be fabricated so easily and distributed so broadly.

78-year-old Wu Jinglian is one of he most respected economists in China.  Apart from his job as researcher at the Development Research Center of the State Council, he is the deputy director of the Economics Committee and the Standing Committee of the National Communist Party Political Consultative Committee, professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Research Institute and professor at the Shanghai Sino-European International Business School.

With the nickname of "Market Wu," Wu Jinglian was known for his boldness to speak out.  He advocates turning the Chinese economy into a market economy altogether.  This meant that some people have attributed current economic problems such as the inequality of wealth to him and other economists.  Wu Jinglian has also proposed the theory of the Chinese stock markets as casinos.  He claimed that that the stock market is like a casino and very much unregulated at that.  He advocates protecting the market rules as well as the livelihood of the grassroots.  In addition, Wu Jinglian has stated in direct terms at an academic conference that that the proposed political reforms are falling behind because "huge interest groups are the obstacles for the next step in the reforms."

Wu Jinglian attended a research meeting on August 30.  Afterwards, he told the media once again that he was not involved in any espionage case.  He thought that this story was "baffling."  He was really dubious about the motives of whoever fabricated and distributed the rumor.  He wondered, "Who is spreading this rumor?"

A Hong Kong scholar of political economy speculated that this "espionage case" may have been deliberately disseminated by certain interest groups or persons with ulterior motives.  The China expert Ding Wang of Hong Kong thinks that the openness and tolerance of political discussion in China are increasing.  There are many discussions about the pace and scope of the reforms, and people holding one set of views may resort to fabricating rumors to attack the other side.  This may be how the rumors escalated.

In the western world, the new media in which "everyone is a reporter" and non-professional publish their exclusive stories to society is known as citizen journalism.  This type of journalism came into the existence in the United States during the 1990's and became popular with the Internet.

Professor Huang Yu from the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Communication pointed out although citizen journalism breaks down the traditional barrier between "communicator" and "audience," this method lacks the very important characteristics of verification and gatekeeping in journalism.  As a result, it has low credibility.  He pointed out most civilian journalism only covers a simple event and lacks the ability to get to the bottom of the story.  As such, it is unlikely to replace traditional news media.

Related Links:  "Overseas media" responsible for China Internet rumor?  Eric Mu, Danwei; The Internet reports: Famous economist is a spy!  Joel Martinsen, Danwei