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China's censors out in force as coup rumours spread

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China’s internet censors have been forced into overdrive this week after rumours swirled the country’s popular micro-blogging weibo platforms of an attempted coup in Beijing and the mysterious death of a man driving a Ferrari in the capital.

Twitter users presumably using a VPN or other set-up to access the banned site in China have noted that the authorities are censoring certain search terms associated with various, possibly related, stories.

They all centre around Bo Xilai, charismatic left-leaning Communist Party secretary in Chongqing who was sacked this week despite being a member of the Politburo, tipped for the top and one of the country’s most powerful and populist politicians.

There are several rumours surrounding his downfall including a scandal involving his police chief Wang Lijun who in early February took refuge in the US consulate in Chengdu.

Some say that Wang, who was Bo’s right hand man in his campaign to crack down on organised crime in Chongqing, was in fear of his life after a falling out with Bo, accusing the latter himself of large scale corruption.

The rumours continue that a split emerged in the Party at the highest level over the removal of Bo, with public security minister Zhou Yongkang backing his ally and prime minister Wen Jiabao and president Hu Jintao against.

Given that Zhou could technically rally his security forces to support his cause, it wasn’t long after Bo’s departure that rumours flew of military vehicles, metal barriers and plain clothes police on the streets of Beijing around Changan Street and the Party stronghold of Zhongnanhai.

Added to this intrigue is the probably co-incidentally fatal crash of a Ferrari in central Beijing on Sunday morning, which it is speculated contained the son of a high ranking central government official and two women.

Bo was forced to deny that his son, Oxford graduate Bo Guagua, had been driving that night.

The upshot of all this is that you’re unlikely to be able to find information via weibos on any of these subjects from within the Great Firewall after keywords such as 'Bo Xilai', 'Ferrari', 'Wang Lijun', 'Changan Street' and 'Zhou Yongkang' were apparently censored.

AP reported that some pro-Maoist web sites are also being ordered to delete various sensitive articles. Bo has often been held up as an anti-reformist Mao revivalist, who promoted “Red Culture” in Chongqing – a return to Cultural Revolution era patriotic values.

This Reg journalist is based in Hong Kong, which thankfully operates outside of such internet restrictions, although we asked a contact within the PRC to check out a couple of the terms on popular micro-blogging site Sina Weibo.

Sure enough, it returned a message which translates to: "Based on current rules and regulations, this term cannot currently be searched."

Pro-Mao web site Utopia is also down due to "high traffic" according to an error message on the site.

Given the rumours swirling around China’s social media platforms until such words were censored by the authorities, it doesn’t seem as if the real-name registration rules brought in last Friday are having much effect in quelling speculation on the sites.

A fact that is always singularly ignored by the Chinese government is that the more search terms are censored, the more such rumours will abound – why censor if there is nothing to hide, goes the argument.

They haven’t quite got around to censoring thoughts and idle chit chat just yet. ®

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