How I Landed in the Middle of (and Debunked) China's Latest Rumor

The story of a deposed senior leader, a movie star, allegations of prostitution, and my camera phone

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Zhang Ziyi moves through security at the Hong Kong Airport. (Damien Ma).

A combination of happenstance and a quick finger with my camera phone recently landed me at the surreal nexus of celebrity tabloid and political crisis in China. The incident also gave me a front-row seat to Chinese social media's rumor-mongering capacity as well as its ability to defuse the very same rumors it amplifies.

It began with the latest furor over allegations that now-deposed Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai had paid the equivalent of about one million U.S. dollars to arrange for sexual escapades with Chinese movie star Zhang Ziyi, who is probably known to most Americans as the female starlet of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Reports out of Hong Kong claimed that Zhang was sequestered in China, prohibited from leaving the country as she faced questioning from authorities in connection with the Bo case. The rumor was initially peddled on Boxun, a site that is something like the Chinese version of the Drudge Report and operated by a Chinese national living in North Carolina. From there, it spread to Twitter and Sina Weibo.

I had seen that Boxun first tweeted its supposed scoop on May 28, while I was in Hong Kong as part of a University of Michigan trip. I dismissed the story, which seemed supported by little evidence and a whole lot of celebrity sensationalism. Two days later, at the Hong Kong airport, I noticed several paparazzi-like men snapping photos of a fashionable woman disappearing into the security checkpoint. Curiosity got the better of me and I quickly followed. It was a light passenger traffic day, and I found myself standing behind Zhang Ziyi herself. Decked out in the usual celebrity disguise (hat and large sunglasses), she was nonetheless instantly recognizable. I realized that, because she was in Hong Kong, she was obviously not "sequestered" on the mainland. I had enough time to snap two photos before airport security began yelling at me to delete the photos. Instead, I quickly tweeted the first photo, of Zhang's backside, with the tagline "standing behind Zhang Ziyi at Hong Kong airport." I knew that most of my followers, savvy and astute observers of Chinese politics and Boxun rumors, would understand the implication.

Of the 1,500-plus tweets I have sent so far, that one was by far the most powerful. Within hours, the official Zhang Ziyi weibo picked up my tweet, which was reposted onto the Sina news site, essentially confirming that she was in Hong Kong. Two days later in Shanghai, I happened to pick up a Dongfang Daily paper, only to discover that my tweeted photo made it into the paper, without attribution (Chinese journalistic standards are a topic for another day). It further confirmed that she was in Hong Kong that morning to visit her legal team, possibly preparing a lawsuit against Hong Kong's Apple Daily for spreading allegations. Here's the tweet:

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With this empirical evidence that Zhang was clearly free to move in and out of mainland China, Boxun has since walked back its initial claim on sequestration. Although the site was caught red-handed, Boxun continues to push the Zhang story as well as her supposed relations with Xu Ming, a Dalian businessman with deep connections to Bo.

Whatever Boxun's intentions, the site didn't do much to quell skepticism of the accuracy and credibility of its "political scoops." To be fair, Boxun is not the worst offender in putting sensationalism before facts. A rag like the Epoch Times, which seems to get cited often in the Western press, has a clear agenda, as it is backed by Falun Gong practitioners, whose loathing of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin is matched only by Jiang's loathing of them. In a world of rapidly moving social and mainstream media, and in the absence of Beijing's official confirmation or denials, a limited number of sources with questionable veracity can play an outsized role in shaping a narrative.

The broader implications are especially significant now, both the Chinese government and other pseudo-news outlets exploit information-scarcity for their own interests. The rumors of a coup d'tat several months ago in Beijing, supposedly orchestrated by security chief Zhou Yongkang, were likely stirred up by Epoch Times, since Zhou helped to lead the crackdown against Falun Gong under Jiang Zemin. Such misinformation and half-truths can proliferate in a country with a legacy of a rumor culture, an observation smartly analyzed by the Economist. The scarcity of real information empowers rumor-mongers, making it easier for the consumers of this "truthiness," to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, to jump to false or partial conclusions. Try as we might to interpret and dissect, there is a point where our best course may be to accept the unknown. This is particularly germane to the current political transition in China, where the Bo Xilai fallout has been propelled by truths as well as falsehoods, some deliberate and some outlandish. 

To be sure, sometimes the rumors do turn out valid. But it is also impossible to determine the gap between reality and fiction. Putting too much faith in just a couple sources of half-truth peddlers, without understanding the context and motives, is especially risky in the current politicized environment. What I can say for sure is that Zhang seemed taller than I had imagined.