A massive hacker attack has crippled an overseas Web site that has reported extensively on China’s biggest political turmoil in years, underscoring the pivotal role the Internet has played in the unfolding scandal.
North Carolina-based Boxun.com was forced to move to a new Web hosting service on Friday after its previous host said the attacks were threatening its entire business, Web site manager Watson Meng said. He believes the attacks were ordered by China’s security services, but it is not clear where they were launched from.
The assaults on Boxun’s server followed days of reporting on Bo Xilai (薄熙來), formerly one of China’s most powerful politicians, who was fired as head of Chongqing and suspended from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) powerful politburo amid accusations of his wife’s involvement in the murder of a British businessman.
The scandal has deeply embarrassed CCP leaders obsessed with controlling their image and imposing strict secrecy over their inner workings.
Six years ago, when Shanghai’s powerful boss was toppled, Chinese social media was in its infancy and months went by with no word on the case against him.
Today, the dynamics have changed, and when the government fails to release information about a key political development, the online rumor mill goes into overdrive, with China’s half-a-billion Internet users taking to blogs, foreign news sites, and weibo microblogging sites.
“People on weibo used to care mainly about lifestyle issues, but this time we’re seeing it play an unprecedented role in spreading political information and opinion,” said Zhan Jiang (展江), a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University’s School of Mass Media.
The first whiff of the Bo scandal came when his former right-hand man, ex-Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun (王立軍), breached protocol with a surprising Feb. 6 visit — first reported in weibo postings — to a US consulate in Chengdu. There were rumors of a spat with Bo, but neither China nor the US revealed any details of the consulate visit.
At the time, Bo admitted to not properly managing his staff, but it appeared he would keep his job and remain a candidate for the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee when a new generation of leaders is picked this fall.
However, then the scandal caught fire with suggestions online that Wang was spreading the word about the alleged involvement of Bo’s wife in the death of Briton Neil Heywood, a business consultant with close ties to Bo’s family.
Those suspicions first appeared in a brief posting in early March by a reporter from the Southern Weekend newspaper group, who said he had received the information via a Feb. 15 text message from a telephone number used only by Wang.
That happened after Chinese authorities took Wang into custody on Feb. 7, so it was not known who sent the message. However, it was widely circulated online, and the foreign media flocked to Chongqing to investigate, making it impossible for the government to ignore the case.