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Christopher Cairns

The Chinese Communist Party’s decision in 2012 to investigate Politburo member Bo Xilai on charges of corruption sent shockwaves through both official and social media channels right before a crucial leadership transition. Through both qualitative and quantitative analysis of posts taken from Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, this chapter considers the interplay between blogger expressions of anger and discontent at the high-ranking official corruption they saw Bo as representing and a central Party-state eager to allow online media to help tarnish his reputation but concerned that online discussion might spiral into a broader critique of the Party and other top leaders. Analyzing several “topic bursts” or surges in online discussion surrounding Bo’s downfall throughout 2012, this chapter finds that Internet censors were quite active in deleting related Weibo posts that broadly questioned the Party-state’s legitimacy. However, they still allowed a surprising amount of criticism directed at Bo himself. This finding points to greater flexibility than is commonly assumed on the part of Party leaders in how they manage social media during controversial events. While allowing any general discussion of elite corruption in connection with Bo—especially during the sensitive 2012 leadership transition period—carried major risks for leaders, this “mixed” censorship pattern suggests that Party elites may view selective rather than absolute censorship of such events as beneficial. Targeted non-censorship in the Bo case was consistent with leaders using information openness as a means to communicate to the social media public how serious they were about cleaning up elite corruption and enforcing Party discipline. The conspicuous absence of censorship in the Bo case is analogous to other instances of relative information openness in China on issues where the Party views its legitimacy at stake, including pollution and nationalist protest, and points to one pathway through which authoritarian leaders may appear responsive to the online public’s demands even under conditions of harsh digital repression.