Through out the sprawling Bo Xilai scandal, one news source has been constantly ahead of the curve. No, it’s not any of the Chinese media. And no, despite their best efforts, it hasn’t been any of the British or American newspapers who’ve followed the story.
Instead it was Boxun.com. An amateurish looking, Chinese-language website run by 47-year-old Duke University graduate Watson Meng from his home in North Carolina.
Meng set up the site over a decade ago, frustrated with the tightly controlled official press inside China. With its U.S. address, the site was able to flout strict Chinese media laws, and became a sounding board for those who wanted to discuss the state, real or just rumoured, of modern China. While the Chinese authorities attempt to block it, many Chinese internet users use software to get around the firewall and information from the site makes it onto Chinese micro-blogging services and social networks.
The site has long been one of the must-read overseas sites for the Chinese, but the frequently accurate information it has broken about the Bo Xilai case (most notably the stripping of party rank on April 10) has given it new-found attention. One Beijing-based expert told the WSJ yesterday that “all the high-level officials read” Boxun, and the sites traffic has jumped 160% over the last three months.
That attention may not all be good. The site has been hit by numerous hacking attacks in recent years, including one last week that forced the site to change webhosts. The former webhost told the AP that the DDOS attack was the biggest they had ever seen.
We reached out to Meng at the start of this week to ask about the site, and the scandals that surround it:
How was the site started?
It first started in 2000. It started from almost nothing, basically I was working for a high tech company. I had the technology of web development, so, fortunately, I had learned all the software, all the blogging software. In those days there wasn’t that much good software in the market. Nowadays, it’s much easier to have a website.
The basic idea behind the website was the model we already know — I wanted to develop an online place for Chinese people — a place where they can express themselves easily. So the website from the beginning carried opinions, and also news. We encouraged people to write what they were seeing — if they see something happening they can submit.
Later I found this business model was “citizen journalism”. Nowadays it’s very popular, like on the social networks like YouTube. Boxun started this in China, basically.
Where are the people who send you information?
Most of the information is from China. We do have overseas information, but it’s mostly of interest to the Chinese community, for example if Wen Jiabao visits Washington, D.C., but the majority is from China.
Who are these people? Are they activists, people who work for the government?
It depends. Most of them are not government, I think. When people send information from China, the source is confidential. The source is anonymous. Sometimes we’ve received some information from people that, we believe, are close to the government, or they have some connection with the government. But we don’t know exactly who they are.
Do you worry about accuracy? How can you check the facts?That’s a good question, and that’ll always be a challenge for us. With some of the stories, like with Bo Xilai, it’s not about one piece of information. We receive the information from one channel, we recognise this channel is very accurate. We trust this channel, and we also develop different channels [to confirm].
Other stories, sometimes, we cannot confirm. If we think it’s necessary to expose, we’ll put a note and ask the readers if they can verify.
For example, a few years ago there was a submarine accident, a tragedy that killed all the crew. We received a short message and we published it [Ed note – May 1, 2003], the next day the government made an official news release on that [Check out the New York Times story on it from May 5].
Do you consider the site anti-government?
Many people say that. I don’t think so. We try to be neutral and not on one side. My perspective is, in the USA, when the government does something wrong, the traditional media is the person who writes the story. In China, now that you have the internet and videos, we can do that that too. So, in that role feel we are behaving the same.
But some content we carry is perhaps more negative than CNN or other U.S. media. I think that’s because the government in China is making more mistakes and doing more crazy things.
If we want to be independent and we want to tell the truth, it’s reasonable that we’ll have more negative accounts. I think to win the trust of the reader, media should be neutral and independent. It’s important for media, otherwise it’s suicide.
Of the overseas media that we are compared to, we are not the most aggressive. I think more people in China like us, compared to this other more aggressive media. I know we’re not as aggressive as other media as we don’t publish stuff in the interests of ourselves, or make up anything. That’s not the stories we do.
I know we sometimes publish something that isn’t as good professionally as traditional media. We have limited resources, we don’t have professionals to write our stories, but our mission overall is to try our best to be independent.
You’ve been suffering DDOS attacks recently, what do you think is happening? Who is behind that?
It’s happened in the last few years quite frequently. Last year there was a big one, it lasted for four months, because of our announcement of the Jasmine revolution [an article calling for the overthrow of the Chinese government] on our site.
This time, for the last two weeks or so, the biggest target is our web content. Last week, Thursday I think, it was an attack going after the registrar. Breaking the registrar caused them to stop our site, so that’s a new way to attack.
When they attack our content, some readers might not see the attack, but by attacking the registrar… we’ve moved twice already, from one registrar to another one. That’s a new thing for us.
You asked me who is behind these attacks. Normally, with these kind of things, it’s very difficult to track down who is behind it. Normally those IPs can be anywhere, be it South America or Asia. It’s very difficult to have evidence to say who is behind it.
We can only guess. It’s probably due to something we’ve been posting. We’ve mostly been talking about issues in China, where some story has made someone unhappy. I don’t think it’s necessarily the Chinese government, but among the Chinese government there’s a lot of people, maybe some of those guys are not happy and they prepared the attack. I don’t know.
Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
A lot of the news from the Bo Xilai case seems to be first reported on Boxun, and now people are wondering if certain forces within China are using Boxun to take down or smear Bo Xilai. Do you think that’s a possibility?I don’t know, but that’s not strange. It’s not uncommon in China. During internal strife, they need someone to be exposed, they cannot do it internally because of all the media control there. There’s a possibility it’s happening here.
Honestly, in this case, I think it’s good. We know Bo Xilai is a hardliner.
For Boxun, sometimes people say we’re criticising certain parts of the Communist Party. But I think when people look back in 10 years, they’ll see Boxun has never consistently criticised one Chinese leader or the other, or consistently supported one Chinese leader or the other.
If we see something wrong, we like to report it. If we see something right, we’d like to report it also. We want to report the truth.
So for this story, we think it’s true, so the most important think we can do is report it. We don’t think much about Bo that’s been reported has been wrong. We don’t publish all the information we receive, for example, but we try not to control what we make news.
Do you have personal thoughts about what you think is going to happen in the Bo Xilai case?
I think from the information we’ve got, Bo Xilai will lose everything, lose all his titles. He will probably be stranded in jail for the rest of his life. That’s what’s most likely, from my understanding.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
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