Was the China corruption website collapse story “newsiness”?

The greatest contribution that comedian Stephen Colbert has made to modern society is the concept of “truthiness”. Reading from the Wikipedia definition, truthiness is:

…a satirical term to describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

Miraculously, the entry goes on for another 3400 words on the concept of truthiness, proving not so much that truthiness is an important concept as that Wikipedia is balls-out for pop culture. Nevertheless, “truthiness” has transcended its comic-neologism origins to become a legitimate word, which says something about the zeitgeist.

Imagethief wishes that Colbert had similarly enshrined the concept of “newsiness”. Borrowing from the definition above, newsiness could be described as a satirical term to describe things that a person claims is important or newsworthy without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. It feels like news, whether it really is or not.

This is something that we flacks are familiar with. At our worst PR types trade in newsiness, packaging up bits of corporate dander and passing them off as significant. But we’re not exclusively to blame. Sometimes newsiness arises spontaneously in the form of a story that is less than meets the eye. Last week’s story concerning the collapse of the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention’s new website under apparently heavy traffic strikes me as an example of newsiness.

Foreign coverage of this story can be traced backed to a Beijing Youth Daily article, which I don’t have a link for, and a subsequent English-language Xinhua report that was deftlymassaged into final form by our own Chris O’Brien of Beijing Newspeak. The story was that the recently constituted National Bureau of Corruption Prevention, a relatively toothless body set up to “collect and analyze information” on corruption, launched a new website that included a guestbook function enabling members of the public to post semi-anonymous comments. However the website crashed within hours of launch due to a “large number of visitors”.

This fits very nicely into one of those social-issue memes that define much foreign news coverage of China, and that often take the form of “a nation struggling with [insert social issue here]“. Examples are a nation struggling with pollution; a nation struggling with censorship; a nation struggling with Internet addiction; and so on. The issues are set up via colorful or heartstring-yanking anectodes often involving stoic, salt-of-the-earth 老百姓 types recalling their woes, and rounded out with a mix of quotes from NGOs/overseas experts/local academics/old China hands and the kind of eye-popping statistics that China excels at generating and that make pretty much any problem here seem thoroughly intractable.

In fact, much good journalism is done this way and it works well for the home audience that reads one newspaper. But if, like Imagethief, you are a news junkie living in China and you read vast troughs of China coverage from a range of publications, it’s hard not not to notice the formula.

This system also promotes the dissemination of lightweight stories that simply fit into issues established by precedent. This particular story originated via the Xinhua article, which seems to have originated as a “why our website went down” disclosure formality. It plugged nicely into the “nation struggling with corruption” meme and was duly picked up by the foreign press, almost all of which cited the Xinhua article. The tone and detail of the foreign stories vary a bit, but looking at the headlines and ledes a clear mental picture emerges:

China anti-graft Web site felled by “too many hits”
BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese government Web site encouraging citizens to report corruption crashed on its first day under the weight of too many hits.

China anti-graft website crashes under public complaints
BEIJING (AFP) — The website of China’s new anti-graft bureau crashed shortly after going online due to the huge volume of messages from the public complaining about rampant corruption, state media said Wednesday.

China’s new anti-corruption website crashes
A Chinese government website set up for the public to complain about corruption crashed within a day of launching under the volume of cases reported.

The website was constructed by the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention to collect information on corrupt activities as part of an ongoing purge by the Beijing authorities.

Associated Press:
Anti-graft Web site swamped in China
BEIJING: A new Web site created by China’s anti-corruption bureau crashed after barely a day because too many visitors had tried to log on to register complaints, state media reported Wednesday.

Washington Post:
Chinese Assail Official Misconduct With Fervor
BEIJING, Dec. 19 — China’s new National Bureau of Corruption Prevention thought it would be a good idea to open a Web site for citizens to denounce crooked officials. The idea was so good that the site was immediately deluged this week by irate Chinese, overwhelming the system and causing several crashes during the first two days of operation.

So what did you see in your head? Imagethief saw an image of zillions of oppressed Chinese people desperately clicking on the NBCP’s web page. This is image was helped along by the recent, widely publicized woes of BOCOG’s Olympic ticket sales website, which really did crash under the fevered clicking of zillions of people. But unlike the Olympic ticketing stories, in which the actual traffic and transaction load on the site was reported, the only figure in any of the stories above is the number of pages of comments, ranging from 16 to “more than 20″. Only the AP story lists a specific number of comments: 250. An NBCP official was quoted in the Xinhua article as saying, “The number of visitors was very large and beyond our expectations.”

Well, yes, but what were your expectations?

Hoping to find more information, Imagethief took himself to the site for a first-hand look. As of last Friday there were still about 20 pages of comments, each with fifteen individual posts, for a total of about 300. Anyone who has spent time on a popular Chinese blog or in the forums knows that this is pretty small beer. For comparison, when CCTV 9 anchor Rui Chenggang condemned the Forbidden City Starbucks on his Sina blog just under a year ago, he got 450 comments in 24 hours, on his way to nearly 3000. Sam Flemming’s CIC, which monitors Chinese online buzz, tracked over 4 million posts on automobiles in the three-month period from April-June of this year (full report — PDF, registration required).

These are not entirely fair comparisons. The degree of freedom people feel to comment about corruption is not the same as they feel to comment on the Chery QQ or foreign coffee shops, and the overlap of corruption victims with Internet users is smaller than that of car aficionados. But it does introduce some perspective on what constitutes a “hot” online issue in China.

Corruption is a real issue here. The corruption website collapse story is neat enough to tie a Christmas bow around, and the foreign reports are all factually accurate, insofar as they essentially relay the Xinhua report. But what does this incident really say about Chinese society and the problem of corruption? There is a big difference between a site that was designed to support tens or hundreds of thousands of simultaneous visitors and was still overwhelmed by crushing demand, such as the Olympic ticketing site, and a small-potatoes site that fell over under moderate traffic or because it was designed, programmed or tested badly. Imagethief designed and developed e-commerce sites for many years and can assure readers that this a common problem. But “China anti-graft website collapses under public complaints”, to borrow one of the headlines above, is going to get many more people reading than, “China anti-graft website collapses because of poor programming”.

Fine. That’s the news business. Gotta get eyeballs on the page, and Imagethief, a subway commuter who reads on the way to the office, likes a punchy newspaper as much as the next guy. No harm in relaying a vacuous Xinhua story (sorry, Chris — not your fault), especially when it fits so neatly into an existing pigeonhole. It’s still “newsiness”, but if nothing else it can help keep our minds off of much more worrying things, like the ever dumber things American politicians are saying about China.

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