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For the moment, there's not much China can do about the apparent escape of a high-profile dissident, but the Chinese can clamp down on discussion of the embarrassment. The man slipped out of house arrest and, according to his friends, has made it into U.S. protection. And that case complicates Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Beijing this week. It also adds pressure on the Chinese government, which is already managing the scandalous downfall of a powerful politician, and the government is now tightening controls on social media.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: There's a long list of forbidden terms on Chinese Twitter, words for which searches are banned. In recent days, it got longer still. New banned words include blind man, U.S. embassy and consulate, also the name of the blind lawyer who escaped after 19 months under house arrest, Chen Guangcheng. He came to prominence for exposing forced abortions by local officials. He's now believed to be under U.S. protection.
Despite the ban, news of his escape was all over China's biggest Twitter service, Weibo, with netizens using codewords to refer to him.
MICHAEL ANTI: Weibo now it become the public sphere of Chinese politics. It become a market of rumors.
LIM: Michael Anti is a columnist who tracks Weibo closely. He notes that the Internet is making it harder for China to control messaging, but the government is becoming more sophisticated.
ANTI: Even rumors are not equal on Weibo.
LIM: This was clear recently when a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, was sacked. Up until a few months ago, his name was sacrosanct: no online criticism permitted, full-stop. Then suddenly, his former police chief tried to seek asylum in a U.S. consulate. Unofficial accounts were posted online, and not deleted. The saga took an even more dramatic turn when journalist Yang Haipeng revealed on Weibo that the mysterious death of Englishman Neil Heywood was indirectly connected to the politician.
YANG HAIPENG: (Through translator) I knew the news for about 10 days before releasing it. I didn't dare believe it. Then reliable sources told me about it again while we were drinking. They were from the legal world, and they didn't leak it on purpose.
LIM: Unusually, for such sensitive allegations, his post was not deleted. Days later, the government confirmed Bo's wife was a prime suspect in the murder. At this point, the central government tacitly allowed the online demonization of Bo Xilai.
Unconfirmed rumors swirled about his wiretapping of senior leaders, about massive corruption, and that the motive for Heywood's murder might have been to stop him from exposing transfers of vast sums of money overseas.
Yang Haipeng believes a disinformation campaign could have been underway.
HAIPENG: (Through translator) At first, the government panicked, because true news was coming out. Now they've calmed down. It's possible they're releasing lots of false information on purpose to confuse people, so no one can tell what's real and what's false.
LIM: These rumors gave Beijing cover to move against Bo's followers inside the government. This, Michael Anti says, is classic Chinese Communist strategy applied to the Internet era.
ANTI: That's the typical Mao Zedong strategy: mobilize the people against the local factions. Weibo is already become a battlefield for public opinion. If it is a battlefield, they should occupy instead of destroy that.
LIM: But with Chen Guangcheng, the strategy has been completely different. The censorship machine has tried to deny his existence, rather than allowing his demonization. That could be because sensitive negotiations with the U.S. about his fate are still underway.
Charlie Custer from the translation website China Geeks says another factor could be that his case is more potent.
CHARLIE CUSTER: The whole Bo Xilai thing is sort of like watching an opera or like watching a movie. It's very entertaining and it's very interesting. But right, it doesn't cause the average Chinese person to think, wow, that could happen to me.
Chen Guangcheng comes from a rural, from a poor background, and so he sort of strikes a chord with a lot of people. And then seeing his family - these people who are completely innocent of anything - be arrested and held without trial or charges, that does resonate with a lot of people. It's like that could just as easily potentially happen to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF STREET SOUNDS)
LIM: On the streets, many ordinary people are baffled by recent events.
MR. SUN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: I don't believe anything, says 50-something Mr. Sun. Ninety-percent of what you hear is lies. There's no truth anymore.
Such views point up one real danger for Beijing: The government is trying its hardest to manipulate social media. But the truth is that the online world and official discourse have become parallel worlds, growing further apart day by day. And that widening gulf is undermining the government steadily, every day.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.