Still the People’s Republic of Rumors

As my FP colleague Isaac Stone Fish, Bloomberg View's Adam Minter, and others have very ably documented, China's microblogs have been buzzing all week with rumors - unsubstantiated -- of a political coup in Beijing. (Were those gunshots you heard? Oh, just fireworks, as per the usual in Beijing.)

Ironically, this latest eruption of China's online rumor mill has happened shortly after the government's plans to enforce real-name registration and other controls on Weibo -- the most-prominent Twitter-like microblog -- went into effect. Or were supposed to. Although Ai Weiwei's real-name Weibo account was quickly deleted, other lesser-known users report myriad workarounds: You can verify your identity with an SMS message to a phone that isn't actually yours, for example. One couple reports that the Weibo account they set up a while back in their dog's name is still as barking active as ever. (The dog, for the record, had no comment on coup rumors.) While it's too early to say if enforcement of polices -- or penalties for political chatter -- will be stepped up in the future, evidently Beijing's new controls have so far done little to dampen online speculation and conversation.

Stepping back, this has been quite a year for Weibo. From rumors of Jiang Zemin's death (not true) to rumors of chemical-spill havoc in the northern city of Dalian (highly exaggerated) to rumors of tanks this week in Beijing (not true), we've seen how quickly fear and speculation can spread over the microblog.  Meanwhile Weibo has also been a venue for important and legitimate watchdogging, including calling out government lies about the causes and impact of the Wenzhou high-speed train crash last summer, arguably pushing the mainstream Chinese media to be more aggressive in reporting as well. But there's something else all these examples have in common: Scratch just below the surface, and it's easy to see how readily people in China, or at least those inclined to discuss politics on microblogs, assume the government is lying to them.

Most of the time, the authorities' reaction is to censor key terms -- like Jiang Zemin or Wang Lijun (the name of Bo Xilai's former deputy) -- which actually seemingly gives more credence to the chatter (what are they really hiding from us?). In the case of high-level political rumors, there's no authoritative government source that ever comes forward to clear the air; as The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon memorably wrote on his blog: "And now I'm passing on the scuttlebutt too. Why? No one in Zhongnanhai is taking my calls. They're not taking anyone's calls - which leaves the outside world in the dark at a crucial moment in Chinese history." Even when government officials try to offer denials through state-run media -- as in the case of pollution fears in Dalian -- they aren't often believed. As one woman who participated in the Dalian protest last fall told me: "We feel hopeless about our local media."

The only way to really crush rumors over time isn't by trying to nickel-and-dime manage microblogs; it's by establishing some channel of trust to mediate between truth and falsehood, between the smoke-filled chambers of government and the people. Rumors can take off in any country, but they have special potency in China because there's no equivalent of a trusted Peter Jennings or White House news conference to vet before the public what's real and what isn't. And so in a city already on edge, fireworks sound like gunshots indeed.

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Iran Watch: Is the United States waivering?

The United States is betting that increasingly biting sanctions against Tehran -- including new penalties for foreign institutions that continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank -- can compel Iranian leaders to make concessions on their nuclear program and avert a military confrontation.

So the news yesterday that the Obama administration was issuing Japan and 10 European nations six-month waivers from these very sanctions seemed odd -- as if the United States was taking its foot off the gas pedal just ahead of nuclear talks with Iran next month. In fact, that's exactly how Iranian officials are spinning the news. Here's a read of the Iranian press today from the Los Angeles Times:

Fars News headlined its story on the sanctions, "U.S.A. backs down against Iran."

"Such a move is an overt retreat from their earlier stances," the head of the parliament foreign policy commission, Aladin Borujerdi, told the Iranian Students News Agency. He said it was "due to decisive stances taken by the Islamic Republic" defending its nuclear program.

Borujerdi also argued that the U.S. had exempted the countries to stop oil prices from rising further, a bid to spare "the tumbling economies of the West."

"Exempting 11 countries show that sanctions were the results of impulsive decisions," Kazam Jalali, the Iranian deputy head of national security, told ISNA.

Iran meter: If the United States is indeed watering down its sanction effort to avoid destabilizing the global oil market and alienating its allies, that could heighten the risk of a military confrontation and push our dial to the right. But Iranian officials may be misreading the situation, deliberately or not.

For one thing, the United States is granting the 11 countries exemptions because they have significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil -- not because they refused to budge on their commercial dealings with Iran and Washington backed down. True, Japan, a top Iranian oil importer, has been vague about how far it's willing to go to wean itself off Iranian crude, but its oil imports from Iran fell 12 percent in January compared with a year earlier -- even as it struggled to recover from last year's earthquake and nuclear crisis. The ten European nations who received waivers had already agreed to stop importing Iranian oil beginning in July.

What's more, the exemptions don't apply to China and India, which, along with Japan, buy roughly half of Iran's crude exports. And while the Chinese and Indians haven't yet turned their backs on Iran, they're not embracing Tehran either. China's largest bank recently backed out of a deal to finance an Iran-to-Pakistan gas pipeline, and China's imports of Iranian oil dropped by 45 percent in February from a month earlier, though this mainly stemmed from a business dispute. 

This week's exemptions also omitted Turkey and South Korea -- two U.S. allies who also happen to consume a lot of Iranian oil. "It is out of the question for us to stop buying oil from Iran unless the supply is replaced," Turkey's energy minister declared today.

In other words, if you want to get a sense of whether the sanctions regime U.S. officials are constructing will work, don't focus on the list of countries who now have exemptions. Keep your eye on those that didn't make the cut.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images