The (lack of) logic behind what China censors

Posted: March 12, 2012 in Politics
Tags: , , ,

I recently came across two great websites for anyone interested in the scope of internet censorship in China. The first, called greatfire.org, tracks what searches and sites are being blocked behind China’s “Great Firewall.” The second, called Blocked on Weibo, is run by a graduate student who systematically tests terms on Weibo (China’s Twitter-like microblog) to see what stops a tweet from going through.

The banned Weibo list includes many expected political and sexual terms, along with several surprises like “The Exorcist.” Much of the list was compiled last December so yesterday I logged on to see what’s still blocked. I tried posting terms one at a time and, to my surprise, most are now allowed. To be more efficient, I started combining them into phrases like “Warlord Li Peng[1] and dissident Wu Bangguo[2] blow flute political prisoner sex party.”

It passed.

To the bemusement, I’m sure, of my five Weibo followers, I got progressively more twisted until a post was finally stopped (“Tokyo hot Liu Xiaobo incest at Tiananmen with exhibitionist Xi Jinping” was the one that did it).

Since I’ve already complied with Weibo’s real name registration requirement, I deleted the posts after they passed (mostly out of embarrassment). But if I’d left them up it’s possible they would have been manually deleted by a human censor eventually. Still, I couldn’t believe what was being let through. Jason Q. Ng, the curator of the Blocked on Weibo site, told me that indeed most of the blocked terms from December were unblocked by late-January.

Over the past few weeks some interesting unblockings have been noted in the Great Firewall. When the Wang Lijun saga was unfolding, discussion was sporadically blocked and unblocked online. Then a few weeks later, the Baidu Baike (similar to Wikipedia) entry was opened for Zhao Ziyang, the Tiananmen-sympathizing party secretary that died under house arrest.

Internet censorship in China is hardly controlled by some central figure at a Beijing supercomputer. It’s much more complicated and elastic. There are sensitive terms like “Falun Gong” that you’ll probably never see unblocked, but surprise blockings/unblockings like what my childish trials found can happen for a number of reasons. Here’s a few:

Factional infighting

This is most likely what explains the Wang Lijun and Zhao Ziyang openings. In the run-up to the leadership transition later this year, factions within the party are still jockeying for power. Free discussion of these figures might give a slight boost to the liberal wing by embarrassing conservatives. The back-and-forth on Wang Lijun suggests the different factions may have been trying to outmuscle one another for control over censorship.

Social stability

Whenever sensitive events (ie. Wukan) are unfolding, relevant terms are blocked in order to maintain social stability (AKA – the party’s hold on power). Sometimes it goes the other way though. Pornography is usually so banned that people are paid for snitching on online pornographers. But for a period in 2010, many porn sites mysteriously became accessible.  After a spate of school yard stabbings carried out by frustrated older men, it was theorized that porn could be a kind of emergency release valve.

Censorship for hire

After the Sanlu milk scandal broke out in 2008, Baidu, China’s largest search engine, was accused of accepting 3 million yuan ($474,000) from Sanlu early on to bury damning reports about the company. Baidu denied the charge, but a leaked US embassy cable suggests the practice of corporate payment for censorship is widespread in China.

[Update 3/13] Here’s a new report on the many companies who arrange censorship for a fee.

Good ole’ guanxi

Again, the important thing to remember is that there’s no central decision maker with his finger on a censoring button. It’s thousands of people across scores of government agencies, private search engines, microblogs, web forums, news sites, etc. Even if an entire institution isn’t censoring  a certain term, one of the many cogs in the machine can – for pay or as a personal favor.

A Chinese academic affiliated with the propaganda department once told me about when he found his colleague was being unfairly ostracized on Weibo. He just picked up the phone and called some of his friends at Sina. Problem erased.

And these are just the things we know about. The government and private companies who engage in censorship aren’t about to advertise their rationale to the public. Three months ago, apparently Weibo wouldn’t let you type a single term from the phrase “Muslim Yujie[3] and plug-in Zhou Yongkang[4] protest adultery and cannibalism at the liaison office.” Now, as I confirmed, you can type the phrase in its entirety. We’ll probably never really know why.


[1] Li Peng was the Politburo leader that ordered the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square

[2] Wu Bangguo is currently number 2 on the Politburo Standing Committee, behind Hu Jintao

[3] Yu Jie is an author very critical of the Chinese government. He’s been beaten, arrested and now resides in the US

[4] Zhou Yongkang is currently number 9 on the Politburo Standing Committee

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