Posts Tagged ‘weibo’

I recently came across two great websites for anyone interested in the scope of internet censorship in China. The first, called, 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


Today there was a collision between two trains on Shanghai subway line 10. Some very bloody pictures emerged from the scene and now the number of injured has been reported at 224, 20 of them seriously hurt. No deaths so far.

According to early reports, there was a failure in the signaling system at around 2:30 so the line switched to manual signalling. Then at around 3:00 one train rear-ended another. One of them (probably the one that was hit) had allegedly been sitting at Laoximen station for 30 minutes. Caixin has reported the signaling system was made by a company also involved with the system in the Wenzhou train accident that killed 39 people and also used in subways in a number of other major cities.

Making things worse is a report from 2005 that’s been discovered bragging about how there will never be a collision thanks to Shanghai’s advanced signalling system.

Early signs show that the government doesn’t intend to create an aftermath debacle  like with the Wenzhou accident. Reporters are being given access to the scene, and Shanghai metro jumped out in front of the issue with what appears to be a very sincere, responsibility-accepting apology. [Update: They’ve actually posted two apologies which were subsequently deleted. Both are available at this Shanghaiist link]. But no matter how well the aftermath is handled, it’s going to be bad.

Within two hours of the event, it was the #1 topic on Weibo. Three months ago this story would have been relatively trivial given that there doesn’t appear to be any deaths. But thanks to Wenzhou, it will be under the public microscope. People are already crying foul and demanding answers as to how this was allowed to happen. Here’s some comments from Weibo:

“The Wenzhou railway incident hasn’t been forgotten and now the Shanghai subway incident happens. How could people trust you or believe you?” [温州铁路事件还没让人民忘记,现在 上海地铁 又发生了地铁相撞,你们还让人民怎么再相信你们?]

“I wonder if the authorities are hiding the true casualties.” [这次不知道有没有隐瞒伤亡情况.]

“The Shanghai subway incident has once again proved that living in China safely is a miracle.” [上海地铁事故再次证明:平安活在中国是奇迹]

“Could you please take people’s life into consideration and learn lessons from irresponsible incidents? Living in the current China is already a tragedy, so please don’t do more to make people suffer.” [能不能为人民的生命着想,不负责任的事情引以为戒,生活在这个时代中国的子民已经很不幸了,就请不要再做民不聊生的事情了!]

“Is there any country like China? Is there any  railway department like China’s? It makes me mad. It’s not a problem and humiliation of a department, it’s a country’s problem and humiliation!!” [哪有一个国家、哪有一个国家的铁路运输部门像中国这样?!真让人气愤!这不仅仅是一个部门的问题和耻辱,这是一个国家的问题和耻辱!!]

Man: I’m so glad you weren’t poisoned (to death) by gutter oil, Sudan red, lean meat essence, or toxic buns! Your house didn’t catch on fire! The bridge in front of your house didn’t collapse, right? You’re so lucky that the escalator didn’t malfunction when you went to work! It’s wonderful! We survived another day! Woman: I was so worried you’d get run over by someone supposedly going 70 kph on your way to work! Or get stabbed eight times in a row! My gravest fear was that you would be accidentally injured by chengguan who were beating up someone else! I was also worried you would need to ride the high speed train! But I didn’t dare to call you, because I was afraid your cell phone would explode!

Recently the picture to the right made rounds on the Chinese internet (translation by Danwei). Everything the couple says alludes to some danger that’s common in China or has happened in recent months demonstrating how people were already on edge about the safety of their food, products and especially their transportation. If it’s true that subway operators voluntarily switched to manual signaling and the crash happened almost immediately after, that would appear to be an act of Wile E. Coyote incompetence that even the Wenzhou accident couldn’t match.

Whether there’s anything sketchy with the companies, officials or operators involved isn’t yet known and may not be fully known. But what really happened isn’t nearly as important as what people perceived happened…and if Weibo is any indication, many already assume the worst.

That this happened in Shanghai is especially damning. Last November a fire engulfed a residential building in the city killing 58 people. It was found that corruption was definitely the cause and involved everyone from contractors and welders to government officials. In the end 26 were charged.  Then there was former Shanghai mayor Chen Liangyu who was ousted in 2006. He had been the highest player in a Shanghai cesspool of corruption and misuse of power at the time, and one of the highest officials to ever “fall off the horse” in China.

I remember once while I was walking on the street in Beijing with my girlfriend I stepped in a gaping pothole. “It’s probably there because of corruption,” she said laughing. She wasn’t really kidding though. In a culture that breeds corruption through lack of accountability and independent supervision at every level of society, there’s no telling what damage it does, what safety regulations get ignored, what corners get cut, which important jobs are given to horribly unqualified people, or what sensitive public works contracts are given to companies that can’t deliver. The Shanghai building fire represented a compounding of common corruption at many different levels that came together in a perfect storm.

There may very well be no foul play involved in this subway crash, but if that’s the case, good luck selling it to the public. As the one Weibo commentator noticed, things like this don’t tend to happen in many other countries; at least not with the frequency that they do in China. And with an unbroken string of safety issues in the past year directly attributable to corruption, suspicion in this case will be unavoidable and nearly impossible to pacify. It will be one more straw on the camel’s back of a public that’s been incredibly patient with a system whose transgressions (and attempts at covering up those transgressions) are becoming more and more visible, and seemingly more and more frequent with the emergence of tools like Weibo. People are seeing the harsh details of the system that’s screwed its people in every imaginable way, with the exception of providing raw economic growth. Those content with the system the way it is had better hope that growth lasts forever.