How China Actually Gets the Internet to Censor Itself

Sina WeiboThank to Disinfo for highlighting my blocked words project, Blocked on Weibo, in your post “The Most Censored Words On The Chinese Internet.” However, there are a few misconceptions that one could take away from the article which I’d like to correct. First, these are words that are blocked by one social media website (Sina Weibo); they are not blocked by the Chinese government, nor are the words listed blocked more or less frequently than other words. I cannot reiterate enough that my project does not set out to prove that top-down censorship by the government exists (though it does). The restrictions on searches on Weibo are cases of self-censorship by a private company that is very much encouraged (under the potential threat of having the company shut down or being sent to prison) to do so by the government. The hope with this project was to make it clear that censorship in China is a complex and nuanced issue, and in each blog entry I hope to provide the proper context for why a word is blocked. Unfortunately, I think your short article simplified those complexities away and has allowed others to gleefully distort what is actually going on here in order to create an easy punchline. Yes, China, like any country, has its flaws, but one can’t merely reduce the issue of censorship, online culture, and Chinese culture in general to “Hey, look at those crazy Chinese.” This does a disservice to all those who live and work there.


Second, I unfortunately I have to take issue with the word list in the article. I am partly to blame for posting my lists of searches and blocked words alongside their translations from Google. Although Google’s translation site is getting better by the day, this was not meant to be a definitive definition of each of the Chinese words listed. As such, a number of the translations are not only wrong, but they are potentially very misleading. It was merely a reference for myself (I provided a admonishment that all words were from Google translate and unverified), and as such, I’ve taken down the full list and will be properly translating the samples I leave up in the next day or two. I don’t have time at the moment to go through one by one and explain why each of the Chinese words (which unfortunately your author and many others who re-blogged the article neglected to include) for the words in your list are blocked. However, I do include some short explanations for a few of them in this post on my blog. Readers who are curious are encouraged to read the explanations for other words I have previously written up.

Essentially, there is a distinction between words, translations, and their meanings that I think your article and its word list gloss over. For instance, the Chinese word for phoenix (火凤凰), the mythological bird, is blocked on Weibo because of  FirePhoenix, an encryption and anti-censorship software used to circumvent the Great Firewall in China. Based on your list, a reader might be led into thinking that Phoenix the city or, heaven forbid, Phoenix the band might be blocked. However, they use totally different characters for their names and are freely searchable on Weibo. Another example: “evolution” is not censored in China. In fact, more people believe in evolution in China than the United States. To say that evolution is censored in China is flat out wrong. Again, the distinction between words/characters and ideas/meanings needs to be made. The English word “evolution” is indeed blocked on Weibo, probably not out of malice toward Darwin and his theory, but likely because the censors at Weibo messed up and meant to block “revolution” (my best guess). Last example: people express surprise when I tell them that the Chinese word for 50 cents (五毛) is blocked from searches on Weibo. After I explain how people are paid by the Chinese government to post positive comments about China online, and those folks are pejoratively called the 50 Cent Party (like a political party, not the fun one), it makes more sense why it might be censored. However, 50 Cent the rapper is not blocked on Weibo: you can search for him the same way you search for him on a Spanish or German social media site: by typing his English name, “50 Cent”; it’s just the Chinese word which is blocked.

I hope this begins to clarify what my project’s intentions were and what is actually happening on China’s Internet. In case you’d like to read more, please check out “How China Gets the Internet to Censor Itself,” (excerpt below) an article I wrote for Waging Nonviolence. Thanks again for the exposure, and I hope this correction is also widely read. The last thing I want to happen is for my site—which was intended to educate folks on the fascinating and vibrant culture in China—to become a source of misinformation.

How China Gets the Internet to Censor Itself

posted March 12, 2012 on Waging Nonviolence

Just who owns the Internet, and who has the right to control what content is available on it? Is it sovereign territory, or is it free from the confines of antiquated earthbound laws? These questions have engaged Internet activists and scholars for over a decade. And, after the intense debate last month over proposed Internet restrictions in the U.S., announcements from Twitter and Google about enhanced efforts to voluntarily comply with national laws, and ongoing international protest over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, popular interest in Internet regulation appears to be mounting.

To the disappointment of techno-utopians, though, the Internet is very much capable of being regulated, and some governments have been perfectly willing to do so. The most obvious example of this is China’s “Great Firewall,” a vast network of structural, social and legal controls by which it regulates Internet content. Exactly what content is being blocked, however, isn’t always easy to say.

One can intuitively guess that advocating the overthrow of the Communist Party online would be difficult, if not dangerous, to do in China. But is Taiwan a sensitive topic? What about religion and sex? For several months last year, I set out to track what one Chinese Internet company, Sina Weibo—China’s leading Twitter copycat—considered off-limits. Utilizing a computer script and much patience, I was able to uncover roughly a thousand unique banned words. According to that list, I can tell you that Taiwan is mostly fine so long as you’re not discussing Taiwanese independence (台湾独立, 一中一台, etc); all discussion of major religions is allowed except for one, Islam (伊斯兰); and even today, in an age of increasingly open sexuality in China, searching for posts on aphrodisiacs (春药) will return error messages.

Chinese Internet Regulations

Weibo is a general term for microblogging—literally, “tiny blog”—representing a whole host of Twitter-like clones in China. However, Weibo has become synonymous with the largest microblogging site, Sina Weibo. It wasn’t the first, but it is by far the largest and most important such site in China. Aided by China’s banning of Twitter, the site has grown to over 250 million registered users.

However, like all major licensed websites in China, Weibo has numerous restrictions on what sort of content it is allowed to host and distribute. In June 2010, China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper on Internet usage for the country. Though the paper asserts that Chinese users have the right to freedom of expression online, it also enumerates a prohibition against content that is:

endangering state security, divulging state secrets, subverting state power and jeopardizing national unification; damaging state honor and interests; instigating ethnic hatred or discrimination and jeopardizing ethnic unity; jeopardizing state religious policy, propagating heretical or superstitious ideas; spreading rumors, disrupting social order and stability; disseminating obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, brutality and terror or abetting crime; humiliating or slandering others, trespassing on the lawful rights and interests of others; and other contents forbidden by laws and administrative regulations.

This is an incredibly broad array of off-limit topics, and the fact that a phrase like “damaging state honor and interests” is not clearly defined is an intentional feature of the Chinese censorship system, a mechanism coined by Perry Link as “the anaconda in the chandelier.” The vagueness inevitably leads content providers like Sina Weibo to excessively self-censor in order to stay well within the bounds of acceptable discourse. The company—and its users—may have a sort of sixth sense for knowing what may or may not be off-limits, but the fact that there is no officially published blacklist, coupled with the fear of severe punishments, compels them to step even farther back from the imaginary line. As Internet scholar Rebecca MacKinnon noted:

Recent academic research on global Internet censorship has found that in countries where heavy legal liability is imposed on companies, employees tasked with day-to-day censorship jobs have a strong incentive to play it safe and over-censor—even in the case of content whose legality might stand a good chance of holding up in a court of law. Why invite legal hassle when you can just hit “delete”?

Chinese Internet companies are now required to sign the “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China Internet Industry,” a document that in some ways includes even stricter rules than those listed in the 2010 white paper. Thus, it’s no wonder you have companies censoring topics like Islam, even though the religion is officially sanctioned under Chinese law.

Chinese government officials send weekly updates to media providers on topics that it expects censored. Otherwise, however, the onus is on the content provider to self-censor, a practice that Weibo’s head editor admitted is “a very big headache.” But it works. Bill Clinton may have compared censoring the Internet to nailing jello to the wall, but China appears to have built an effective harness (self-censorship by companies and netizens) to go along with the world’s biggest nail gun (tens of thousands of state-employed Internet monitors, total government control of overseas Internet data connections, and next-generation monitoring hardware developed by corporations like Cisco).

You can read the rest of the article at Waging Nonviolence.

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  • Monkey See Monkey Do

    Is that site located in china? jus curious…

  • BuzzCoastin

    Not sure if you mentioned this, but the Chinese language lends itself to homophones. Censored words are represented by other words that have the same consonants and vowels with different tones, which are represented by different characters. So people violating the censorship rules are writing in a kind of code.

    Since I have scaled the Great Fire Wall of China to write this, I thought I’d say that China’s heavy handed approach to censorship is equal to that of the west, but the West censorship is much less obvious and more subtle than China’s.

    For example, most US residents are not aware that on July 12, 2012, major ISPs will start keeping track of where you go  and what you download on the internet. This is similar to China’s Big Brother is watching approach, but more insidious, since America is “the land of the free” and the July 12 date is not widely publicized in mass Media.
    Or just ask the truthers about Media coverage of 911.

    China’s approach to censorship is as old as its 5000 year old culture, but at least it doesn’t pretend to have a free press and free speech. It also sharpens ones skills for beating The Man at his own game.

    • godozo

      SOPA and PIPA were supposed to codify into law that tracking of everything that you talk about – along with the end of Net Neutrality they’ve been so itching for. Evidently they’ve decided to go ahead and do it on their own – without the end of Net Neutrality (yet)

  • Redacted

    I know Mao used ambiguity in his policies to get people to excessively self police. It seems China has continued his habit to make people be their own tyrant.

  • Guest

    Interesting piece, and damned disturbing.

  • gwen jackson

    “hey, if you want to see a bad government, look over there!
    no, i said look over there, DON’T LOOK OVER HERE!
    boy, they sure are sneaky and oppressive, them guys over there! look at that!”

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