Dodging the censors

CHINA | Dodging censors, pushing the state

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 2.26.55 PMDespite the government’s best efforts to censor sensitive Weibo content, users have invented creative ways to circumvent the system. One way to trick the censors is to publish posts as images instead of text. By posting in JPEG format, Weibo users get around the computer censors which filter out keywords deemed sensitive by the government. A text post about “freedom of expression” would be removed immediately by an automatic filter. But when “freedom of expression” is written, saved, and posted as an image JPEG file, the computer censors can’t find it. Of course, human censors, who number in the thousands according to TechCrunch, can read “freedom of expression” in a JPEG post and manually remove it. That may take more time, though.

Perhaps the most imaginative way that Weibo users beat the censors is by using puns. They play on words using the five tones of the Mandarin language. Words can sound the same but carry different meaning depending on what tone you say them with – one meaning if your voice starts low and finishes high, another if the tone stays constant, and yet another meaning if the same word is said but the tone starts high and drops low. For instance, hé xiè (second tone, fourth tone) means ‘river crab’ – innocuous to censors. But hé xié (second tone, second tone) means ‘harmonious,’ a term used to poke fun at the government. Beijing consistently calls for a ‘harmonious society,’ so much so that Weibo users have adopted the term to mock the government. Thus, by writing ‘river crab’ in a post, a Weibo user can ridicule the government without being blocked by censors.

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 8.48.03 PMIn this post (left), Long Cunli uses the “river crab” pun (highlighted in red) to poke fun at a public announcement by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on Weibo. The Commission posted on Weibo about its policy on arresting protesters, whom it said should never be arrested in public places, But the post also called on protesters not to disturb the work of the government. Long Cunli posted this response on Weibo: “We all know the unspoken rules: taking protesters into custody in public places means detaining them and sending them to labor rehabilitation camps secretly. They don’t want to disgrace the ‘river crab’ society.”


Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 8.42.25 PMThis Weibo post (right) by Shen Hongguo is in JPEG format. Posting an image rather typing text into a post is one way to circumvent censors. In the post, Hongguo, a teacher, laments not being able to teach about the importance of a constitution in governance. “I told the children that respecting teachers is a virtue,” wrote Hongguo. “Truth and social justice weigh more. It is much more important to have communication and contemplation, and to support equality and freedom.”

Emojis (below) are popular tools to express emotion and in some cases, to evade censors. This emoji of a grass-mud-horse is used to poke fun at the government. The Chinese word for ‘grass mud horse,’ sounds like one of China’s worst curse words – just with a different tone. Thus, Weibo users post ‘grass mud horse’ when they want to curse at the government. Weibo’s decision to create an emoji of a grass mud horse signals the company’s playful response to government censorship.

Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 8.42.49 PM


Coleen Jose, Wenxiong Zhang and Katie Campo reported on China.