CHINA | Dodging censors-overview

Reported by Coleen Jose, Wenxiong Zhang and Katie Campo
A Chinese man uses a cellphone to document a protest, July 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

A Chinese man uses a cellphone to document a protest, July 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

By Katie Campo

In China’s traditional world of media, free speech is tightly controlled and journalists are beholden to an authoritarian regime watching their every word. Most Internet users do not venture beyond the “Great Firewall” that filters foreign content and completely blocks Facebook, Twitter and other outside sites.But China’s 564 million Internet users no longer have to live in information isolation. Now they have an alternative source – homegrown micro-blogs (weibo), much freer than traditional media, though still monitored by the all-powerful government.

Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are the most popular such blogs – Sina Weibo so much so that users have simply started referring to it as “Weibo.” This research project focused on Sina Weibo, as it is the most widely used micro-blogging site in China.

Like Facebook, Weibo allows users to post personal information, musical likes, and photos – as well as personal commentary on everything from food to politics. Like Twitter, Weibo messages are limited in length – only 140 characters.

When it comes to content, Sina Weibo’s operators are in a delicate spot. On the one hand, the website must censor its users’ postings to appease the government and avoid suspension or shutdown. On the other hand, Sina Corp, the parent company, wants to maintain its loyal following by giving users a unique platform for expression – even if they are expressing anti-government views. Weibo seeks to balance things by letting some dissent seep through. And if it guesses wrong, the government’s own censors will step in.

Weibo is censored in a variety of ways. First, posts by outspoken activists, who are on a watch-list, must be vetted before going live, according to a recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Watch-list customers who repeatedly go too far may find their accounts suspended or shut down – as happened to Yang Haipeng, the journalist who broke the Bo Xilai scandal on his Weibo account.

Censors also maintain computers that watch for, and block, postings with key phrases deemed sensitive by the government, such as “Bo Xilai,” “Sichuan earthquake,” and “political struggle.” And sometimes Weibo may let a customer publish, but block its post from being seen by others.

Weibo users have created clever ways to outsmart the system. They use Chinese characters that have the same sound, but different tone, for phrases they want to share. For example, writing ‘river crab’ (he xie) translates in Weibo-speak to ‘harmonious’ (also he xie). The latter is a term used to mock the central government, which often calls for a harmonious society. Weibo users also publish posts as emojis or images in .JPG format, which are difficult for censors to track.

Nearly four years after the launch of Weibo, its importance is hotly debated. Some experts predict it will hasten the downfall of the regime, by enabling activists to inspire their Internet followers to take to the streets. Others say Weibo users don’t stand a chance; Weibo remains a tightly controlled platform that lets citizens vent their anger as long as they don’t call for collective action.

What’s not disputed is this: public discourse in China has been dramatically transformed.

“Weibo is now driving, in many ways, the entire national dialogue,” according to Kaiser Kuo, an official at, China’s most popular search engine.

Chinese Internet users now have a voice and a means to communicate, however limited it may be. How they use it remains to be seen.