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Weiboscope: Tracking censorship of China’s most popular social media platform

The instant-messenger app Sina Weibo has been redefined by media as a bellwether of popular opinion. Martin Choi looks at its influence with a study of a University of Hong Kong project that tracks the censorship of microblogging posts.

With the proliferation of Internet access in China, authorities are increasingly hard-pressed to prevent the spread of sensitive content before it gets blocked or removed.

One of the largest Internet-based platforms for sharing ideas publicly in China is the microblogging service Sina Weibo. It is the country’s answer to Twitter, which is officially blocked in the Mainland.

Weibo is so widely used in China that journalists, experts and China observers look to the platform as a gauge of the pervading public sentiment. By looking at what type of information is censored on Weibo, insight may be gained into the limits of free expression.

The Weiboscope project at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, tracks and produces annual and quarterly reports on the most important censored Weibo posts of the year.

Looking at the first quarter of 2017, the most recent at press time, the top five posts relating to current affairs were selected in descending order of the reposts generated per “survival time”, or the time between which they were posted and taken down. Each post has been translated into English and includes relevant background information to provide context and insight into China’s online media environment.

By looking into the content and circumstances surrounding the censored posts, we hope that some light may be shed on the nature of discussing sensitive issues on China’s most popular microblog.


1) Parodying the CCTV New Year’s Gala

Posted on 2017-01-27 at 12:00:47

Generated at least 40,346 reposts in 3 hours and 35 minutes.

Original: #春晚# 大家好,这是今年的春晚节目单吐槽・[bed凌乱] ​

Translation: #SpringFestivalEvening# Hello everybody, here are the rantings about this year’s Spring Festival Gala rundown … [bed messy]

Parodying CCTV New Year's Gala Parodying CCTV New Year’s Gala

The Spring Festival Gala, also known as the CCTV New Year’s Gala, is a highly publicised official event in celebration of Chinese New Year. Broadcast annually by China Central Television (CCTV), the event always generates criticism and is the butt of jokes on the Internet community in China for its unsubtle dissemination of Communist Party values and propaganda themes such as national unity and prosperity.

In this censored post, the whole rundown of the CCTV New Year’s Gala was parodied. For each event, netizens made a crude drawing, poking fun of the performance.

In the screenshot above, the song and dance performance of “Beautiful Chinese Year” was parodied. The drawing for the performance featured the silhouettes of numerous people and words in brackets that specifically said there were “many people”. Without having seen the event itself, it’s not too hard to envision a performance with a lot of performers.

In the image below, netizens made fun of the recital of the song “Happy Night”, sung by Phoenix Legend with a crude drawing of a pole-dancing panda saying “Come on, be happy” and “It’s New Year’s Eve, no need to do homework” in mockery of the officially joyous nature of the occasion.

This post may have been censored for making fun of the CCTV New Year’s Gala, a highly publicised event that the government takes pride in.

2) Recruiting wives for the PLA

Posted on 2017-02-06 at 17:32:20

Generated at least 52,871 reposts in 6 hours and 32 minutes

Original: 说起开放代孕这件事,不知道现在的大家知不知道八千湘女上天山灯。


Translation: Speaking of surrogate pregnancy, not sure if you have heard of “The Eight Thousand Girls from Hunan who went to Tianshan”.

Recruiting wives for the PLA.In the early 1950s, in order for two hundred thousand troops to reclaim and cultivate the barren land in Xinjiang, a large number of Hunan girls aged 18 were recruited so that each soldier could “each have one wife”. Many of the recruited girls were cultured, educated and full of patriotic enthusiasm, and they responded to the lofty call to protect and construct the borders…

To put this censored post into context, in 1950, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the 200,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers stationed in Xinjiang after the 1949 occupation to settle down and cultivate land there to secure China’s borders.

Many of the PLA soldiers were unmarried, so Wang Zhen (1908-1993), who commanded the forces in Xinjiang, requested Mao to send female soldiers from Hunan.

Wang (who would later become vice-president of China and is known as one of the ‘Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China,’ told Mao: “Without a wife you cannot be at ease, without a son you cannot take root.” This quote can be found at the bottom of the image in the Weibo post. Over the next three years, around 8,000 young women from Hunan were sent to Xinjiang to be married to the soldiers.

History is a sensitive issue in China, especially anything to do with the image of the party or its propaganda. In March, the National People’s Congress made amendments to the Civil Code, notably that “encroaching upon the name, portrait, reputation and honour of heroes and martyrs harms the public interest, and should bear civil liability”, according to a Reuters report.

This is a significant amendment in that it restricts discussion of history that the Communist party deems sensitive. Yet this Weibo post not only brings to light history that is sensitive to the party, it also attacks the image of the PLA, which is sacred in the eyes of the Chinese government.

3) Pork or beef for the New Year?

Posted on 2017-01-29 at 13:56:50

Generated at least 13,309 reposts in 7 hours and 27 minutes.

Original: “腊月二十六,杀猪割年肉,怎么在中国中央电视台就成了粕二十六,炖牛肉?难道春节也清真了?为了灯民族团结,随意放弃自己几千年民族传统,我相信得到的只能是轻蔑和鄙视,因为你们太无耻太自贱!“ “

Translation: The folk saying is that on the 26th day of the 12th month in the Lunar Calendar, you butcher a pig to prepare for the New Year’s feast, but how come CCTV has changed this tradition to braising beef on the 26th? Has the Chinese New Year become a Muslim tradition? Freely giving up traditions spanning thousands of years for the sake of “national unity”, I believe the only thing you will end up with is contempt, for you are shameless and cheap!”

In other words, this post criticised the Chinese government for sacrificing traditions for ethnic and national unity.  Ethnic minority relations are a highly sensitive topic in China, as the Communist Party has been trying to secure harmonious relations between communities. Therefore, it’s not surprising this post was censored for touching on Muslim and ethnic concerns, one of the red line issues for the Chinese government.

4) Protesting against criticism of Mao

Posted on 2017-01-08 at 11:40:14

Generated at least 2,526 reposts in 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Original:【意味深长】济南,那些人打出的标语大书打倒邓贼灯,后面用很小的字写相超灯 。

Translation: [Meaningful] In Jinan, those people held up banners with the words “Down with Deng thief” written on it, then in smaller words “Xiangqiao” was written behind it.

In this Weibo post, a banner is erected in Jinan, with supporters of Mao Zedong condemning criticism of Mao.

Tang Xiangqiao, a professor at Shandong University of Architecture and Engineering, wrote posts on Weibo insulting Mao. As his posts gained more traction and the protest in the Weibo post became publicised, he was dismissed from his teaching position by the Shandong provincial government.

There may be two levels of sensitivity in this post. The first issue is Tang’s criticism of Mao, which could be unwelcome itself. Another issue may be the depiction of collective action, and anything on social media about collective action tends to be censored in China.

A study about censorship in China headed by Gary King, professor of government at Harvard University, claimed that China’s “censorship programme is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilisation, regardless of content.”

The study further concludes that collective action may be a stronger reason for censorship than criticism of the government. Therefore, the idea that people are standing on the streets holding banners may be the most sensitive issue at stake for the Chinese government in this post, even if they are in support of Mao.

5) Muslims take to the streets of Shanghai in worship

Posted on: 2017-02-19 12:04:39

Generated at least 2,900 reposts in 5 hours and 9 minutes.

Original:【上海穆斯林占街朝拜 官方默许】上海回教徒信仰中心的沪西清真寺,一到周五「主麻日」(相当基督教的主日崇拜),就有上千人潮蜂拥占据整条马路。连上海特警、公安都要开道让教徒跪地祈祷,特别的是,这现象周周上演。


Translation: [Shanghai Muslims occupy the streets in worship. Authorities acquiesce] Every Friday during “jummah day” (equivalent to Christians’ Sunday worship), more than a thousand Muslims gather outside the Shanghai Huxi Mosque. Even the Shanghai police forces have to clear the way to allow them to pray in the middle of the road, and the most astonishing thing is that this happens every week.

Mainland China forbids assembly, nor does it encourage religious activities, yet it acquiesces to Muslims in Shanghai occupying the road during Friday prayer every week.

This Weibo post criticises Muslims for being able to assemble on the streets of Shanghai during the noon Friday prayer. This takes place outside the Huxi Mosque, a historic building in Shanghai’s Putuo District that was built in 1922. It was the first mosque in Shanghai to be allowed to resume worship after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

As in the post about Tang Xiangqiao, this post may be sensitive on two levels.  First, the post brings up and generates criticism of ethnic minorities – Muslims in Shanghai in this case. In addition, the Muslims assembling on the streets of Shanghai, although behaving peaceably, appear to violate unlawful assembly and demonstration laws. As noted in the title of the post, the authorities appear to “acquiesce” and don’t stop them from gathering on the streets.

The nature of posts like these triggered sensitive issues that send signals of alarm to the party. While the posts shown here depict many issues that worry the party – ethnic minority issues, collective action, historical narrative or even defamation of party officials these are in no way a definitive or exhaustive explanation of online censorship. Much remains to be seen regarding China’s censorship decisions over its expanding online community.

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