Social media changing the protest landscape in China


Despite state censorship and political repression, social media is changing the protest landscape in China.

With the exception of economic reform that started in the late 1970’s, the country has remained restricted by government policy and ideology. A one party state has led to a national media that lacks plurality and regularly fails to report on incidents that they fear may damage the government’s image. Combined with internet censoring and heavy-handed tactics being employed against state opposition, freedom of expression has always been limited, but there is hope for change.

Social media within China has expanded rapidly, Sina Weibo — 60 million active daily users, 600 million registered users (Sep 2013) — and WeChat — 300 million registered users, of which 100 million are international (Aug 2013) — are two of the most popular. This allows a democratic spread of information that has never previously been available to citizen journalists or local people.

A media project by the University of Hong Kong showed the importance of Weibo in relation to the 2012 protest in Shifang against potential environmental damage by a proposed copper plant. Traditional media largely declined to report on the protests themselves, but made reference to ‘an incident’ and the rising stock price of a tear gas company, whose product was used on protestors. In contrast, there were around 5.25 million posts on Weibo containing the term ‘Shifang’ between 1-4 July with 400,000 containing images and 10,000 containing video. A similar incident occurred in Chengdu, Sichuan province, when factory workers went on strike to demand higher wages. State media ignored the protests while social media spread the news that tear gas was being used, along with images of the protest. Eventually officials stepped down and workers received a raise. Physical protests can be complemented by online activity, but it is not without difficulties.

In addition to the notorious firewall, the government can censor specific words to try and control the narrative of any given incident, by pushing their own agenda and restricting citizens’ freedom of expression. However, many online users use images, and memes in particular can portray a serious topic in a light-hearted manner, further increasing the spread of information.

An OECD report in 2013 evaluated government trust in various countries, China ranked very well with 66% compared to an OECD country average of 40%. However, this disguises some of the ill-feeling towards local government officials, who are usually held accountable by the people. This could change though, as economic policy, typically the role of central government, leads to growing inequality. New leadership within the government is attempting to maintain and improve government trust, by introducing ‘Mao-esque’ techniques in an attempt to bring everyone together under one nation.

It is clear that censorship is one way of trying to achieve this, as those who openly promote citizens’ rights, inclusive democracy and transparency are regularly arrested, including Xu Zhiyong. Additionally, new training materials for journalists and editors suggest a government eager to maintain control, as they expect that the media “must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of journalistic profession.”

Recently, a planned protest to honour a strike over censorship last year was pre-emptively halted, when police warned or detained several people thought to be involved. A well-known campaigner for freedom of expression, Wu Wei, said that protests such as this were not accepted by the government, as they did not fit “within their social stability framework.”

The government is so concerned over social instability that Tiananmen Square is heavily monitored by uniformed and plain-clothed police. The ability to suppress dissent as quickly as possible is necessary in a popular tourist destination, to portray the image of a peaceful China to both international and domestic visitors. The digital censorship employed the government is reflected in physical terms by the large security presence in one of China’s most well-known but contentious landmarks.

The Chinese government is keen to have control over the nation’s information, and fear that freedom of expression and information could pose a threat to their power. Social media offers a critical viewpoint that is lacking from state-controlled media. However, even social media has not been able to completely detach itself from the Chinese government’s censorship.

Nonetheless, the increasing use of social media and rapid spread of information is putting pressure on the government that it has never felt before while the digital revolution is gaining more and more momentum. Democratic consciousness is rising in China and with the state pursuing an oppressive agenda, cultural change from the bottom-up, rather than institutionalised change from the top-down, is necessary to pursue these principles.

This article was posted on 15 Jan 2014 at

China censors Winnie the Pooh

Obama_Xi_Jinping_WinnieChina has censored an image of Winnie the Pooh strolling with Tigger, after it went viral on popular Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo.

The image was circulated after bloggers noticed the similarities between a photo snapped this week of President Barack Obama and Chinese premier Xi Jinping and an illustration of the cartoon characters.

China’s censors are known for their lack of a sense of humour: earlier this month, censors deleted a photoshopped version of a famous picture showing a single protester standing before a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square, where the tanks were replaced with large rubber ducks.


Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index. She tweets from @missyasin

The mechanics of China’s internet censorship

Even rainstorms can be sensitive in China. The recent storm in Beijing which killed at least 77 people caused the censors to come out in force, with newspapers told to can coverage and online accounts of the deluge snipped.

But with 500 million internet users, the obvious question is, how does China do it? What are the mechanics of China’s internet censorship?

It makes things simpler if we divide the censorship first into two camps: censoring the web outside China and censoring domestic sites.

American journalist James Fallows very readable account of how China censors the outside web explains: “Depending on how you look at it, the Chinese government’s attempt to rein in the internet is crude and slapdash or ingenious and well crafted.”

Briefly, this is what happens.

Censoring incoming web pages

The public security ministry is the main government body which oversees censorship of the outside Internet through its Golden Shield Project.

The key to their control is the fact that unlike many other countries, China is only connected to the outside internet through three links (or choke points as Fallows calls them) — one via Japan in the Beijing-Tianjin-Qingdao area, one also via Japan in Shanghai and one in Guangzhou via Hong Kong. At each one of these choke points there is something called a “tapper” which copies each website request and incoming web page and sends it to a surveillance computer for checking. This means that browsing non-local websites in China can sometimes be frustratingly slow.

There are four ways for a surveillance computer to block your request.

  • The DNS (Domain Name System) block: When you enter a web page, the DNS looks up the address of that page in computer language (the IP address). China has a list of IP addresses it blocks, if your web page is on that IP address, the DNS is instructed to give back a bad address and you will get a “site not found” error message.
  • Connection Reset: Another the way the government prevents you seeing one of its blacklisted sites is not to return a bad address but to constantly reset the request, which is slightly more insidious since this kind of error can occur naturally. If it happened outside China you could press reset and the chances are the next time you would be successful. But in China the reset is intentional and however many times you resend the request you will get a “The connection has reset.”
  • URL keyword block: To cast its net even wider, the tappers also check the web address. If it contains any banned words, say “Falun Gong” or “Dalai Lama” the request is sent into an infinite loop, you never reach the site and your connection times out.
  • Content filtering: In this technique the content of web pages is scanned for banned words, with the connection timing out if any blacklisted words are found. This could for example, allow you to browse the Guardian website, but not access some of the new stories.

Censorship technology is continuously becoming more sophisticated, and words and IP addresses go on and off the blacklists.

Index contacted Jed Crandall, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of New Mexico and whose research has focused on Chinese internet censorship, to ask him if there had been much change to the above in the four years since Fallows’s article. Here’s what he said:

“It seems like filtering the content of the web pages using internet routers was not working well for the censors, and they even seemed to be devoting less resources to it over time as we did our experiments,” he told Index by email interview. “They still block IP addresses, DNS addresses, and do keyword filtering on GET requests [URL keyword block].”

Censoring domestic websites

Far more of a challenge to the Chinese government is keeping its homegrown internet in check. And this it does mostly by making sure the private companies that run most of the Chinese web self-censor by issuing threats, “vaguely-worded” laws and, in the case of emergency breaking stories, day-to-day directives.

Censoring professional content

Web companies self-censor in many different ways. Content which they produce themselves is “cleansed” first by the writer and then by editors if necessary. There are few specific censorship guidelines; it is more of an acquired habit of knowing where to draw the line based on fear of punishment. American scholar Perry Link wrote an eloquent essay back in 2003 — read it here — about how Chinese censorship is like an anaconda in the chandelier ready to pounce if someone oversteps that line:

The Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments–all quite ‘naturally.’

Censoring user-produced content

This is where it gets really interesting.

“Social media is more dynamic and fluid than traditional online content, so the censors have to be creative in how they control social media,” says Crandall.

Banned topics and sensitive terms are deleted by hand by armies (literally) of paid internet “police”. This, from a paper published here in June by a team of researchers at Harvard University:

The size and sophistication of the Chinese government’s program to selectively censor the expressed views of the Chinese people is unprecedented in recorded world history. Unlike in the US, where social media is centralized through a few providers, in China it is fractured across hundreds of local sites, with each individual site employing up to 1,000 censors. Additionally, approximately 20,000–50,000 Internet police and an estimated 250,000–300,000 “50 cent party members” (wumao dang) are employed by the central government.

More evidence for the lack of a hardcopy list of banned topics is that different online companies seem to censor different things.

Crandall adds:

One thing we’ve noticed in our research is that what various companies censor seems to vary widely from company to company, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious ‘master list’ of what companies are supposed to censor.  They seem to make up their own lists based on what they think their liabilities would be if the government had to intervene.

For example, censoring in Tibet and Qinghai (a largely Tibetan province) is much stricter than in eastern parts of the country.

Latest trends

Recent reports on Chinese internet censorship have offered some surprising results. First, the Harvard paper referred to above analysed Chinese-language blogs and found that censors were targeting material that could have incited protests or others types of mass action, leaving material critical of the government uncensored.

A recent University of Hong Kong study on Weibo (China’s wildly popular version of Twitter) posts found that the list of words was changing constantly.

“What we are finding is a constantly morphing list of keywords, a cat-and-mouse contest between people and censors,” King-wa Fu, one of the study’s researchers, told the Economist last month.

There might be more to it than a simple catch-up. According to Crandall, censorship can be used as a sophisticated tool to control the news. In a paper titled Whiskey, Weed, and Wukan on the World Wide Web: On Measuring Censors’ Resources and Motivations, when a news story reflects badly on the government, posts on it are censored, but when that news story has been turned around to a good story, the word is unblocked.

“It appears that censorship was applied only long enough for the news about Wukan to change from sensitive news to a story of successful government intervention to reach a peaceful resolution to the problem,” the paper’s authors write.

(Wukan is the name of a village in southern China where huge clashes between the police and locals occurred over illegal land grabs late last year. The government eventually caved into the villagers’ demands and then turned the story in one of a provincial government victory.)

The Future

Chinese censorship has to move with the times, particularly now there are 500 million Chinese online, many of whom are ardent microbloggers.

Crandall believes that the government is looking into how to manipulate social media to influence the news.

I think what the future of internet censorship holds is more emphasis on control and less emphasis on blocking content. It’s very difficult to block some specific topic, but if you can slow down spread of news of the topic at some times and speed up spread of news about the topic at other times you can use that to your advantage to control how issues play out in the news cycles.


Blogger Wen Yunchao wrote for Index on Censorship magazine in 2010 about the art of Chinese censorship. Read his article here.

Also writing for our magazine, Southern Weekend columnist Xiao Shu discusses the repressive and chaotic nature of China’s internet censorship here.

Read Chinese author and blogger Han Han’s essay about publishing and censorship in China here.


Southern Weekly censorship causes nationwide condemnation

A propaganda chief has caused widespread outrage by censoring a Chinese newspaper’s New Year editorial. Southern Weekly, one of the most daring media outlets in the country, has fought back and attracted the support of netizens as well as ordinary folk,  who  protested today [7 January], calling for press freedom.

The Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Chief, Tuo Zhen, is said to have changed the heading and content of a 2013 new year editorial originally written by Southern Weekly editors. “China’s Dream is a Dream of Constitution” became “We Are Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before.” No Southern Weekly editor knew until they saw the print edition.

Indignant, Chinese bloggers started discussing this as early as 2 January. In the next few days, noted figures were calling for Tuo’s resignation. Among them was Zhang Yihe, the writer whose memoirs have been banned on the mainland.

Today, after a night of criticisms of microblog platform Sina Weibo’s censoring of Southern Weekly journalists’ accounts — many of whom have either staged a walk out or spoken out — ordinary people in Guangzhou gathered and protested at the headquarters of Southern Weekly.

Wen Yunchao, a rights activist has collected over 100 photos of the protest on Google+. Most people held signs in support of Southern Weekly and in defiance of Tuo Zhen.

Photo of protesters outside the Southern Weekly office by Husker on Sina Weibo

Photo of protesters outside the Southern Weekly office by Husker on Sina Weibo

Netizens were also also outraged by a leaked microblog by the journalist Wu Wei, who wrote that he was forced to hand over the password to the Southern Weekly Sina microblog account to the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Huang Can. Under guidance, a statement was then tweeted from the account, alleging that the New Year’s greeting was “drafted by personnel at Southern Weekly,” extending its apologies to readers for the errors on the front page that were committed due to “lack of time and negligence.”

This caused an uproar, not least because the errors were obviously caused by the propaganda chief, who slotted in his own comments, writing what he wanted without having it checked by news editors. Tuo Zhen is accused of deliberately condensing 2012 as he saw fit, for toeing the Party line, and putting a controversial passage on the front page the prestigious newspaper. The passage began: 

Great Yu Controls the Flood, a story from two thousand years ago, taught us the Chinese people’s dream of peace, prosperity, and happiness, fought for through uniting in strength and indomitability.

Not only is this contrary to the message of the original Southern Weekly piece — asking for a “constitution realised and power effectively checked” — but there were two basic mistakes in the opening sentence: One was a wrong character — akin to a typo in English — used for the phrase “uniting in strength”; the other was that Great Yu controlled the flood four thousand years ago, not two.

Dozens of ex-Southern Weekly interns sent out an open letter condemning these mistakes. It was soon deleted by microblog censors. Other journalists at the paper have also commented on how angry they were at these mistakes.

They also rallied at the inside editorial, slashed and re-written without permission from editors.

Wang Xiaoshan, a noted journalist, wrote about holding a vigil for the many Southern Weekly journalists who are facing retribution for their outspoken defiance, with their jobs on the line.

In an open letter from 5 January, Southern Weekly staff wrote:

What happened three days ago was only a trigger. An incomplete calculation has showed that in 2012 Southern Weekly had 1,034 articles changed or killed. In the last year, the newspaper has suffered through unmatched censoring, killing off of articles or even whole pages.

We’re not afraid to offend because we think this concerns the fundamental position of the news media. And because it’s so fundamental, we must be plainspoken. We’re not acting as a result of holding a grudge, but due to the sense of dignity, responsibility, and feeling of achievement that one person should accord another.

Meanwhile, on 4 January Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a weekly press conference:

There is no such thing as so-called media censorship in China. The Chinese government protects press freedom according to the law, and enables full supervision of opinion in the media and of its citizens.