Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday column in The New York Times documents the latest in a series of tests the journalist has performed in Chinese cyberspace. The conflicting results he achieved while setting up a Chinese-language blog and micro-blog demonstrate how difficult it is to judge what censors will permit in an online space.
The micro-blog quickly attracted followers and was shut down after a friend helped publicize it, according to Kristof. But the more anonymous blog remained a forum for surprisingly open posting of articles about imprisoned journalist Liu Xiaobo and the banned spiritual group, Falun Gong–that is, until Kristof mentioned it in an international newspaper. The blog was closed just hours after the column went online, according to an update on the Times’ website.
Kristof’s experience indicates Chinese censors devote their most stringent efforts to highly visible sites, allowing other bloggers to publish forbidden material under the radar. Still, any online publisher who puts controversial information in the public domain runs great risk. Three Uighur website managers were imprisoned in 2010, partly for failing to delete content about sensitive ethnic issues quickly enough to suit authorities, according to CPJ research.
If prison terms like that are a sign of things to come, censors may not need to be proactive about deleting blog posts: They can pass that responsibility on to website managers or telecommunications companies, and let them do the censor’s work.