What China’s Weibo censorship does, and does not, reveal

A flurry of research on Weibo censorship underscores what we already know about the Chinese company Sina’s microblog service–with a few surprises thrown in. 

Academics at MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Hong Kong have been independently compiling data about when and why content is blocked on Weibo. Here are some interesting findings:

  • Where you are makes a difference: “The rate of message deletion is not uniform throughout the country, with messages originating in the outlying provinces of Tibet and Qinghai exhibiting much higher deletion rates than those from eastern areas like Beijing.” (Carnegie Mellon University)
  • But not if you’re outside China: “Censors are able to delete posts from any Weibo account, even if the user lives outside the mainland” according to the South China Morning Post‘s report on findings from the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school.
  • Researchers can salvage censored content: The University of Hong Kong’s WeiboScope “tracks the profiles of 300,000 Sina Weibo users who have more than 1,000 followers. The program downloads their posts throughout the day, and by comparing their profiles at different times, researchers can identify deleted posts,” according to the South China Morning Post.
  • They can also track sensitive terms over time: Most deleted topics in June were activist Chen Guangcheng, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, and activist Li Wangyang, who died in mysterious circumstances on June 6, the Post reported, citing WeiboScope research.
  • Censorship can be immediate, or it can take a while: The fastest a post was deleted on Sina Weibo was just over four minutes. The slowest? Over four months, according to MIT Sloan School MBA candidate Chi-Chu Tschang, as cited on Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab website.
  • “Permission denied” = censorship:  Of course, Weibo users can delete their own posts. But MIT and Hong Kong researchers agreed that a “permission denied” message indicates previously available content has been censored.
  • Censors take the weekend off:  Deletion “tends to hit a low on Saturdays” Tschang wrote, according to the Nieman Lab.

Perhaps the most surprising findings came from the team at Harvard. “Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored,” the paper, published June 18, states (emphasis added). Instead, researchers Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts argue, censorship focusses on “curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.”

It’s a startling claim because it appears to contradict the one we make so often at CPJ–that the Chinese Communist Party cracks down on its critics. But it actually supports our understanding of how writers and journalists are punished in China–not on Weibo, but in the courts.

The clue is in the phrase “spur social mobilization.” Those words would ring a bell for many of the 27 journalists documented in our China prison census of 2011 who were jailed on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Produced in court as evidence of that charge, in case after case, are online writings. In one recent example, Lü Jiaping and two supporters were sentenced on the basis of 13 articles which prosecutors described as likely to instigate subversion. Court documents published online reveal that the 3rd Brigade of the Beijing Public Security Bureau’s Internet Security and Defense Office pored through online archives looking for content “of an inciting nature.” What they selected was not incitement, but dissenting opinion: “The corruption situation cannot be curbed;” or, “Even now with 30 years of reform, not only do we remain backwards, the speed at which we fall back is accelerating.”

The Harvard analysis serves as a useful reminder that Chinese Internet users generally have more freedom to talk politics than the English-language media gives them credit for, and provides useful evidence of the goals of censors working on the ground. But it would be a mistake to build on its findings to distinguish between free expression and inciting unrest. Chinese courts use the former as evidence of the latter, even when it’s nothing of the kind. As long as that’s true, critics should remember that even untouched postings which are apparently sanctioned could come back to haunt them. And we’ll continue to assert that China punishes its critics.