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#Censored: Tracking Blocked Searches on China's Homegrown Version of Twitter

Hair bacon, Tigger, Falun Gong: On Sina Weibo, you've got to be careful what you say.


On June 8, President Obama and China’s president, Xi Jinping, went for a walk around the Sunnylands estate in Southern California. Soon after, a photograph surfaced of the two men—stout Xi, lanky Obama—strolling together on the grass. By chance, it bore a distinct similarity to a certain cartoon of Winnie the Pooh and his pal Tigger. Not only were the two men roughly the right height and shape, but their legs were positioned in exactly the same way.

Someone in China noticed. After a side-by-side comparison of the images was posted online, it spread quickly on the country’s most popular social networking service, Sina Weibo (seen-ah way-bwo), a more dynamic version of Twitter that has 200 million users.

But it wasn’t long before all posts containing the image vanished from the site. Evidently, someone in China didn’t like the idea of comparing the country’s president to a honey-guzzling bear.

Evidently, someone in China didn't like the idea of comparing the country's president to a honey-guzzling bear.

In China, Western sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked by the nationwide set of Internet restrictions called the Golden Shield (often referred to in the West as the Great Firewall). But in the country’s homegrown social-media landscape, censorship is a piecemeal affair, with variation from site to site: a banned search here, some deleted posts there, Pooh and Tigger today, a fresh political scandal tomorrow.

Some of the censorship is government-directed. Most, however, is initiated by the sites themselves. Sina Weibo (typically referred to as just Weibo, meaning micro-blog) and others of its kind risk getting shut down if they host too much sensitive content. And so they self-censor. This makes it difficult to know what, exactly, is being hidden behind the Great Firewall.

In 2011, Jason Q. Ng, then a graduate student of East Asian studies at the University of Pittsburgh, decided to investigate. He wrote a computer program that automated 700,000 Weibo searches and recorded those that triggered a blocked-search error message. Unlike previous researchers, who investigated Weibo blocks one hunch at a time, Ng set his program to pull search terms from Wikipedia’s Chinese-language site—itself often blocked in China—in hopes of digging up blocks that others hadn’t even thought to look for.

Ng discovered almost a thousand blocks. Many were predictable enough: Tiananmen Square, Tibetan protest, Falun Gong. Some were what he calls immorality blocks: one-night stand, incest, nipple slip, plus a selection of obscenities commonly banned by American media outlets.

But just as Ng had hoped, his program also caught several less predictable restrictions. He started a blog, Blocked on Weibo, where he shared his findings and posted explanations for more interesting or puzzling prohibitions. In August, a Blocked on Weibo book was released by the New Press, where Ng worked after graduating from Brown with an English degree.

“It’s fun to uncover less obvious blocks,” he told me recently. His favorite is mao larou—literally, hair bacon—a little-used pun that refers to Mao Zedong’s embalmed body, which still sits on display in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Elsewhere online, a search for mao larou turns up satirical recipes for how to cook a meal with “preserved meat of Mao.”

Also blocked: flash mob, WikiLeaks, student leader, Radio Free Asia, tank, parade, plainclothes, hidden microphone, and 50 cents (a derogatory term for Internet users paid by the Chinese government to post pro-Communist Party sentiments online). And, more perplexingly: color of leopard, Hoobastank (the American rock band), and calico cat.

Ng likens the interaction between Weibo’s censors and users to a game of cat and mouse. A block set in July might be lifted in August, then restored in September. (On the most recent anniversary of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, the words today, tonight, and tomorrow were blocked.) Savvy posters do their best to hide controversial content behind puns like mao larou, oblique allusions (empty stool, a reference to imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo’s absence from the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony), and irony. And when savvy searchers encounter a block, they can sometimes work around it by dropping a character or word from their search term—at least until the workaround gets blocked, too.

Sometimes, though, what Weibo’s censors want to keep most hidden from the site’s users is the fact that censorship exists at all. Offensive posts can be “ghosted,” leaving them visible to their authors but invisible to everyone else, often without the author knowing what’s happened. And in recent months, Weibo has abandoned its block notifications for some searches. Instead, a user who enters a forbidden term may simply be told that no results were found. On his blog, Ng described the change as “rather foreboding.”

When Ng and I spoke, he had recently finished his master’s at Pittsburgh and was about to move to Canada, where he will be the Google Policy Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, continuing his Weibo research, but also investigating state surveillance on the China-specific version of Skype. The day before our meeting he’d flown back from Hong Kong, where he’d attended the third annual Circumvention Tech Summit. While there, he and some software developers created a rough version of Scientific Weibo, a free application that, with the click of a button, generates potential workarounds for blocked searches. People are already using it, Ng said. As of this writing, the download page is not yet blocked in China.