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Chinese internet censorship? Seeking the ‘truth’ on Weibo

Last week, Chinese internet users noticed the two Mandarin characters for “truth” could not be searched on Sina Weibo, the most popular microblogging platform in China. On July 12,Tom Philips, Shanghai…

Does Western media jump on Chinese “censorship” stories with a little too much zeal? Thomas Hawk

Last week, Chinese internet users noticed the two Mandarin characters for “truth” could not be searched on Sina Weibo, the most popular microblogging platform in China.

On July 12,Tom Philips, Shanghai correspondent for The Telegraph, cited one Hong Kong Weibo user’s claims that the “truth” was first found to be missing in late June. This article circulated quickly online, especially in Western media.

Search results for “truth” could not be displayed. Sina Weibo

By July 16, the search results for “truth” were again displayed as normal. No-one, it seems, can explain if this was a temporary censorship aimed at some unknown negative news, or just a technical problem.

An illusory problem?

It may surprise Western observers that there has been little discussion of this ironic situation inside China. But a couple of points are worth noting here:

1) Only searching for the term “truth” was temporarily blocked, not posting the term.

2) While “truth” is a common term in Mandarin, people rarely search for the term itself. Rather, they search for specific events, even if the truth is potentially at issue. They would not search for “the truth about Chen Guangcheng”: they would simply search for “Chen Guangcheng”.

Given these two factors, it might be quite easy not to notice the word “truth” missing from searches.

Western searchers would likely be in the same situation. How often do we search for “the truth about The Shire?” Nevertheless, Western media were – and are – very keen to report this type of news, and in this case have been somewhat careless in reporting the word “truth” was “blocked” on Weibo.

That narrative implies Weibo users could not post any content with the Mandarin characters “truth” – in it’s own way, and somewhat ironically, a lie.

The ambivalence of Chinese internet censorship

The Chinese government has received wide criticism for its internet censorship from western commentators. According to Reporters Without Borders, China is listed as one of those countries that are “Enemies of the internet” and “under surveillance”.

Internet Censorship World Map Wikimedia

In the last two decades China has continued to open itself up to the world, developing an information industry while trying to maintain strict control over information flows.

This is confusing to those who have never used the Chinese internet. Google’s policy advisor Lokman Tsui has argued Western understanding of the Chinese internet is inevitably constructed through a “selective process of powerful acts of imagination” – and this blurs the facts of Chinese internet-related issues.

The Chinese government considers the internet as economically advantageous but politically disadvantageous. As in many other developing countries, the rights to economic development are treated as overriding the rights of individuals.

Indeed, this guideline was once clearly stated in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda.

So in one sense China enjoys benefits from the booming information industry as the government has full jurisdiction over all IT-related issues. But it keeps a close eye on the potential threats that new technologies may bring to the one-party rule regime.

This ambivalent attitude is also reflected in its internet censorship. Sometimes the censorship is consistent but more often than not it is anticlimactic and ineffective. Bill Gates has said Chinese efforts to censor the internet are “very limited”, because “it’s easy to go around it”.

Practically, the degree of censorship also differs greatly by websites or content. Small general-interest online communities with less traffic suffer less censorship and enjoy much freer speech.

In contrast, those with large numbers of users and active interactions (such as Sina Weibo, which has more than 300m users) are more likely to be censored. Even so, people can still comfortably discuss cultural, social, nationalistic, and political issues that do not directly challenge state/party authority.

The value of resistance

It’s worth noting that in some nationalistic events, the Chinese government even covertly indulges online public opinion and leverages patriotism to diplomatic ends.

Many contentious activities also thrive online because contention increases traffic and as a result is profitable for the websites. Chinese portals often encourage users to participate in contentious behaviour, albeit within limits.

Another uniqueness of the Chinese internet is its culture of resistance. Chinese netizens do try to stay within bounds and refrain from directly challenging state power, but they also know how to skillfully use the versatility of Chinese language to create codes, homophones, and satires that can avoid filtering and censorship.

Users cannot visit Facebook or Twitter, but there are many Chinese counterparts to choose from. Those who want to obtain information from outside can always find a way – for instance, using anti-censorship software such as Freegate.

This is a progressive and cumulative situation, because more and more Chinese people are being transformed by the internet – especially by social media such as Weibo – and are raising awareness of democracy, freedom of speech, and civil rights.

Leviathan(s)

We should also acknowledge that internet censorship is not just a Chinese practice. Many countries, including Australia have, or are considering, setting up varied degrees of internet censorship to counter unpredictable cyberthreats.

Australian arguments for and against censorship are still going on. Civil liberties groups such as Electronic Frontiers Australia run campaigns advocating for increased personal online freedom even while the Australian government argues for the need for increased surveillance.

This is not intended as a straw-man argument, or an excuse for the Chinese government carrying out immoderate online censorship. Such efforts will ultimately fail. For now it’s hard for the Chinese government to answer if the internet should be totally open or not.

But I believe, as civil society develops in China, the internet will ultimately play a critical role in democratisation.

Further reading:
No-no on Weibo: China challenges the New York Times

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    With social networks aside, I believe that the issue of China's internet censorship in general is completely overblown and has little if any effect on the general day-to-day internet habits of the overwhelmingly majority of Chinese internet users. I would argue that a great bulk of users are completely unaware of any censorship at all and for those who meet the problem it's probably no more than 讨厌的at worst.

    If censorship is such a great problem then one would expect some pretty hefty numbers in VPN accounts as free VPNs are blocked. However, two years ago only 400,000 Chinese or an insignificant 0.1 percent of the internet population were reported to have accounts with commercial VPN services and I would expect there's been little if any significant change since then.

    I'm not sure about the rest of China but Freegate which I've used once or twice over the years has been blocked in my region.

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    1. John Harrison

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Tony Xiao

      Thank for this observation Tony,

      It is precisely the questions you are asking here that are the focus of Yanshuang Zhang's doctoral research at The University of Queensland, of which I am principal advisor.

      While your question relates to "the internet", our research team is looking specifically at microblogging in China - currently a substantially underesearched topic. We are deploying second generation text analytic and visualisation software applications (some not yet commercially avaialable) to examine substanial volumes of text to give us valid and reliable empirical results. Watch this space.

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    2. Xulong Zhi

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Harrison

      The uses of Chinese social media have been really interesting topic and research area for me. Last year, I wrote an assignment on the impact of weibo on the crushed bullet train, which was one of the critical social events,linking with the community development theories and approaches. I think it is necessary to acknowledge the Chinese political environment and its psychology. For some people, they may not have a strong opinion towards these particular events. Thus, they may less likely to be influenced as a netizen. However, when people feel somehow involved with the event and developed some attachments, this might be the point which people may feel cenorship would be a serious problem. It is very interesting to see this issue from communication and media point of view. I'd be interested to contemplate from sociological and psychological point of view, if it is possible for you guys to present.
      Regards

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    3. Yanshuang Zhang

      PhD Candidate at University of Queensland

      In reply to Xulong Zhi

      Despite everything that has been discussed in this article, I oppose immoderate Internet censorship, beause everybody will be involved and negatively affected sooner or later. It's just a matter of time.
      In a country where the rights of individuals are not fully guaranteed, nobody can manage alone or stand aloof after all.

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  2. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Question:
    Is there any quantitative research or empirical evidence to show that apart from those serious researchers and the usual gaggle of foreign journalists, dissidents and activists on and off the MAINLAND that internet censorship is problematic or even an issue with the half billion and more MAINLAND Chinese internet population?

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  3. Rey Tiquia
    Rey Tiquia is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at University of Melbourne

    The Chinese word for 'truth', 'true'; or 'genuine' is 'zhen' 真. Constructing this Chinese script combines the characters 'mu' 目 ('eyes'); 'zhi' 直 ('straight'), 'hua' 化 ('change') , and 'wu' 兀 ('high platform"). And according to G.D. Wilder and JH Ingram in their book ' Analysis of Chinese Characters' 1974, p. 75-76, the meaning conveyed by putting together these script components of the Chinese word 'zhen' 真 is "moral rectitude ['zhi' 直 ('straight') ] acquired by change ['hua' 化 ('change')] and raising ['wu' 兀 ('high platform")] of the moral nature is true, genuine ['zhen' 真]."

    Considering this nature of the Chinese script 'zhen'真, there is no way then can the word be 'searched' in Weibo nor can it be 'deleted' from a website.

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  4. Wei Ling Chua

    Freelance Journalist and Author at Self Employed

    Examples of western censorship:

    1) Bush and Blair found guilty of war crimes in Malaysia Tribunal in 2011. This is the full text of the court verdict: http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=27820 ; the question is, any mainstream western media reported this piece of news? Why? Not news worthy? Try to post this piece of information with a link as comment in any mainstream western media website and see if your comment will be accepted.

    2) If you try to put up this comment about the…

    Read more
  5. Bill Oski

    CEO

    I think anybody have right to read and watch what he want.
    IF someony have problems with censorship he can always use some VPN. I found recently great offer: http://bartvpn.com/

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