In the 3rd century BC, the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang attempted to destroy original Confucian texts and killed scholars who had knowledge in those texts. This event is known as “fénshū kēngrú” (in English: the burning of books and burying of scholars). At least since that time, the Chinese government has been using censorship to prevent the spread of subversive ideas. The contemporary censorship techniques in China differ significantly from the techniques used by Emperor Qin. Nowadays, one of the most effective forms of censorship is the censorship of social media.
This article provides an overview of the Chinese social media censorship (Section 2) and discusses the social media content censored by the Chinese government (Section 3). Afterwards, the article examines the training of censors of social media content (Section 4) as well as the censorship documents issued by the Chinese government (Section 5). Next, an analysis is provided on the ways for circumventing the Chinese censorship of social media (Section 6) and the sanctions for publishing content violating censorship guidelines (Section 7). Finally, a conclusion is drawn (Section 8).
2. An overview of the Chinese social media censorship
In China, most of the global social network websites such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked. Users residing outside of China can check whether a website is blocked in China by using www.greatfirewallofchina.org . The founders of www.greatfirewallofchina.org established a server in China which tests whether a website can be opened in China. A screenshot of www.greatfirewallofchina.org is provided below.
If a social network website is not blocked in China, the censorship process begins when an individual submits a post to that social media website. After the submission, the post may be (1) published immediately, (2) automatically prevented from being posted by automated keyword filters, or (3) sent to a censor for a review.
In case the post is published immediately, a censor may read it and remove it. If the post is automatically prevented from being posted, the post may be reviewed by a censor and published at a later time. If the post is sent for a review, the author of the message usually receives a message informing her that the post is sent for review. Even if such a message is not received by the author, the lack of a public URL associated with the post will mean that the post is in a process of review. It is worth mentioning that the post may be sent for a review by automatic keyword filters. An academic study found that 66 of the 100 Chinese social media sites used some kind of automatic filter that would send certain posts for review.
The automatic filters examine the content with the aim to find out whether the content contains three categories of words, namely, (1) masked words, (2) sensitive words, and (3) taboo words. The masked words are automatically replaced by an asterisk. The sensitive words are sent to censors for review. The taboo words are automatically removed. The below-mentioned figure shows the mechanism of Chinese social media censorship.
3. Censored social media content
A study conducted by King, Pan, and Roberts revealed that the Chinese government does not censor all content criticizing the government, but only content that may provoke collective action events (e.g. public manifestationsand marches). Even content that supports the Chinese government will be taken down if it relates to such collective action events.
Probably, the Chinese government does not take down all content criticizing the government because it would like to use the critiques to replace government officials who are corrupted or incompetent. By replacing such officials, the government will ensure stability of the regime.
Any messages concerning collective action are considered by the government as a threat because such messages have the potential to trigger unmanageable and spontaneous social events. For example, the protests in Egypt coordinated through social media led to the quick collapse of the Mubarak regime.
4. Training of censors of social media content
The censors of social media content include not only government officials, but also private companies. This is because all Chinese online companies have to establish a section dedicated to monitoring all content published on their websites.
The censors of social media content are regularly passing censorship courses. For example, the Chinese Information Office of the State Council regularly organizes censorship courses over its employees. The participants in the courses receive a certificate.
In addition to training courses, the Chinese government provides ideological courses to employees of online companies. The aim of those courses is to embed the importance of the communist principles within the Chinese information society. For instance, since 2004, employees of online companies have been making online media trips to “the birth place of communism.” Visitors are requested to publish articles about it.
5. Censorship documents issued by the Chinese government
The Chinese government issues three kind of censorship documents, namely: directives prohibiting the publication of non-published materials (Section 5.1), directives withdrawing published materials (Section 5.2), and propaganda instructions (Section 5.3).
5.1 Directives prohibiting the publication of non-published materials
The Chinese government sends directives prohibiting non-published materials to online companies. A report written by a Chinese technician working for an Internet company revealed the following directive:
“Please do not refer to the film ‘Summer Palace,’ a participant in the Cannes Film Festival official competition, without obtaining the censor’s approval. You are also asked not to post articles or comments on this subject and not to interview actors who appeared in the film. You are asked not to report or reproduce any information about the Cannes Film Festival that mentions the film. Finally, do not post any articles on this subject in discussion forums, blogs, or comments.”
5.2 Directives withdrawing published materials
If the Chinese government notices published materials that need to be censored, it submits directives to the publishers ordering the withdrawal of those materials. One such directive can be read in the aforementioned report. The directive is stated below.
“Dear colleagues, the Internet has of late been full of articles and messages about the death of a Shenzhen engineer, Hu Xinyu, as a result of overwork. All sites must stop posting articles on this subject, those that have already been posted about it must be removed from the site and, finally, forums and blogs must withdraw all articles and messages about this case.”
5.3 Propaganda instructions
The Chinese government sends propaganda instructions to online companies. Such instructions may, for example, request the online companies to publish reports about the commemoration of the date of creation of the Communist PartyofChina (CPC) and the commemoration of pre-1949 Communist heroes.
6. Circumventing the Chinese social media censorship
The Chinese residents can circumvent the censorship of social media either by proxy servers, VPN (virtual private network), or SSH (secure shell). A proxy server is a server located between a website and the user. The Chinese government puts efforts to prevent the use of such servers. For example, it blocked the IP address of the TOR directory allowing users to get a list of proxy nodes. TOR is free software enabling online anonymity. As a result of the block, TOR lost the majority of its Chinese users.
VPN and SSH provide more opportunities to avoid censorship than proxy servers. In comparison to proxy servers, VPN and SSH depend on a private host (or virtual host), not on open and free proxies. VPN and SSH can be set up only by people having high level technical skills. It should be noted that the Chinese government blocks popular public VPN services. The government even blocked the domain names containing the word “vpn”. The blocked domain names include, but are not limited to, “vpn.co”, “vpn.us”, “vpn.net”, and “vpn.com”.
7. Sanctions for publishing content violating censorship guidelines
Publishers of social media content violating the censorship guidelines are often arrested or fined. The below-mentioned two examples illustrate the Chinese approach towards the violators of censorship guidelines.
In September 2013, a 16-year-old teenager in China was arrested because he posted two messages in social networks commenting on the handling of a person’s death by the police. The message included the phrase “All officials shield one another.” The boy was arrested a few days after posting the messages.
A couple of months later, The Guardian stated that Qin Zhihui, a Chinese Citizen, was jailed for three years because he “provoked troubles” in Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter. One of the reasons for the prison sentence was the publication of a post claiming that the Chinese government gave 41 million U.S. dollars in compensation to a foreigner who died in a train crash in China. The rumor spread by Mr. Qin was reposted 11,000 times and commented on 3,300 times. Mr. Qin is deemed to be the first person convicted under the new rules prohibiting online rumormongering. According to the prosecutors at a Beijing district court, Qin’s act had a serious impact on society and harmed the social order. The laws of China define online rumormongering as the spread of false information over the Internet which is either viewed 5,000 times or received by at least 500 other users.
This article has shown that the mechanism of censoring social media in China is at once sophisticated and circumventable. The mechanism is sophisticated because it uses a combination of automatic tools and human censors. Such a combination allows the Chinese authorities to quickly censor content and at the same time adapt to the efforts of the social media users to get around censorship. Due to the adaptive capacities of the mechanism, human censors quickly notice and integrate the automatic filter signs, such as “/” and “\”. These signs are often added by Internet users before or after censored words.
The mechanism is circumventable because the use of proxies, VPN, and SSH may allow the Chinese residents to visit blocked websites. However, the severe sanctions that may be imposed on social network users who circumvent censorship are often sufficiently effective in preventing the users from trying to use circumvention tools. As long as China is “the world’s biggest prison for netizens”, the Chinese government will most likely succeed in its censorship efforts.
* The author would like to thank Rasa Juzenaite for her invaluable contribution to this article.
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