What do hair bacon, foot fetishes and princelings have in common? They’re all blocked on Weibo.
Time Out talks to Jason Ng, author of a new book on the microblogging platform
In 2011, China Digital Times consultant Jason Ng was a graduate student of East Asian studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He concocted a scheme to systematically uncover as many blocked terms on China’s most popular micro-blog as he could find. The results, published in print this month as the book Blocked on Weibo, are as mystifying as they are revealing, as Ng explains.
Why this project?
The genesis initially came from wanting to study media in China. In my second semester I was shown this graph of censorship taking place in Xinjiang during the factory riots [when the internet was blocked for roughly ten months from 2009-10]. I was astounded at the sort of controls that were in place, so I started to research. Trying to uncover blocked searches on Weibo is just one slice of it.
Why focus on Weibo?
Weibo is a totally transformative social media platform, even though it has some of the same functions as Twitter and Facebook. There are other forms, like Tianya.cn and other BBS [Bulletin Board Systems] with open discussion but Weibo has 50 million daily users and 600 million registered accounts, which means more people are going to be focused on it now.
How did your search programme work?
I ran the computer script to collect blocked keywords for two to three months. For my keyword list I used Wikipedia China. At the top of every article there’s a headline and I downloaded a list of all those titles. It took a couple of months to run through all 700,000... out of this 1,500 were blocked. I cleaned it up a bit and in the end there were about 500 that were blocked, 150 of them went in the book.
What do you mean by ‘blocked’?
‘Blocked’ makes you think of something that can’t be discussed at all whereas I collect search terms which, when searched for on Weibo, produce a message saying they can’t show you the results because of laws and regulations.
Do you have any favourites?
A good example of how terms respond to current events is funu (rich woman). In June 2011 a woman called Guo Meimei posted on her profile that she was part of the Red Cross executive. She also posted pictures of herself with a luxury car and first class plane tickets. Weibo users got outraged by the fact that this woman could be flaunting so much wealth.
So they went after her. Charity took a big hit and in China donations to the Red Cross fell by something like 50 per cent. That’s an example of the authorities trying to block off a conversation that clearly hurts them.
Hair bacon (mao larou) is also fascinating to me. When I found out it was censored I showed it to my Chinese friends and they couldn’t figure out what it was a reference to. I spent some time researching and eventually came across a recipe for mao larou. We eventually figured out that mao is not just a reference to hair but also Mao Zedong. Larou can mean meat that you eat but it’s also a different kind of meat: someone’s body, a corpse.
How many words are banned at any one time?
My script is able to identify 400-500, but there are many more than that. The numbers have come down in the months that I’ve been tracking, from 533 to 430. There was a lot of unblocking after the Congress in November 2012 when Xi Jinping became leader. Politicians’ names became unblocked and people started to talk about it as a sign of a potential opening up of freedom of speech; more were saying it is part of an effort to appear freer. But I don’t think censorship is decreasing. Censors are using different tactics.
Can you tell us the top five most censored topics?
Any calls for protest or gathering of people, that’s number one. Number two would be discussion of censorship itself. ‘I’m using this VPN, you should try it’ gets silenced quickly. More surprising is pornography. It’s technically illegal in China, but a lot of the keywords we extract from sites are related to porn or sexual acts. There are spiritual pollution campaigns every couple of months that shut down sites. Then it’s calls for democratic reform. Fifth might be organisations that might be illegal in China, such as certain religious groups.
What surprised you most?
The almost arbitrariness of it.
Back in June 2011 an official photograph featured in a prominent spot on the Huili County website allegedly depicted three local officials standing on a newly-paved road. Unfortunately the photo had been poorly doctored using Photoshop, giving the impression that the men were magically levitating. The image quickly turned into a full-blown meme sensation across Weibo, with netizens pasting the three hovering officials into various comedy scenes (see main image).
Yan Dacai, a provincial work and safety chief from Shaanxi province, earned his infamous nickname in August 2012 after Weibo netizens uncovered photos of him wearing a range of luxury watches, which they deemed that he was unlikely to have procured legally on his public sector salary. Since Yan was relieved of his post the finger has turned instead to point at Shaanxi vice governor Li Jinzhu, who is alleged to have covered up the corruption.
Xi Jinping’s bad back
When China’s then leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping failed to attend a scheduled meeting with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in September 2012, two months before he took power, rumours quickly began to spread as to his whereabouts. Speculation grew when an odd, unofficial explanation that the leader had hurt his back swimming came into the public sphere. Weibo responded instantly by blocking searches for Xi’s name.