Heavier restrictions are becoming the norm in Xi Jinping’s Chinaby Yuan Ren / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
I reply to my friend: “What are you talking about?” We are on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform, a kind of Facebook-Whats-App hybrid. A message I had received referred to “the above photo.” There was no photo.
My friend responds with a screenshot from his phone—and there it is, the missing picture. It had seemingly been plucked out, somewhere en route. But there was no error message. This is the new age of Chinese online censorship: automated and sneaky.
WeChat has over 768m daily users, and just like Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) it self-censors. As well as automated content filtering, company censors remove sensitive material in line with government rules. The same friend often sends me articles, saying, semi-jokingly, “open quickly, this link will self-destruct in 60 mins.” Sometimes, they’re blocked when the message arrives.
The surest route to censorship is via the “three Ts”: Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. Sensitive words or photos get the chop. After the death of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Prize winner who campaigned against Communist rule, pictures of him on WeChat just disappeared. But it isn’t just politics that can cause material to go missing, or a social media account to be closed down. Topics like pollution and even entertainment news don’t always comply with the government’s aim of cultivating a “healthy, uplifting environment for mainstream opinion,” and as such are prone to censorship or choreographed social media responses.
The Chinese internet is bound by the “The Great Firewall” that blocks Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and a huge chunk of the web. Western news sites are also blocked. Sometimes the actions reflect the naked self-interest of the authorities. People lost access to the New York Times’s Chinese and English websites after a 2012 article on the wealth of China’s political elites. Sometimes there are wider policy issues.
Along with WordPress and Gmail, Instagram found itself an outsider too in 2014, as the pro-democracy “Occupy Central” protests gripped Hong Kong and pictures flooded the mainland. During last September’s Communist Party Conference, WhatsApp also found itself shut out.
One reason Beijing can get away with it is that most Chinese people don’t access foreign sites or care if they’re blocked—there’s plenty of Chinese social media. A small minority, including expats, do use a VPN…