Microblogging websites like Weibo, once regarded as unprecedented platforms for free expression in China, have in recent years become primary targets for government censors and lawmakers, resulting in the decline of online discussion around sensitive topics online. A new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Yaqiu Wang analyzes logs leaked by a former employee of Weibo’s censorship department to show how the site treads a “fine line between appeasing government censors and encouraging users to keep posting”:
The documents account for most of the internal orders of Weibo censorship departments between April 2011 and late 2014, according to the former employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions. Each document, usually a couple of pages long, contains the censorship orders of a day shift (10 hours) or a night shift (14 hours). The former employee, who said he left Weibo because he felt his job was “maleficent,” told CPJ he collected the logs so “people can study [them].”
[…] While the logs are a record of the censorship department managers’ orders to the employees, the source of the orders came from a government relations specialist at Sina who served as a middle man between the government and Sina’s censorship department, according to the former employee. The specialist received censorship orders from various government agencies via channels such as the messaging apps QQ and WeChat and conveyed them to managers in the censorship department. “Those orders are usually clear, direct and urgent, like whose accounts need to removed and which posts need to be deleted,” the former employee said. “The Cyberspace Administration of China is the highest authority to Internet companies, but even the Ministry of Agriculture has the power to order us to remove posts.” The former employee added: “The specialist also frequently goes to government meetings to study the ‘spirit of [other larger] meetings,’ which are broad censorship guidelines. He then gives us some very vague orders. The censorship documents I sent you included both kinds of censorship orders.”
[…] The censorship logs viewed by CPJ provide insight into the workings of Weibo’s then approximately 150-member censorship team. They show how government directives were received, processed, and executed within Weibo, and hint at Sina’s struggle in balancing satisfying the government’s censorship demands with maintaining user activity level. […] [Source]
In a separate post for CPJ, Wang interviews the former employee on the development of Weibo’s censorship strategy and his reasons for leaving the company:
As someone who has used Weibo for several years, I find its censorship appears to be tighter. How do you think Weibo censorship changed during your time there?
I joined the censorship department in early 2011 when Weibo was expanding. The Jasmine Revolution [calls for peaceful pro-democracy protests across China] had just wound down. Not long after, in July, there was a high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou. A massive amount of ordinary users suddenly joined the discussion about this man-made disaster. The social impact Weibo abruptly generated caught the government off guard. It did not anticipate and was not prepared for such nation-wide attention on an issue that could be discussed on a platform where everyone can connect instantly. […]
Since 2011, almost all social issues that attracted wide public attention were propelled by Weibo. The Communist Party was terrified by Weibo, staring at it with fear and the determination to tame it.
When I left Sina in 2013 there were crackdowns [by the government] on online rumors and Big Vs [influential microblog commentators] such as the arrest of billionaire Charles Xue, and a ruling was passed allowing users to be charged with defamation if posts containing “false information” are reposted more than 500 times.
The effect was felt immediately. The amount of original posting dropped rapidly. […]
Though the Chinese government’s control of Weibo never loosened, it no longer focuses that much of its attention on Weibo. Now, it rules Weibo with ease.
The core of Weibo censorship is the lack of clear rules that users can follow. You don’t know whether you will be the next target of censorship. Such tactics instill fear in you, then you start to behave yourself. Gradually, it becomes natural not to speak your mind. Over time, you lose the ability to express yourself as a normal person would do in a free society. That is the effect of censorship in the long run. […] [Source]
Authorities appear to rely on ambiguity to chill discussion of undesirable political topics in offline publishing as well. Following the recent “confession” of Hong Kong-based publishers for illegally selling “banned books,” BuzzFeed’s Beimeng Fu noted that a lack of any clear list of “banned” titles allows the government to denote anything without official approval as an “illegal publication.”
Xi Jinping has overseen the steady tightening of information controls both online and off, and state media—who Xi recently reminded must “speak for the Party”—has been known to cheer on the increasing restriction. At Tech in Asia, C. Custer reports on recently published survey results from state-run tabloid the Global Times claiming that over 98% of web-users support Xi’s Internet management policies:
That’s the conclusion one would draw from a survey reported by China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, which says that 98.1 percent of China’s net users support President Xi Jinping’s internet policies. According to the paper, 12,600 net users across 50 cities were surveyed. Amazingly, exactly 98.1 percent of people also supported China’s internet forum with America will have a positive influence, and exactly 98.1 percent also felt that the government should enact specialized laws to protect internet security.
I’m not sure who the other 1.9 percent of people taking this survey were, but they obviously didn’t get the memo. […] [Source]