Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy December 2013–January 2014
29 November 2013
Culture and Society
Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (and Why)
Jason Q. Ng. New York: The New Press, 2013. $15.95. 256 pp.
That the Internet in China is heavily censored is no secret. This can take many forms, ranging from blocking access entirely to websites the authorities find offensive, to removing individual blog posts or comments, to filtering postings or searches based on keywords. Chinese website owners are legally required to self-police to ensure their sites contain no objectionable content. Rather than identifying and deleting individual posts, however, it is easier simply to block searches for particular terms, so that users are unable to find and read the offending material.
In many cases, this censorship is hidden from view. But the popular Sina Weibo microblogging site, which has been described as a cross between Twitter and Facebook, gives users an error message when a search is blocked: ‘according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [keyword] cannot be displayed.’ Beginning in October 2011, Jason Ng, then a postgraduate student in East Asian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, undertook to systematically identify the terms blocked on Weibo. (‘Weibo’ is a generic term for microblogging, but has become the common shorthand for Sina Weibo, which is as popular in China as Twitter is in the United States.) He tested 700,000 terms, derived from Chinese Wikipedia article titles, against the site’s search engine. He identified more than 1,000 blocked terms, of which roughly 500 were unique. Blocked on Weibo is a dictionary of 150 of these terms, organised broadly into eight categories, such as politics, censorship, sex, personal names, scandals, suppression and so on. Each entry gives a brief explanation of the term followed by one or more paragraphs explaining or speculating about why it is blocked.