Showing posts tagged weibo

<64 Tiananmen-related words blocked today (June 4, 2014)>


     (photo credit:

Today, on the 25th anniversary of troops being ordered into Tiananmen Square to clear student demonstrators, I tested several hundred June 4-related keywords on Weibo. I used the same set of keywords that I tested last year at The Citizen Lab, and I found relatively similar levels of censorship this year. Also like last year, the enhanced restrictions on keyword searches were apparently implemented specifically for the anniversary: for instance, 坦克 (tank) and 六四 (6-4, i.e., June 4) were free to be searched as recently as May 11.

A short article over at WSJ provides some more context and lists those 64 keywords that I identified as being blocked from searching on Weibo today. Of the keywords I tested, there were nine that were unblocked last year but have been added to the blacklist this year, including 八九 (89), 维多利亚公园 (Victoria Park, the site of the commemorative vigil in Hong Kong), and VIIV (roman numerals for June 4).

After the jump are the 64 keywords that are currently blocked from searching on Weibo (though some will no doubt be unblocked once this sensitive period passes):

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<Comments and takeaways from Xia Chu’s “Complete GFW Rulebook for Wikipedia”>

Note: Update to “64-byte search string limitation indicates Weibo and GFW” section added Jan 11

If you are interested in Chinese Internet censorship, I highly recommend you flip through Xia Chu’s latest update to his* research project “Complete GFW Rulebook for Wikipedia.” This latest revision of a document originally released last October, it identifies a massive list of actual trigger words (which Xia calls “rules” because they are often attached to specific conditions) which cause a Chinese Internet user’s connection to specific sites like Wikipedia to be disrupted by the Great Firewall (GFW). Not only that, it also includes a list of over 3,600 websites that he has currently confirmed to be unreachable from within China due to the GFW. The conclusions in the paper don’t necessarily upend anything that we thought about the GFW, but if you want a peek behind the curtain of how the GFW works (big takeaway: IT’S REALLY HAPHAZARD), this is as close as we can currently get.

The methodology behind Xia’s testing is sound and the breadth is among the most comprehensive attempts to document the Great Firewall’s blacklisted keywords—though Xia notes his debt to Jed Crandall et al’s ConceptDoppler paper,, and others, including arrested civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, for inspiring him. The paper is mostly jargon-free, and the testing process used is transparent and not at all ultra-sophisticated (a compliment!); an amateur coder like myself could replicate everything that Xia has done in the paper. The paper is pretty self-explanatory and there’s not much commentary for me to add, but below are a few notes I’ll make including a description of a similar tool I’ve developed for identifying sensitive keywords in Chinese news articles as well as how there are curious coincidences between how Sina Weibo and the GFW censor.

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<Looking back on 2013: Five Blocked on Weibo posts I particularly liked from last year>

2013 has personally been an incredibly fun year. I finished grad school, my book was published, and I started working for this neat research lab. Chinese Weibo users though, especially prominent ones, had a particularly rougher time, with increased harassment and censorship by authorities inducing an unfortunate chill on discussion of sensitive topics on the site. Here’s hoping the next year brings a relaxation of such policies: I couldn’t be happier if I had nothing to write about on this blog.

So before we move on to 2014, a look back at five Blocked on Weibo keywords and posts that I particularly enjoyed uncovering and writing about in the past year:

1) Jan 23: 宪法法院 (constitutional court) is blocked during the Southern Weekend censorship controversy.

2) Mar 9: Weibo censors delete post of masked Mao portrait criticizing Beijing air pollution.

3) Jun 4: “The Flower of Freedom” (自由花) is a Cantonese song written by Hong Kong lyricist Thomas Chow to commemorate the victims of the 1989 Tienanmen crackdown.

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<Infographic showing Weibo censorship being linked to offline events in Bo Xilai scandal>

In the infographic below, we have collected data from a number of sources, including, China Digital Times, Blocked on Weibo, and Twitter users to chart the moments when Bo’s name became blocked or unblocked on Weibo. The speculation is that the authorities blocked his name when online conversations got too unpredictable to control and unblocked it when they sought to give netizens the space to criticize Bo. We have lined up those moments with what was taking place offline at the same time, presenting a connection between how real-life political turmoil was often reflected in changes in censorship online. Click to launch the interactive infographic.

Concept, Research, and Authorship: JASON Q. NG
Development: ANDREW HILTS

Source: The Citizen Lab

警察杜平 (police, Du Ping / jǐngchá Dù Píng) and 宣恩杀人现场 (Xuan’en murder sceneXuānēn shārén xiànchǎng) are references to a murder that took place on Nov 7, 2012 in Xuanen county in Hubei Province. Though the facts are still in dispute according a Radio Free Asia article, apparently the chain of events began when a rural pedicab driver, a farmer known as Little Zhang (小张)—though various Weibo posts list his name at Wu Xihua (吴西华)— accidentally ran into a woman, who was slightly injured. A cop named Du Ping came and harassed the driver. In the subsequent week, the cop continued to harass the driver, beating up him and his family. The farmer called the local police for help, to no avail. Enraged, he stabbed Du Ping in the neck with a knife. He then reportedly called the police and said, “I’ve killed a man. When I was being beaten, no one cared about it. I’ve now killed a man; does anyone care about this?” According to RFA, there was a media blackout on the event since the villagers back the driver and criticize the cop for abuse of power.

警察杜平 is not blocked on Weibo and in fact some of the search results contain graphic images of Du Ping’s bloodied body (though some individual results note that the post has been deleted). 宣恩杀人现场 is not blocked on Weibo either, but searches don’t return any relevant results.

In a break from our usual series of highlighting words blocked from searching on Weibo, for the next two days I’ll be looking more deeply at the keywords on chat messenger app LINE’s “bad words” list. For more about this series, see this introductory post.

If you’re in New York next week, I’ll be giving a talk for my book at NYU, 20 Cooper Square, 4th floor on Thursday, October 17 at 6:30. Do come by and say hello. If you’d like me to stop by a city near you, feel free to connect me with venues/bookstores/schools in your city that you think might be interested in having me talk. Thanks as always to everyone for the support.

<Brief thoughts on Reuters article interviewing Weibo censors>

1. Retuers interviewed four censors who worked at Sina Weibo: “At Sina Weibo’s censorship hub, China’s Little Brothers cleanse online chatter. Some choice quotes:

  • "People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job," said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. "One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little."
  •  ”Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It’s not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent,” said a second former censor.
  • They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.

2. Can we have a whole book of this? My appetite has only been whetted. Some day maybe there’ll be a Chinese remake of The Lives of Others, but with a Weibo censor instead of a Stasi one. (It might be hopelessly boring though if it’s anything like what the article makes their lives out to be.)

3. The number of censors cited in the article (“40 censors work in 12-hour shifts” and “100 people worked non-stop for 24 hours” during intense periods) fits with the theory that much of the censorship is computer assisted. Without using algorithms to flag posts, Zhu et al’s paper (The Velocity of Censorship) estimated that you’d need 4,200 censors to to manually read every new post on Weibo, which would be inefficient. But is this Tianjin office the only such facility Sina Weibo has, or is it just one of many? Article doesn’t make that clear.

4. ”The most frequently deleted posts are the political ones, especially those criticising the government…” said one censor. This is interested in light of Gary King and co’s argument that the primary cause for deletion of posts online is the material’s potential for collective action—meaning whether there might be actual demonstrations of protests stemming from the post. Their argument (I’m oversimplifying of course) based on the data they’ve collected is that you can criticize the authorities as much as want—so long as you don’t call on others to do something together. They might get a pass because their first research paper (How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression) doesn’t cover Weibo, but their new paper does (A Randomized Experimental Study of Censorship in China). So either King’s conclusions really don’t apply to Weibo or this one censor doesn’t really have a good sense of what his team is actually censoring. Though then again, “political” posts doesn’t exclude such posts from also being calls for collective action, but there are vast numbers of critical, anti-gov posts that don’t call for such action. My gut is that the King conclusion may not apply well to Weibo or is perhaps an overreach, but as far as folks can tell, their data seems pretty irrefutable (would love to get my hands on the second paper’s dataset). 

5. For the most part, the details revealed about how the censorship works mostly gibes with the research out there (high five researchers!). For instance, Zhu et al estimate of how efficient censors are (can read 50 posts per minute) is exactly what the censors report (3000 posts per hour).

6. Nitpick: Weibo has 500 million registered accounts, not users. 500 million users sounds really impressive until you realize most of them are zombies. Better metric to use is over 50 million daily users, which is definitely a lot, but still not Facebook-level, which reports close to 700 million daily active users.

<Interactive charts showing changes in Weibo keyword censorship (Jun - Aug 2013)>

Thanks to the excellent work being done by researchers and journalists at China Digital Times,, and many others, there has never been more information about what is being censored online in China. However, what is less discussed and written about are instances when the censors withdraw keywords or topics from their censorship watchlists.

Read more about what data is represented (and misrepresented!) in these charts in my Citizen Lab post: Visualizing Changes in Censorship: Summarizing two months of Sina Weibo keyword monitoring with two interactive chartsIf for some reason the charts don’t load (either because of rate limiting by Google or other reasons), the JavaScript code used to create the charts can be viewed here and here. You can then either host the file on your own site to interact with the charts or copy/paste it into the Google Code playground.

Unique China Chats words blocked or unblocked on Sina Weibo (click on the part of the bar and then “See all keywords” that fall into that category on that test date):

Unique China Chats keywords with changes in block staus:

<480 keywords blocked from searching on Weibo as of Jun 29, 2013>

During the past month, I’ve been working as a summer research fellow at The Citizen Lab in Toronto. It’s been great to not only have time to dedicate to updating this blog and pushing forward collaborative projects with researchers I’ve been fortunate enough to meet over the past two years, but also to pitch in with all the amazing work being done here at this one-of-a-kind lab. Among the projects I’ve been helping out with is one pertaining to the list of censorship and surveillance keywords in the Chinese chat clients TOM-Skype and Sina UC, which the team decrypted then analyzed in collaboration with Jed Crandall and Jeff Knockel at the University of New Mexico. 

Of course, my first desire was to take the keywords they extracted and to test them on Weibo. Below are 480 unique keywords which were blocked from searching on Sina Weibo as of June 29. I’ve written more about the other censorship games I’ve detected in this post over at The Citizen Lab’s blog. Among the things I discuss are the overlap of keywords between different Internet services in China as well as what drastic changes in the number of search results for keywords might mean.

A full spreadsheet of the data mentioned in the report can be viewed in this Google Fusion Table or downloaded in .csv format for further analysis by all you researchers reading along at home. I look forward to sharing other relevant work my colleagues and I get done at the Lab during the rest of the summer.

The removal of “June 4” from the list of blocked terms—an area of much ridicule for Weibo both in Western media and among Chinese netizens, many of whom evade the censors by using alternative coded slang to stand in for sensitive keywords—may be a sign that Weibo has become more comfortable trusting its human censors to manually delete sensitive posts quickly and effectively. They’re slowly moving away from the crutch of the keyword block, which while certainly effective at preventing the spread of sensitive information, is also at times overly broad and not responsive enough to more precise needs. … What is and is not off-limits has now become slightly harder to determine—another step in making censorship invisible and all-pervasive.
My article “Weibo Keyword Un-Blocking Is Not a Victory Against Censorship” on Tea Leaf Nation, cross-posted on The Atlantic website

<Censoring a commemoration: what June 4-related search terms are blocked on Weibo today>

As citizens in China and around the world commemorate the twenty-fourth anniversary of the June 4th incident in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Internet censorship in China around this sensitive date has now become expected and almost routine. Though, as Tech in Asia notes, the censorship this year likely won’t be as intense as it was during the twentieth anniversary—when hundreds of sites went down for so-called “Internet maintenance”—and as websites consider more sophisticated forms of filtering out June 4-related posts, much overt censorship will still take place on sites behind the Great Firewall, including seemingly trivial steps like removing the candle emoticon from being inserted into Sina Weibo posts.

Another way the social media site Sina Weibo censors its site—alongside manual deletions by human censors of sensitive content—is by blocking the user from searching for specific keywords, and instead returning a message that says no results can be displayed. Though the blocking of keywords is a blunt tactic that often cuts off access to many legitimate posts—in addition to sometimes being ineffective as users switch to homophones or other code words—it is still widely employed on the site. Below are seventy-one keywords (along with brief translations and notes) that are currently blocked from searching on Sina Weibo.  

direct link

I performed this test by utilizing research by Jeffrey Knockel into words that trigger surveillance and censorship on Sina UC and Tom-Skype. I grabbed his list of known sensitive words related to June 4 on those chat clients and tested them on Sina Weibo on June 3, 12:00 PM EST. The notes and translations above were provided by The Citizen Lab (with additions and edits by me).

[cross-posted at The Citizen Lab]

富女 (rich woman / fùnǚ) is a term for a woman with money. [Note: the term was blocked for most of 2012, but has been unblocked since Oct 2012.] It may refer to one who is independently wealthy due to her job, but more typically it is used derogatorily online to criticize the obscene wealth of the wives, mistresses, and daughters of rich businessmen and government officials.

Why it is blocked: The term was blocked because of a June 2011 incident involving a 富女. Twenty-year-old Guo Meimei (郭美美), who listed her job title as commercial general manager of the “China Red Cross Chamber of Commerce,” had been posting for months about her glamorous lifestyle on Weibo, which included photos of her horseback riding, flying in first class, and flaunting her prized possessions: Hermès handbags, an orange Lamborghiniand a white Maserati luxury car. When Internet users discovered her account, investigations and outrage spread throughout Weibo. Eventually, netizens identified Wang Jun, a board member at a company who organized charity drives for the official Red Cross Society of China, as perhaps being Guo’s boyfriend, and he subsequently resigned from his job. (Though some news reports claimed that the luxury cars were actually Wang’s, Guo claimed in a TV interview that Wang had gifted them to her. Further confusion was sown when Guo and her mother claimed that Wang Jun was merely a close family friend and Guo’s “godfather.”)

Chinese Red Cross officials denied any connection with Guo, though they admitted her supposed organization did exist. Netizens demanded a full accounting of where their donations had gone, and the Chinese Red Cross launched an investigation, which turned up improprieties. However, despite the thorough investigation, the Chinese Red Cross’s reputation was already seriously damaged, and donations fell by nearly 60 percent in 2011 compared to the previous year.

The Chinese Red Cross scandal was just one of a series that shook Chinese confidence in charities—which are supposed to be tightly regulated by the government. One of the most notorious occurred in the pre–social media age: in 2001, reporters uncovered vast corruption in the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) program Project Hope, which aimed to help impoverished children get an education. In August 2011, another rich female was ensnared in a charity scandal: twenty-four-year-old Lu Xingyu (卢 星宇), the daughter of billionaire Lu Junqin (卢俊卿), was accused of extracting exorbitant management fees of over $20 million from her charity China-Africa Project Hope, another CYDF-affiliated program. Her rambling defense of the charity was lambasted by netizens. And on an individual level, actress Zhang Ziyi was accused of charity fraud and of not fulfilling donations as promised in 2010. In an interview she tearfully admitted to an oversight on her part and donated the balance of what she had pledged.

When Sichuan Province—decimated by a major earthquake in 2008—experienced more deadly tremors in April 2013, Guo Meimei’s name re-entered news stories, with her past corruption serving as a cautionary tale for anyone who sought to donate money to state charities. Chinese Red Cross was mostly shunned while private charities, including online ones run by Internet companies like Sina, flourished. More controversy erupted online when a video of Hong Kong politician Raymond Wong Yuk-man berating officials who sought to donate government money to relief efforts went viral. Wong and his strident criticism of corrupt charities and the mainland government became a trending topic on Weibo, even beating out Iron Man’s much publicized movie opening. It’s very possible that these events—all stemming from a lack of trust in state charities—would not likely have come to pass without Guo Meimei’s “efforts” as a 富女.

Weibo censors delete post of masked Mao portrait criticizing Beijing air pollution

Apparently the censors at Weibo are still quite touchy about the recent “airpocalypse" in Beijing, when the U.S. embassy’s air quality monitor seemed to go off the deep end and reported record high levels of pollution in the city back in January. The above image was found in the latest roundup at FreeWeibo, which relies in part on data from Weiboscope, a University of Hong Kong tool that checks popular Weibo feeds to see what posts have gone missing (that is, deleted/censored). Weibo posts with these images have gone missing on a number of feeds (1, 2, 3). Apparently the combination of Mao + criticism of Beijing’s air quality are a no go.


  1. Look at these two clever pictures! Haha. (看到两张神图![哈哈])
  2. Just as the great leader said: The people, only the people, are the driving force in the creation of world history. Netizens are truly gifted! So creative. (【正如伟大领袖所言:人民,只有人民,才是创造世界历史的动力!网民太有才了!太有创意了!】)
  3.  [Pitiful emoticon] [可怜]

Update 3/11: An anonymous tipster writes in to remind that The Economist ran a cover during the 2003 SARS crisis with Mao wearing a surgical mask. He notes that “the China chief was called in to the responsible party official, and told that ‘the highest levels’ of government were very displeased. Turns out it wasn’t because of the surgical mask, but because The Economist was using Mao to represent China.”

<Where do Weibo users live? City and provincial breakdown of various Chinese Internet statistics>

They live in Guangdong (well, many of them do at least):

Some background: Now that I finally got around to playing with Weibo’s API, I’ve been collecting (you might call it hoarding…) a lot of fun data. I’m currently engrossed in this dataset I’ve developed of anti-Japanese comments and I’ve been doing a lot of spatial analysis—all of which is only possible because Weibo neatly provides a wealth of detailed location data included with every post/comment. Whereas Twitter offers whatever location a user supplies (“In your head”; “Your mom’s house”) along with a time zone (geo-coordinates and detailed location info are only available on a tiny percentage of tweets), Weibo’s API neatly gives you every user’s province, city code, and chosen location. The options are selected, not filled-in, so the data is super clean and crisp (well, outside of people who lie about their location).

Thus, seeing as it might be helpful for my other projects to know where Weibo users are blogging from (or at least say they are), I conducted a data expedition, grabbing the latest 200 posts from Weibo every five minutes for one full week. After discarding repeat messages (Weibo’s API doesn’t guarantee the posts are the absolute most recent, though for the most part, the majority of the posts matched my download date-time), I came up with a sample of 283,109 unique users, 236,611 of whom live in mainland China and which I used to generate the map above and chart below (this whole exercise was basically an excuse to show off some of Google’s super easy-to-use Fusion tables and an unnecessary distraction to my thesis writing, sigh).

direct link

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Wen Jiabao (“温家宝”) unable to be posted on Weibo; error message returned

I’m not certain when this began, but as of right now, you can’t post any message on Weibo with Wen Jiabao’s name (“温家宝”). Doing so returns the following message (full size image):


Rough translation: Sorry, this content violates “Sina Weibo’s Community Administrative Rules" or other related regulatory policies, and we’re unable to execute the intended action. If you need assistance, please contact customer service.

FreeWeibo shows posts containing Wen Jiabao still being deleted today. Searches for Wen’s name have been blocked continuously for some time now (he was unblocked briefly during the Party Congress and for the ten days after), but being unable to post his name at all is another more extreme step. Attempting to post “彭博社” (Bloomberg) also returns the same error message. By comparison, I checked several hundred other sensitive politician’s names in the past week and no one else had this form of censorship. Can folks confirm that they are unable to post 温家宝 on their end as well?