Weibo censorship in the Chen Guangcheng case
Alice Xin Liu
The twists and turns of the fate of blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng has had much of China’s online community in its thrall.
On April 27 Chen arrived in the US embassy from his native Shandong, where he had escaped from house arrest. Despite news of the event being censored, Chinese internet users quickly became aware of his situation. This was especially true on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. To bypass the censors, netizens used nicknames concocted for Chen Guangcheng, including “Shawshank” and “Sunglasses.” But even these terms were soon blocked.
On May 2 things took a dramatic turn when he left the embassy under the guidance of U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke to seek medical treatment at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital. It was said that he had left of “his own volition”.
Charles Custer, who runs blog site ChinaGeeks, explored in the post “Sina’s Softer Censorhip” how “on your own volition” had become a online meme by that evening. In the post, he says that instead of blocking the term, Sina Weibo simply stopped indexing any new posts that used the term. Custer said the maneuver created what he calls “an artificial silence”, where users may think no one is talking about the issue even though there were many posts discussing the matter.
The China Media Project, a media monitoring website set up by Hong Kong University, covered government editorials that ran in Beijing Daily, a State-owned paper that condemned the Chen Guangcheng case. In the editorials, Gary Locke was especially targeted.
David Bandurski, the website’s editor, recently wrote:
“That editorial, which accused U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke of playing “little tricks”, said that blind activist Chen Guangcheng represented not ordinary Chinese but only his “backstage boss, namely the interests of the hostile forces of the West.” It said Chen had become “a tool and pawn by which politicians in the United States blacken China.”
Bandurski tells VOA “The Beijing editorials last week were what I would characterize as a monumental failure. They were panned on Chinese social media as heavy-handed and backwards, until things escalated to the point that Beijing Daily itself became a restricted term on Sina Weibo.”
Blocking on Weibo has been systematic for the Chen Guangcheng case. For example, the term “Chaoyang Hospital” is now an unusable term. When you search for it, Weibo tells you that “according to the relevant regulations, search results cannot be shown.” The same goes for “CGC,” “blind man” and “Linyi”, the town where Chen Guangcheng had been under house arrest.
Bandurski says “China has been in the midst of a progressive tightening of media controls since the February [of] this year. One catalyzing incident, of course, was the Wang Lijun incident in early February, which put party infighting in the spotlight just as the leadership was negotiating the sensitive issue of succession ahead of the 18th party congress later this year.”
Some bloggers attitudes remain similarly pessimistic. “I don’t think much has changed,” said well-known Chinese blogger Michael Anti. “Reports [on sensitive issues] weren’t allowed before, and they’re not allowed now.”
By the way, if you’re interested, you can find a list of blocked terms related to Chen Guangcheng here. But rest assured, this list will only continue to grow.