Six images China's censors don't want you to see.
- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
China-watchers often call Sina Weibo “China’s Twitter” because of the two websites’ superficial similarities: Both social media platforms allow users to post up to 140 characters at a time, for example, although that’s enough for a small essay in Chinese. But unlike Twitter, Weibo is crawling with censors. Both the Internet company Sina, which owns and operates the best-known Weibo platform, as well as the Chinese government, employ an unknown number of censors who carefully prune social media for “illegal content” such as posts that “incite illegal gatherings” or “harm the nation’s reputation or interests.”
Certain keywords, issues, and images are forbidden, although Weibo does not make clear exactly what’s off limits, or why. One May 2013 Harvard study showed that censors targeted posts with “collective action potential” — the possibility that they might inspire a protest or other coordinated, offline action. Weibo’s censorship team works with the government to determine what topics have this potential, then scrutinizes, and often deletes, related content.
In order to explore how censors decide what to quash, the non-profit media organization ProPublica published a gallery of deleted Weibo posts on Nov. 14. The editors at FP reviewed the 524 deleted posts and curated six particularly arresting examples of what, exactly, incenses Chinese censors.
1. Bo Xilai in chains. The caption (not visible here) reads, “Is the show over?” Bo was the Communist Party chief in Chongqing, an inland megalopolis of almost 30 million, until a series of scandals, prompted by an aide’s attempted defection into the U.S. embassy in February 2012, derailed his career. He was tried in August for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power. But to many watching in China, the proceedings looked like a show trial, in which Bo had no more agency than an actor in a play. In the picture above, Bo seems to be taking part in a Chinese model opera — a morality play in which every detail, from costumes to lighting, has symbolic significance. His white shirt, for example, likely indicates his innocence. Censors probably deleted this image because it challenged the legitimacy of Bo’s trial.
2. Xu Zhiyong. Bo was not the only figure jailed in 2013 whom authorities feared could become a martyr. Xu co-founded China’s New Citizens’ Movement, an alliance that campaigns for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, among other civil rights, in June 2012. Authorities have detained Xu on a number of occasions, most recently on Aug. 23; he remains in prison. The words in the picture above read “Citizens are in trouble,” referencing the broad spectrum of rights violations that his movement aims to address. This image, drawn in the style of party propaganda, valorizes Xu and his mission. Censors probably deleted this post to prevent Xu’s example from inspiring others to challenge the government.
3. A wolf who “serves the people.” It’s not just flesh-and-blood dissidents that worry China’s censors: sometimes cartoon characters can also raise their hackles. Wolves are often the villains in Chinese children’s stories (including the popular animated television show Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf), and the wolf in this picture represents China’s Communist Party. The text in the background is the well-worn Communist phrase “serve the people,” while the badge around his neck reads sex wolf, slang for “pervert.” The wolf’s three blinged-out wristwatches symbolize corruption — Chinese netizens often presume that officials photographed wearing expensive timepieces are on the take. For example, in Aug. 2012, Shaanxi provincial official Yang Dacai appeared in photographs wearing Rolex and Omega watches. The pictures went viral on Weibo; Yang was later removed from his post and jailed. Harsh critiques of the Communist Party rarely survive on Weibo.
4. Fan Yue and Ji Yingnan. The depiction of the Communist Party as a “sex wolf” stems in part from real-world examples of lurid official conduct. In this picture, posted July 23, then mid-level bureaucrat Fan drapes his arms around his lover, television hostess Ji. After the married Fan dumped 25-year-old Ji, the spurned mistress posted pictures of the couple’s happier days on Weibo, revealing the lavish lifestyle she enjoyed under Fan’s patronage. These images proved especially sensitive because mistresses are another symbol of official corruption in China; in popular imagination, only dishonest government workers can afford to keep mistresses clothed in brand-name apparel and driving luxury automobiles. (One survey conducted by Renmin University in Beijing found that 95 percent of corrupt officials kept mistresses.) Censors who scrubbed this image were likely aware that proof of official wrongdoing — as opposed to speculation — is especially provocative.
5. Massive protest in Guangzhou. This photograph shows people gathered in the streets of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to protest the planned opening of a polluting trash incineration plant. According to the BBC, on July 15, the crowd of protesters stretched for more than a mile. It is unknown whether the protests were successful: An Oct. 22 article in the party-line People’s Daily Online quoted the vice mayor of Guangzhou emphasizing the need to accelerate the construction of five trash incineration plants in the city — but he refused say whether one of these five was this plant. In China, authorities usually censor images of “mass incidents” such as this one to prevent copycat protests elsewhere.
6. Wu Hongfei. Copycat protests happen online too. Wu, the Beijing-based singer and journalist pictured above, was arrested for her social media posts. In July, shortly after a man named Ji Zhongxing detonated a bomb at Beijing International Airport, Wu commented on Weibo that there were several government offices that she would like to blow up. Detained for 11 days and then released, Wu insisted her post was a joke, while supporters maintained that the arrest was a violation of her right to free speech — constitutionally granted, but often denied in practice.