Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Websites Deleted One Billion Posts in 2014, State Media Says

The country's campaign against what it calls 'harmful' content is gathering steam.

TO GO WITH China-IT-telecommunication-Tencent,FOCUS BY AMANDA WANG A woman uses her mobile device in a metro station in Shanghai on March 12, 2014. WeChat has taken China by storm in just three years, allowing its more than 300 million users to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over smartphones, find each other by shaking their devices -- a common dating technique -- and even book and pay for taxis. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

The final statistics from a 2014 Chinese Internet crackdown are in, and they are staggering. On Jan. 17, Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, announced that Chinese websites had deleted one billion posts in 2014 as part of a government-led operation to jing wang, meaning to “cleanse the web.” According to Xinhua, of one billion “erotic and disturbing” posts deleted, 220 million had been hosted by one of four Chinese service providers: Sina, Sohu, Tencent, and Netease. An additional 130 million were deleted by China-based search giants Baidu and Qihoo, the article said.

The “cleanse the web” campaign encapsulates a series of government-led efforts to remove content it considers undesirable.  In February 2014, Chinese propaganda authorities ordered investigation into what it labeled “pornographic and vulgar” content; then in April 2014, Chinese authorities announced a campaign called “sweep out porn, strike at rumors.” Critics have complained that these efforts are ultimately aimed at curbing speech contrary to the Communist Party line, rather than protecting web users. Although such campaigns occur at the behest of party authorities, they generally rely on service providers to implement them in-house, granting them leeway to choose the particular technical methods to achieve government censorship directives. Service providers that appear recalcitrant can be punished; in April 2014, the government suspended Sina’s online publication and distribution licenses for lewd content on Weibo, the massive microblogging operation Sina runs. In this latest campaign, Xinhua paraphrased a government official saying that domestic internet companies had “well cooperated.”

Although Chinese state media depicted the removal of one billion posts as a success, that number is a drop in the proverbial ocean of Internet chatter. For example, in the first minute of 2014 alone, Weibo users made over 800,000 posts, according to company data. And the cleansing campaign is itself but one of many efforts at the government and the company levels to manage what Chinese web users see. One study estimates that of all posts in Chinese cyberspace, fully 13 percent are censored; another puts the number at 16 percent. If those numbers are broadly correct, then the quantum of vanished posts dwarfs one billion per year.

Whatever its ultimate motive or impact, this particular operation now shows signs of accelerating. Xinhua noted that province-level cyberspace authorities had “summoned the operators of about 50 million websites, pressing them to step up internal management.”

This article has been updated. 

AFP/Getty Images

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

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