Tea Leaf Nation

This Chart Explains Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Internet Censorship

Control + Alt + Anxiety.

A couple use mobile devices on the Bund in Shanghai on September 25, 2013. China will open its first free trade zone in an ambitious effort to transform its commercial centre into a global hub with Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reporting that the zone will even allow access to Facebook, Twitter and other websites banned nationwide by China's censorship authorities who strictly control online content for fear of political and social unrest. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

What goes through a Chinese web user’s head the moment before he or she hits the “publish” button? Pundits, scholars, and everyday netizens have spent years trying to parse the (ever-shifting) rules of the Chinese Internet. Although Chinese authorities have been putting ever more Internet rules and regulations on the books — one famously creates criminal liability for a “harmful” rumor shared more than 500 times — the line between what’s allowed and what isn’t, and the consequences that flow from the latter, remains strategically fuzzy. And that’s just how Chinese authorities like it.

But a discerning observer can still sketch out the shadowy form of the (often unwritten) rules that govern the Chinese web. Before posting, a Chinese web user is likely to consider basic questions about how likely a post is to travel, whether it runs counter to government priorities, and whether it calls for action or is likely to engender it. Those answers help determine whether a post can be published without incident — as it is somewhere around 84 percent or 87 percent of the time — or is instead likely to lead to a spectrum of negative consequences varying from censorship, to the deletion of a user’s account, to his or her detention, even arrest and conviction. The flowchart below, based on my years following developments in Chinese cyberspace, provides a glimpse into the web of considerations that may determine the fate of a post — or its author. (Click image to enlarge.)

Tea Leaf Nation

A few nodes on this chart merit particular explanation:

  • Being famous on the Chinese Internet isn’t necessarily desirable. So-called “Big Vs,” or well-known social media commenters, are more likely to be scrutinized, censored, and jailed. They are thus likely to think extra hard before sharing anything on an open platform.
  • Posts that don’t criticize the government can be censored if they seem likely to spur private action on a major public issue. For example, in early March authorities quashed discussion of seemingly government-approved environmental documentary Under the Dome after it triggered a nationwide discussion on pollution.
  • Posts that get people to hit the streets are likely to get the axe, even if they aren’t political. In March 2011, authorities censored posts spreading the rumor that salt could stave off radiation poisoning from the recently ruptured Fukushima reactor in neighboring Japan, because the rumor had led to a run on the commodity.
  • The Chinese government wants web users to call out specific instances of corruption in the Communist Party — just not publicly. That’s why the website for the country’s top corruption watchdog allows citizens to report graft directly to government authorities.
  • Posts that criticize the government aren’t automatically censored. General grousing about the government by a small-time user isn’t going to topple the ruling party, which means the censors are unlikely to care.

There is much, of course, the above graphic does not and cannot capture. A user, for example, may have a powerful backer that allows him or her to push the envelope — or conversely, a history of activism that makes any post suspect. And the consequences beyond censorship are too uncertain and multifarious to be visually represented.

It’s also worth emphasizing that most posts are left alone. But that’s only after each survives a gauntlet of possible pitfalls, managing not only to obey laws as written but also to avoid contravening the interests or sensibilities of the central government and relevant local officials. That’s led to endemic self-censorship, particularly when the topic hits at anything even approaching politics. In turn, that makes Chinese cyberspace less likely to host the kind of raucous (and, to the government, potentially destabilizing) national debates and movements that used to spring up without warning before authorities tightened the screws on online speech starting in late 2013. China’s web users now have a strong incentive to stick to entertainment and e-commerce, rather than using the web as a platform for speech and debate on the major issues shaping their country’s future.

Graphic drawn by Shujie Leng & Josef Reyes; Image by AFP/Getty

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.

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