Chinese President Xi Jinping rounded off 2015 by posting his first message on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, in the form of a new year’s greeting to the People’s Liberation Army. His post received 52,000 comments, mostly fawning messages of support featuring thumbs-up and smiling emoticons. This short message symbolizes the official taming of Weibo, whose early promise as a freewheeling platform for criticism and debate has been choked off by censorship, intimidation, a raft of new legislation, and a virtual army of commentators, known as the “fifty-cent party,” paid to influence online opinion.
2015 marked the year that China moved to export its concept of “Internet sovereignty,” flexing its muscles at the United Nations. At China’s state-managed World Internet Conference in December, Xi gave an Orwellian keynote speech, during which he declaimed, “Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom.”
It was also a year of paranoia, with hundreds detained for spreading online rumors. Tabloid gossip and sensational stories — even fairly harmless ones — were censored, including on mobile messaging app Wechat, where posts are already limited to small circles of friends. So what does China’s government think it has to fear from the Internet? To answer this question, a quick survey of the year’s top five censored posts on Weibo is instructive. Dr. Fu Kingwa, who runs the Weiboscope censorship tracker out of Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, generated the list, which measures the number of times a post was shared against the amount of time it survived online before being axed. The higher the rank, the more shares each post received per second before deletion. The speed of their removal is worth noting; one post was removed after just 28 minutes, while the longest surviving post lasted just two hours and 30 minutes.
The most censored post of the year consisted of four characters — “a picture to share” — and a photograph of a plastic Winnie the Pooh toy car. Shared 65,000 times in the 69 minutes before it was deleted — or fifteen times per second — this image used the amiable Pooh Bear as a proxy for the portly Xi inspecting troops at a solemn parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. According to Weiboscope, this marked a spike in censorship with 14.63 posts per 10,000 deleted in the run-up to the parade.
The censorship of Pooh did not begin in 2015, but Pooh’s heightened sensitivity reflects the rise of Xi’s personality cult and his striking centralization of power. In this context, the bear of very little brain is an unwelcome counterpoint. The caricature may have been reasonably affectionate, but China’s authoritarian rulers, schooled in the art of control, fear losing command of their message. As George Orwell wrote, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
This post followed two massive explosions in the port city of Tianjin that obliterated a section of the port district, leaving at least 173 dead or missing. This was a cautionary tale of a man-made tragedy fuelled by greed and epitomizing the real dangers of corruption; the blasts tore through a warehouse containing massive quantities of illegally stored hazardous chemicals, located too close to residential areas. The chemicals included sodium cyanide, which forms a toxic vapor when sprayed with water, though the first firefighters on the scene may not have been informed of that fact. The two major shareholders responsible for the warehouse were well-connected executives who concealed their ownership of the company and used their influence to gain government approvals, despite clear violations of safety guidelines. Searches for the word “explosion” were censored for the next seven days, as were the search terms “rumor,” “truth,” and “boss.”
Anger courses through the post, which dissected the predictably emotive cycle of propaganda to come — leaders giving orders, the hospital workers laboring through the night and the photographs of rescuers who sacrificed their lives — and asked readers not for prayers, but to seek accountability. “If you post a candle emoticon on Weibo, will this be over?” the post queried. “Or perhaps next time it will be your house that explodes.”
For Chinese censors, Aug. 13 was one of the busiest days of the year, with deletions up tenfold from a month earlier. The third most censored post showed another explosion occurring within 24 hours of the Tianjin blast, this time in the city of Anshan in the northeastern province of Liaoning. The short post read, “At 21:45 an explosion happened at Liaoning Anshan Ertaizi boiler Factory! Anyone participating in the rescue efforts at Anshan, please post news from the site immediately!” It was shared 45,000 times before being deleted. The state-run People’s Daily reported that the fire had been snuffed without injuries, so the post’s sensitivity was likely due to its timing.
The fourth most censored post was an interview by state-run web outlet The Paper with Ou Shaokun, an anti-corruption campaigner who shot to prominence for posting photos of official cars being misused. Described as a modern-day folk hero, in this post “Uncle Ou” outlined the chain of events culminating in his detention for five days on prostitution charges, which he described as “entrapment.” The 61 year-old said an acquaintance had sent a young woman to his room, who took a shower there, emerged in a towel and began kissing him just before police raided the room. He denied the charges, arguing that they had not had sex and he had not paid her. In the post, he described being blackmailed into giving a television interview while in detention, during which he admitted that he had been “unable to control his male instincts” and he asked his fans for forgiveness. He said police officers had forced him to take part in the interview by threatening to put video of the encounter online.
This was not the first such case. The humiliation of celebrity microbloggers with millions of followers — so-called “Big Vs” — began in 2013, most famously with the case of angel investor Charles Xue, also accused of hiring a prostitute and forced into a televised statement of guilt. Regulation aimed at bringing Weibo under control included 2013 laws penalizing spreading unverified rumors online and a 2015 push for real-name registration. These, combined with the very public scapegoating of big Vs, succeeded in scaring many of the most influential microbloggers away from public dialogue.
This post from local outlet Yunnan Daily quoting the provincial Communist Party Secretary, Li Jiheng, disappeared just 28 minutes after attracting widespread vitriol. In it, Li called for all media outlets to “adhere to party leadership; there is no room for bargaining.” Honest reporting should be allowed, he said, but only in line with the party’s position: “We will absolutely not allow the media to eat the party’s rice or break the party’s rice bowl.” Internet users responded by called Li Jiheng “mad,” “stupid,” and “sick.” One question was repeatedly raised: “Who is eating whose rice?” This referred to taxpayers footing the bill for government officials and their entertainment budgets.
The Chinese government’s preoccupation with control over information – while simultaneously denying any Internet censorship — has been reinforced by legislative action over the past year. New measures allow authorities to shut off Internet access in the name of national security and give stricter penalties for rumor-mongering. These followed an attack on VPNs, software which allows users to access blocked websites, and earlier moves forbidding journalists to post “information obtained through professional conduct” online. In 2015, the party’s overriding desire to control information has left China’s Internet one step closer to becoming a massive intranet.