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Anne Henochowicz on Chinese social media and censorship

Headshot of Anne HenochowiczAnne Henochowicz was the Translations Editor at China Digital Times from 2011 to 2016. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Postcolonialist, and Foreign Policy. She is an alumna of the Penn Kemble Democracy Forum Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy. Before tracking Chinese social media, Anne studied Inner Mongolian folk music at the University of Cambridge and The Ohio State University. On September 19, 2016, she spoke with Caroline Willian CMC ’17.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Anne Henochowicz


What have the most notable developments in Chinese social media been since Xi Jinping came into office in late 2012? How would you evaluate the efforts of Xi’s government in controlling the social media space in China?

Right before Xi Jinping came into office, there was this “golden age” of social media in China. There was a lot of hope that social media could be used for people to have a voice where traditional media in China would not let them. That includes a lot of journalists who could use social media platforms, like Weibo, which was the most popular at the time, to report on things that their company or their paper wouldn’t let them.

So there was a big, flourishing peak in 2011. But since Xi came into office, things have been, slowly but surely, tightening up. The biggest development in social media came in 2013, when Weibo went from being a hub of citizen journalism—ordinary people like you and me being able to report on events that they see, a lot of talk about social justice, and holding local government to account—that has basically stopped. In the fall of 2013, there was a crackdown on Weibo celebrities, or “Big Vs,” people with very popular accounts whose identities have been verified by Sina, the company that runs Weibo. This group didn’t just include reporters, there were also business people, and intellectuals, who were talking about social and even local political issues, talking about more liberal ideas. A few of them were very publicly suppressed. The biggest name that started this cascade of oppression was a businessman named Charles Xue. Xue posted a lot of liberal ideas on Weibo, he had millions of followers, and he was one of the really important Big Vs. He was in Beijing on business and picked up by the police, allegedly for soliciting a prostitute. But a few days later he appeared on national television CCTV apologizing for all the things he had been writing about on Weibo. There were similar events that have contributed, though they are not entirely the reason for Weibo’s downfall.

The other big piece, both for what happened to Weibo, and in terms of what happened in social media in general in China, is that WeChat rose. WeChat is like Facebook and WhatsApp rolled into one. You can really only use it on your mobile device. There’s some functionality on laptops, but it is unlike Weibo, as Weibo is more like Twitter. On WeChat, everything is private. You have to be connected with someone in order to communicate with them. There are public accounts where people continue to post their own essays. A lot of those citizen journalists and reporters who don’t want to be restricted by their media outlets have posted on public WeChat accounts, but there has also been a lot of suppression there as well. So Weibo is nothing now, it’s mostly boy bands and state media accounts. And there’s still interesting stuff being posted on WeChat, but it gets deleted pretty quickly most of the time. 

Does the government have a way of tracing who posts these things on Weibo? If someone does try post something interesting, do they to follow up and find out who was breaking the rules? Or does the government normally let it go and delete the post?

There are two parts to your question. The first is whether they follow up with people that they don’t like or are being targeted for censorship. And the other question is, if someone posts something that is politically sensitive, what happens to it? The answer to your first question is: it depends. There have been instances of people being detained, even arrested and imprisoned, for what they wrote on Weibo. And around the time of that crackdown on the Weibo Big Vs, the Chinese Supreme Prosecutor’s Office announced that said if you posted false information online that was reposted at least 500 times, then you could be subject to up to three years in jail, which is really scary because you don’t have control over how many people repost what you put online. More publicly, there have been people persecuted for what they wrote on Weibo. One is the human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. He’s now serving a suspended jail sentence, and the evidence used against him in court was seven Weibo posts that he had written over the course of several years. He was convicted of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

Now the second part of your question is what happens if something “sensitive” is posted online. The weird thing about the way this works in China is that it’s never cut and dry. Just because something is politically sensitive doesn’t mean it’s going to be deleted. It might stay up, or it might be filtered rather than deleted. On China Digital Times we trace keywords on Weibo that have been filtered at certain points in time, so instead of deleting all of the posts that contain these keywords, Sina, and not the government, acts as the censor. The company filters these keywords so different search results won’t yield anything. That’s just one example of the techniques used to block information.

In what ways do you think China’s social media differs from the rest of the world? Why do you think ordinary Chinese people have embraced social media, which was invented in the West?

A lot of things have been embraced in China that were invented in the West: blue jeans, communism, computers. I think the fact that it was invented in the West doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be blocked. China isn’t like North Korea. It isn’t cut off from the rest of the world. But what has happened is that, once social media took hold in China, there has been a narrowing of space despite the creation of these Chinese social media platforms. When things like Facebook, Twitter, and also YouTube arrived on the scene in the world, they were not necessarily blocked in China. You could have a Facebook account in China, you could have a Gmail account, you could upload YouTube videos. But eventually these sites were blocked. A big turning point was in July of 2009. There were huge ethnic riots between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. After these riots, the whole internet was blocked in Xinjiang for ten months, but this was also the time when Twitter and Facebook and YouTube were blocked. Similarly, Instagram was available for the first few years of its existence, and then was blocked in 2014, when the pro-democracy protests and the universal suffrage protests were happening in Hong Kong. But now you also have all of the Chinese equivalent social media platforms. By having these domestic platforms, the government is able to issue censorship directives and control these platforms. 

It certainly makes it a lot easier to control social media platforms owned by Chinese companies because the Chinese government delegates the task of filtering and censorship to these companies. Another way to think about it is that its protectionist as well. So from an economic perspective, without censorship and without the Great Firewall, Weibo, WeChat, Youku, and all of these other platforms would probably have much steeper competition.

Do you think having these distinct Chinese social media platforms has helped prevent the globalization of Chinese culture, or kept it more insular, kept a stronger Chinese national identity?

It's not as hard and fast as that.  For example, I am from the United States but I also have a Weibo account. I can use these Chinese platforms outside of China. Chinese people travel a lot. There’s a lot of exchange students and students enrolled at your university who are from China, and so they probably have Facebook and Twitter and all that to communicate with their classmates. So Chinese censorship has a porous boundary. But it hinders communication. Of course, there are still other issues regardless of censorship, like linguistic and cultural barriers, but censorship makes it much more difficult for people in China to communicate with people outside of China and vice versa. If I want to get on Twitter and find out what’s happening in Egypt, Indonesia, Tanzania and Australia, I can do that. But to see what’s happening in China, I have to know about Weibo, and I have to know about WeChat, so it requires a lot more effort for the outsider. 

For people inside China, there are still individuals with liberal ideas. But there are also nationalists. One recent movement involves a group called the Little Pinks, consisting of young people, mostly women, and well educated. The Little Pinks have actually organized to go over the Great Firewall to troll people on social media like Facebook; this has been going on for a few years. What made the movement really famous was its actions this January when Taiwan had its election and the winner was Tsai Ing-wen. She is from the Democratic Progressive Party, which is less aligned with Beijing that the Kuo Min Tang, the party of the outgoing president. So in January Tsai Ing-wen won the election, and within a week of her winning, these Little Pinks taught each other how to leap over the Great Firewall and post hundreds and hundreds of comments on Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page, saying things like “China is one country.” Some of it was benign, such as “China is a beautiful country, look at all the food we have!” while posting photos of scenic places and food. But it could get a lot nastier. There are other instances of the Little Pinks vaulting over the Great Firewall to launch similar attacks on Facebook. 

Who are the big players in the Chinese social media space? I understand that Weibo and WeChat have been important, is there any other platform?

Right now WeChat is the most important space. There used to be other sites that have fallen out of fashion. Renren is modeled after Facebook. There’s Happynet (Kaixinwang), QZone. There’s been a proliferation of blogging sites and other platforms that were really overcome. They had traction for a while, but Weibo was huge. It really came into its own about a year after Twitter was blocked, in 2010. Then in July 2011, there was an incident that really showed everyone Weibo had arrived as a place for citizen journalism. There was a horrific crash on this brand new high-speed rail line outside of Wenzhou in the south. This was a time when reporters were being told, “hold back on your reporting.” So they just posted on Weibo instead. The officials came and were actually burying the train cars less than 24 hours after the accident, and so within a day or so, there were millions and millions of posts on Weibo that the government had to respond to. It was powerful, and a lot of exposing of local corruption continued on Weibo in 2011, 2012, and 2013, until the crackdown on the Big Vs and the rise of WeChat. Now, WeChat is as ubiquitous as cell phones in China. People don’t even really text anymore, they just use WeChat. But WeChat also has a feed, which is like the Facebook feed. It has those public accounts, which is like liking pages on Facebook. You can share videos, you can make calls, you can send audio recordings. It’s got a lot of functionality. You can even like buy train tickets and send money to people. It’s like this one stop shop on your phone, for not just communication but transactions and daily life activities. 

Could you explain the primary methods and tactics used by the Chinese government in controlling social media?

There is deletion. About three years ago, Reuters actually was able to interview people, mostly young college grads, who had the job of deleting posts deemed politically sensitive on Weibo. But manually deleting posts is laborious, and so filtering is a way to automate that process. That said, stuff gets deleted a lot. For instance, essays on a WeChat public account can get deleted pretty quickly. Additionally, the deletion or the filtering is usually retroactive,  not proactive. For example, if you search in Chinese for “Dalai Lama” on Weibo you will get no results, no surprise there. But there have been public figures where one day you can search their name and the next day, because there had been a huge scandal, you couldn’t. There’s this constant game that’s going on where Chinese internet users will create code names and code words to keep talking about people and issues that are being filtered. One example is the former security tsar, Zhou Yongkang. His name was blocked for a while, and people actually started calling him Kang Shifu, which means Master Kang. It’s funny because that’s also a brand of instant noodles, so you can imagine writing about the instant noodles. But people borrowed that in order to talk about this huge political figure in the Politburo Standing Committee who had been taken down by Xi Jinping in the anti-corruption campaign. There’s this push and pull. A lot of people call it a cat and mouse game. 

The onus is on these internet companies to do the censoring, and those directives, which are sometimes leaked (and China Digital Times will then post and translate) are sometimes deliberately vague. That vagueness causes the company to hedge its bets and probably filter and delete more than it would have had it had very specific instructions. That kind of self-censorship can extend to the individual level, where people might feel reluctant to talk about certain issues if they know that it’s going to get them shut down or possibly get them in trouble.

Apart from code names, are there any other key methods for transporting information around censorship?

Those code words are really important. Keep in mind, people who are motivated to get over the Great Firewall still do. So if you are a political activist, or if you’re a liberal in China, then it’s likely that you use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, to get over the Great Firewall, to use Twitter and Facebook, and communicate with the outside world. For the majority of Chinese internet users, they still have to rely on code words. Sometimes people will take pictures of text because the images are harder to catch. You can search the keywords quite easily but the technology to search words inside of an image is a lot harder. 

Do you think that authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world could copy the strategy and tactics developed by the Chinese government and achieve similar results? Would they have distinct challenges?

The main challenge for other countries copying what China does is financial, because China has a lot of money that they’re throwing at censorship of traditional media as well as new media. Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, and other regimes don’t necessarily have those resources. The censorship, the use of Chinese domestic social media platforms, and the way that censorship works in China is pretty unique. However, there have for years been concerns about these platforms being exported out of China, and so far that hasn’t been a huge issue. But there has been an issue with companies that themselves are blocked by the Great Firewall with either complying with directives to delete or block information or self-censoring information. For example, there’s a Hong Kong actress and singer, Denise Ho, who participated very actively in the Occupy Central protests, those pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong two years ago. She was actually arrested then. Someone in China recently tried to download her music on Chinese music sharing and video sharing platforms and found that her name has been filtered. But her name is also filtered on iTunes in China. The interesting fact here is that this isn’t just on Chinese platforms. This is on iTunes as well. 

Circling back to our discussion of Facebook and Twitter, and how they’re shut out of the market economically and how that’s helped out WeChat and Weibo, do you think that the Chinese government’s fears of these companies are justified, and what is the best route for American social media companies is if they want to get into the Chinese market? 

Are their fears justified? It depends on what you think their fears are. Are their fears that people will talk about things they don’t want to be talked about and get information that they don’t to have access to? I think yes. But then what are the consequences of having that information? The fear is that the spread of information, open communication, and online organization would lead to political instability. There’s no way to test it, but keep in mind that people have other ways of communicating. It's as if because China does this, people believe, “everything is fine and the government answers all our questions.” So the government has a justification, but I doubt that that controlling information at any level is truly going to allow the regime to continue in perpetuity. 

As for U.S. social media operating in China, I don’t see much of a window at this point. Facebook does have an office in Beijing to facilitate Chinese companies selling ads, and Twitter has hired a mainland China liaison who used to be in a branch of the People’s Liberation Army. So these U.S. companies are making efforts to have inroads in China. But as for the platforms themselves, right now, I don’t think there’s any hope. In order to operate in China, you could do what LinkedIn did. LinkedIn has a Chinese LinkedIn that’s separate from the rest of the world’s LinkedIn, which is like LinkedIn being there but also not. Or you can do what Facebook is doing which is actually have some business in China, for advertisers. But the fact is that, even if tomorrow Facebook were allowed to be in China, platforms like WeChat have such a hold, I don’t think that there’s much hope for U.S. companies.

Author: 
Caroline Willian