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Weibo: A Tool for the People or the Communist Party?

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, July 29 2013

A chengguan police van in Tiananmen Square (image: Keso/flickr)

Before sunrise on July 17, a farmer named Deng Zhengjia and his wife made their way to Linwu County in Hunan Province to sell watermelons. Deng was dead hours later. After local plainclothes policemen, or chengguan, confiscated four of Deng's melons and forced him to sell in another location, Deng was harassed yet again. This time, the chengguan struck him in the head with a weight from his own scale, killing him.

The news spread quickly on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, forcing state media to react. The South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong-based English-language publication, noted that one Weibo user likened Deng to Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose fiery public suicide in the winter of 2011 sparked a wave of public dissent that led to the downfall of then-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and heralded a broader Arab Spring.

"China’s online community, the closest thing the country has to civil society, hasn’t stopped talking about the watermelon seller," Patrick Boehler wrote for the Morning Post. "Many have blamed the system, far beyond the chengguan system, for Deng’s death, how the local government handled the situation and how it dealt with the protesters."

As time has worn on, online chatter about Deng has not dissipated. But it's not likely to mean much. That online noise has not increased, and when it had spilled into the streets, it has been met with violent resistance by police. Deng, for good or ill, is not Bouazizi, and the odds are long that online unrest in China over these types of incidents of police brutality will bloom into a political "spring."

China's government tolerates online community criticism as a pressure valve for public sentiment, modulated by swarms of censors. If nothing else, Deng's death is an example of this machine in action.

Just three days after Deng’s death, a man named Ji Zhongxing, paralyzed thanks to the ministrations of chengguan years before, wheeled himself into the Beijing airport and set off a homemade bomb, injuring only himself. Before detonating the bomb, he warned travelers to steer clear. His story also circulated quickly through social media, with some touting him as a hero.

The government seems to have dealt with Deng and Ji's similar stories in different ways. A search for Deng's name alone reveals 2 million posts on Weibo related to his death at the hands of local police. Ji's story, of a potentially fatal protest against the broader problem of police brutality and, by extension, a failure of the state, only turned up 145,000 results.

Those numbers held steady from Friday to Monday. What seems on its face to be just as sensational a story is attracting far less attention — a sign, perhaps, that there has been some censorship.

A Parallel Case

Censorship in China is essentially outsourced, with the brunt of the task falling on Internet content providers like Weibo. A company that fails to comply with government censorship regulations can be heavily fined or shut down. There is also an additional layer of government oversight. Around 20,000 to 50,000 Internet police patrol the Internet and around 250,000 to 300,000 "50 cent party members" are paid to post pro-government comments, according to a recent study by a team of Harvard social scientists that gives specific dimensions to China's long-understood censorship apparatus.

As the popular Chinese blogger Michael Anti has warned, the central government knows exactly how to use their massive censorship apparatus to control protests, both on and offline. It's hard to look at Deng's death and Ji's public protest and not see a story that fits this pattern.

"Weibo tweets can be harnessed and shaped by a central authority — the managers of Sina Weibo, acting on behalf of the Chinese central government," TechPresident Senior Editor David Eaves speculated last year. "... Thus those who control Sina Weibo basically have their fingers on some important valves — they can control what complaints get through, how much these critical tweets gain traction, and how big an online 'protest' can become."

The Communist Party has sometimes allowed certain scandals to flourish on Weibo, using them to teach a lesson about low-level corruption and central government efficiency. Officials -- usually from local governments -- are quickly sacked without so much as a trial as soon as a scandal breaks online. Two officials have already been fired in relation to Deng’s case. But Ji's bombing may have been censored because it was one case too much, evidence of a systemic problem than an isolated tragedy easily explained by a rogue cop or two.

Even before the rise of Weibo as the center of China's ad-hoc public sphere, chengguan violence evoked the same kind of response.

In 2008, a university student was beaten, though not fatally, by chengguan in the city of Zhengzhou. Like Deng's fatal beating, the incident sparked mass street protests involving tens of thousands of people. There were similar chengguan-related protests in Hunan's Shaoyang city that year and, prior to that, in Yibing city of Sichuan Province in 2007. These cases occurred before the birth of China’s social media scene but ended with similar results: local protests numbering in the thousands but no mass movement focused on the Communist Party.

The Harvard researchers posit that rather than foment disruptive social action, Weibo is having exactly the opposite effect. Social media has not helped users organize protests, they write — instead, China's approach to censoring social media hinders citizens from physically connecting, even if they feel like they are able to express themselves individually.

"Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored," the study reports. "Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content."

Deng's and Ji's stories form a case in point. Weibo is less of a “people’s” tool than one that allows the government to gauge popular opinion and address problems to temporarily appease its citizens but that shy away from larger reform.

WARNING: Graphic image below

A screenshot of a Weibo post explaining that Deng died on July 17 after chengguan beat him to death. It also includes a widely-circulated image of Deng lying dead on the ground.

A screenshot of a Weibo post with a brief news clip about the Beijing airport bomber.

Too Fast to Censor?

When the online community of so-called “netizens” first began uncovering corruption among local officials a few years ago, it seemed that social media in China was finally making an impact on long-standing issues. Finally, it seemed, the censors just couldn't keep up with the speed at which posts went viral.

Another recent study reveals that's simply not true. Weibo, say Dan Wallach and a team of researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, is censored in near real-time.

Studying the speed with which posts on Weibo are deleted, Wallach's team discovered that 30 percent are removed in less than a minute and 5 percent of posts are deleted within 8 minutes. Around 90 percent of deleted posts are removed within a day.

Wallach and his team have calculated that this level of censorship requires a hefty does of human capital — about 4,200 censors for Weibo alone. That is, if 1,400 censors handle about 50 posts per minute, each working 8-hour shifts in a 24-hour cycle. Wallach noted that censors most likely use key word alerts to help raise red flags. “Support Syrian rebels” is on the list of red flags. “Jasmine revolution” was blocked in 2011 during the Arab Spring.

Censorship cannot always be automated, however, because Chinese web users are notorious for using creative puns and code words to evade censors. A popular one is “harmonized,” which is used to mean “censored.” “Harmony” is a catchphrase used by officials to explain their draconian policies. Artist and designer An Xiao Mina, who has worked with artist and activist Ai Wei Wei, told TechPresident's Nick Judd at PDF 2012, "The way that Mandarin words change are through tones. There are many words that sounds similar - homophones. It's a perfect way for Chinese speakers to evade censorship. A classic example is Ai Wei Wei, his official name. People will use 'Ai Wei Lai,' which means 'love the future' or 'Aiwowo,' which is a snack."

Users who get censored once are more likely to get censored in the future. Further, users may not always know when they are being censored. A “camouflage post” is one where the user sees his post as published when others cannot.

When the Chinese government wants to, it can slow Internet access speeds, shut down virtual private networks that allow users to access banned websites, as TechPresident wrote about previously. The government uses these more extreme forms of censorship selectively as they can interfere with economic activity.

After the local government offered Deng's family a generous compensation package, Deng's daughter wrote a "thank-you" note to local officials on her Weibo account. Some claimed that her post was "bought" in exchange for a more generous compensation package.

To this news, however, it appears that netizens just sighed, shrugged and moved on.

Media outlets in China have broken no major news about Ji since July 23, three days after his protest.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.