Friday 23 May 2003

Internet Censors in China Loosening Their Grip

This article originally appeared in Online Journalism Review on 23 May 2003.


A researcher tracking Internet censorship trends in China says government monitors are allowing more political commentary than they have in the past.

"Look at that! Look at that!" Gao Zheng says, tapping the glass screen on his monitor excitedly.

All I see is a string of Chinese characters, each one as incomprehensible to me as every other. I can tell it's a Web site, but that's about it.

"That lasted there over two hours," he says, falling back into his chair. "I can't believe it. Somebody's not paying attention."

Looking a little closer, I can see he's tapping at a threaded discussion forum. "I've got to print that one off," he says, pulling himself back to the keyboard.

A few minutes later, a refreshed screen reveals a different set of characters. The ephemeral pixel proof is gone. "That's really surprising," says Gao, putting the printout in a blue folder crammed full of similar screen shots. "Two hours and 20 minutes isn't quite a record for that kind of thing, but it's much longer than I expected."

As he closes his folder, another piece of the murky puzzle of online censorship in China falls into place.

Post and play

Zheng, who asked that his real name not be used, is a senior producer for the BBC Chinese Service. He is carrying out this research for Reporters without Borders under BBC. He is quite pleased with his overflowing folder of screen shots -- his collected evidence of China's online censorship in action.

While other researchers, such as Jonathan Zittrain and Ben Edelman at Harvard, are taking a macro approach, trying to uncover the country's vast filtering system for online content coming from abroad, Gao is working at the micro level. His is a one-man guerrilla reconnaissance mission testing the boundaries of the permissible in China's chat rooms and online forums.

These reader-response areas are astoundingly popular in China. In a country of 1.2 billion, about 60 million people are regular users of the Internet. But unlike the United States, which seems to have reached a leveling-off point in online population growth, the number of Internet users in China continues to increase rapidly -- it was up by more than 40 percent in 2002, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

Chat rooms and online forums are a key attraction for those millions of new users. The three large chat groups on the Web site of the state news agency Xinhua publish 6,000 reader postings on a slow news day., a well-known news site, boasts more than 4,000,000 hits per day in more than 200 forums, with topics ranging from current events to buying cars. Other sites -- including, Yahoo! Chinese and -- also enjoy strong levels of interest.

The reader discussion areas popular -- and they are also not as easily policed as a simple, non-interactive Web page. In fact, because such sites police themselves, there are more opportunities for cheating the censors, and the chat rooms and online forums of news sites can be seen as the soft underbelly of China's vast Web censorship efforts.

In March of last year, China's leading Internet businesses signed a "self-discipline" pledge, vowing to uphold the authorities' efforts to ban and filter out content the regime deems threatening. Specifically, portals and online publishers have agreed to prevent users from posting banned material and links to it, and to remove such material posted by users on sites under their control.

Chat rooms and online forum moderators keep a close eye on what users say, removing anything they feel the government would consider "harmful information."

This self-regulation is tight, but it is not as watertight as complete government control might be. The monitors are neither omnipotent nor omnipresent, so there are small cracks in this system of self-censorship where free speech in China can exist -- if only for a few minutes.

Gao has the task of finding those cracks and monitoring the monitors.

His method is simple yet effective. Gao first opens an account with a news site's forum or chat room, giving a false name and anonymous e-mail address for cover. Chinese discussion groups closely monitor the postings by all names, building a list of "dangerous" contributors based on their "criminal record" of sensitive posts and banning those deemed consistently unacceptable.

With a clean avatar, Gao posts short texts of varying sensitivity. He then waits for a reaction from the moderator and records it.

Some sites, such as Xinhua, filter all readers' postings before they appear publicly; in these cases, Gao can only report that the site refused to publish his comment, gave him a warning or banned him from making further comments because of it.

But on those sites where users' messages first appear live and are only removed by a moderator afterward -- as is the case for users with clean records on -- time becomes the crucial measurement. Gao posts a message, notes the time and then awaits its removal.

By repeating this process over and over and comparing the waiting times and other reactions of the monitors, Gao is building an ever clearer picture of what topics are most sensitive and which sites are more tolerant than others.

On April 10, Gao posted a message on a forum containing the word "SARS" and calling on the Chinese government to work closely with Hong Kong to stop the epidemic. The message did not appear. A second message about SARS was submitted to the site five days later. It met the same fate.

No criticism of the government's handling of the SARS crisis can be seen on the most popular sites.

The surprising and the dangerous

Gao provisionally rates every bit of text on a scale of 1 to 10 before he posts it. His initial "sensitivity" rating is usually a good indication of the time the posting will last on the public area of the news site. A "1" is something totally unthreatening, while a "10" would be lucky to get online at all and would remain for just minutes if it did.

Gao decides to post a message about Iraq: "Let's try: 'China is not doing enough to get the United States to abide by international law and work within the UN.'"

Gao judged the posting to be only a 4 out of 10 for political sensitivity in China, and his initial guess seems confirmed by its staying power on the forum. The authorities don't mind open rejection of the U.S. attack on Iraq; that is external politics and not really related to the facts of life in China, so it is safe as far as the regime is concerned.

Discussion about the war is actually quite detailed and far more heated than Gao's test comment; in fact, one might even think some posts were truly "dangerous" from the Chinese regime's point of view.

"Look at this one," Gao says, pointing to another comment made by a user on some hours before. "It says, 'Why aren't we protesting in the streets against this war like other countries are doing and like we did after the U.S. bombing of our embassy in Yugoslavia?'"

"It's been there for several hours already. Surprising it would be allowed to stay so long. I mean, this isn't just foreign policy chitchat; this is a call for people to go out into the streets. This is an eight or a nine, certainly. Very dangerous."

And such surprises come frequently. It turns out that what is most sensitive and most quickly removed is not as simple to predict, and is a function of many factors.

The censorship efforts of the moderators in control are patchy. Sometimes, the sentinels seem to be sleeping -- almost quite literally, as fewer moderators are working at night, for example, so more gets through and stays online for longer in the wee hours. Other times, the moderators snap like mousetraps at the gentlest trespass.

The punishment of the trespassers also varies. The moderator may simply reject a politically offensive message, or he could blacklist the contributor forever, which is why Gao is constantly reinventing new avatars to continue his work.

What is censored, how it is censored and what the punishments are handed out seems random at times, Gao says, but there are some stable features one can identify. Swearing and abusive language is almost universally acceptable; the subject matter is more important than the manner it is discussed.

"Anything mentioning political prisoners or their names is out," Gao says. "That is the material that is most quickly taken down and the material most likely to get you banned from that forum."

"Another taboo is any call for major reform. That's strictly forbidden."

Somewhat surprisingly, however, corruption stories are allowed -- up to a point. In fact, corruption stories represent real investigative journalism in China today, and the online forums of news sites play an important role in revealing and shaming corrupt politicians. Of course, such discussion remains generally focused on local officials, not national leaders; still, some big regional-level politicians have been exposed.

One story hot on the forum screens as I sat next to Gao was an account of a regional Communist Party secretary who apparently drank himself to death. Group contributors described in detail what he drank and where and, more importantly, how other officials tried to cover up the cause of his death to avoid embarrassment and scandal.

But such criticism does have clear limitations. Investigating a regional party secretary is fine, but discussions about anyone higher up would be stopped quickly.

Chasing readers, evading censors

Chinese chat rooms and online groups are anything but monolithic; there may be one party line, but China's many different news sites each does things differently. They have different reputations and are chasing different audiences.

This leads to a difficult dilemma for China's commercial news sites. On the one hand, they want their online forums to attract readers, and to do so they must have compelling, controversial material supplied by the readers. On the other hand, they have promised to keep an eye on those chat groups to make sure they don't contain anything the government would deem threatening or harmful.

Too often, what is "compelling" reading is also "harmful" reading: What is banned is always sought after.

So a news site has two competing incentives. The more lively the discussion, and the closer it is to the political edge, the more readers are attracted. Step over that edge, however, and the weight of the entire repressive political system will strike.

"I mean, look at this, the Beijing Youth Daily," complains Gao. "There's no debate, no controversy… it's boring. No one is going to go there.", on the other hand, takes reader participation to the opposite extreme.

"163 is huge -- almost frightening. The moderators are even a bit rough toward beginners, challenging them to get involved and speak their minds, and recommending they build up a reputation in entry-level chat rooms before moving on to the hard-hitting areas."

China's largest news site,, generally receives Gao's approval. "It takes a long time to register with them, but the debate is fantastic. Very wide-ranging, and they are quite tolerant," he explains.

But that tolerance is still only relative, and is by no means a safe haven for unfettered speech, says Gao, who revealed the precise limit of Sina's tolerance when he was kicked out of its media forum after posting an appeal to release a cyber dissident.

"See this?" Gao asks, pointing to a fresh post on "This is a copy of a Reuters report about the closure of a newspaper, 21st Century World Herald. It's associated with the popular Southern Weekly group of newspapers, and this closure is upsetting many people working in the Chinese media."

"Complaining about newspaper suspensions is not something the authorities generally tolerate. But look at this! This message was posted by the moderator himself. You can see his sympathy is with the paper."

Gao starts typing furiously in response.

"I'm just thanking the moderator for reposting the report and agreeing with it. The newspaper's closure should be condemned."

A minute later, Gao's post has been accepted and appears online beneath the Reuters report. And his printer in the corner makes a hard-copy record, just in case the whole thread disappears into the ether.

Post by post

One post at a time, Gao Zheng is discovering, and at times perhaps even expanding, the boundaries of the Internet in China. His full report for Reporters without Borders will be published by the press-freedom organization soon, but Gao's results are already taking shape. Chat room by chat room and forum by forum, Gao is testing the gatekeepers, and he is finding that these reader contribution areas are rather permeable.

Self-regulation by the news sites is simply self-censorship. But the strength of that censorship is weaker than it probably would be if the authorities were controlling the reader involvement areas themselves, because other motivations are coming into play. Web sites, especially commercial ones, thirst for ever more readers, and they want to draw those readers in with challenging online debate.

What's more, the humans that monitor and moderate these online areas are not unfailing filter machines. The human factor results in holes, cracks and leaks at various points along the wide front of China's online censorship.

You can use software to filter out whole pages of content automatically based on certain keywords, such as "Tiananmen" or "Dalai Lama," but humans maintain these chat rooms and online forums, so mistakes are made, even if some are only temporary. And with every mistake by the censors, a little free speech shines through.

Andrew Stroehlein oversees the training of over more than 1,500 journalists in 25 countries for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and frequently writes on issues of international online journalism.

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