China: Scope of Censorship Expands After Liu Xiaobo’s Death

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A new report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab analyzes keyword and image censorship on Weibo and WeChat related to Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Chinese political Liu Xiaobo, who died on July 13 from multiple organ failure while under treatment for late-stage terminal liver cancer.

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’s analysis shows that the number of blacklisted images and keywords expanded significantly after his death, illustrates that sensitivity increased depending on how many potential views a post could have, and suggests that there is a continuing interest among Chinese netizens in making and viewing content related to Liu. From the full report:

Following his death, news articles reported cases of  in China blocking references to  and his legacy. In this report we analyze censorship related to Liu and his death on two of China’s most popular platforms:  and Sina .

On WeChat, we collected keywords that trigger message censorship related to Liu Xiaobo before and after his death. Before his death, messages were blocked that contained his name in combination with other words, for example those related to his medical treatment or requests to receive care abroad. However, after his death, we found that simply including his name was enough to trigger blocking of messages, in English and both simplified and traditional Chinese. In other words, WeChat issued a blanket ban on his name after his death, greatly expanding the scope of censorship.

[…] Weibo allows users to search the entire platform for relevant posts. Past research has found that search results are heavily filtered. We confirm through testing done after Liu’s death that there is a blanket block on any search terms containing Liu Xiaobo’s name in English, simplified Chinese, and traditional Chinese. This search blocking does not seem to be a reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s recent illness or death as his name has been fairly consistently blocked on Weibo search in recent years.

However, since his passing, even searches that only contain his given name (Xiaobo, 晓波, or 曉波) are blocked. According to testing by GreatFire, his given name was accessible as recently as June 14. Like WeChat, Weibo has intensified censorship, recognizing that Liu’s passing is a particularly sensitive event.

[…] Although censorship on Weibo has made finding information about Liu using his proper name impossible, we can still assess that there is interest in Liu-related content in a number of ways. […] [Source]

Read CDT coverage of Citizen Lab’s past reports on Chinese censorship and hacking, including of their discovery this year of WeChat’s unprecedented censorship of images related to the 2015 “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown on rights advocates. Another recent report from Citizen Lab examined a series of unsuccessful phishing attempts against CDT in February.

Following the announcement of Liu’s illness, authorities censored related news and commentary, and following his death CDT found several terms blocked from being posted or searched on Weibo (however, many netizens still managed to offer veiled support for and commemoration of the late Nobel laureate). In her coverage of the new Citizen Lab report, The New York Times’ Amy Qin notes ways that Liu’s supporters managed to make it past the increased censorship, and describes online commentary on official media coverage of Liu’s cremation and sea burial last weekend:

[…E]ven as censors stepped up scrutiny in recent days, many savvy Chinese internet users found ways to evade those efforts. In tributes to Mr. Liu, users referred to him as “Brother Liu” or even “XXX.” They posted passages from his poems and abstract illustrations of Mr. Liu and his wife, Liu Xia.

Over the weekend, however, the tributes gave way to scathing critiques as friends and supporters of Mr. Liu reacted angrily to the news of Mr. Liu’s cremation and sea burial under strict government oversight.

One user took to his WeChat feed on Sunday to express disgust with the use of Mr. Liu’s corpse in what some called a blatant propaganda exercise. “Swift cremation, swift sea burial,” he wrote. “Scared of the living, scared of the dead, and even more scared of the dead who are immortal.” [Source]

On his personal blog, Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert summarizes the findings of the report in the context of Liu Xiaobo’s extreme sensitivity in authoritarian China:

The passing of Liu Xiaobo is a very sensitive event for the Chinese Communist Party.  The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests grew out of the mourning of the death of another person advocating for greater government transparency and reform, Hu Yaobang.

Concerned that martyrdom around Liu may spur similar collective action, as well as being concerned about saving face, the kneejerk reaction of China’s authorities is to quash all public discussion of Liu, which in today’s world translates into censorship on social media.

[…] As with our prior WeChat research, we confirmed that the censorship is undertaken without any notification to the users, and only applies to users with accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers.  For example, we show that images of Liu posted to an international user’s WeChat feed was visible to other users abroad, but hidden from users with Chinese accounts.

[…] Freedom of speech is the antithesis to one-party rule.  Dictators throughout history have forced embarrassing truths into the shadows, typically by imprisoning those who speak it, and have scrubbed dissidents from history books, photographs, and other mass media.

The social media censorship we document in our latest report is but the latest manifestation of this authoritarian tendency, and underscores why careful evidence-based research is so essential to the progress of human rights. [Source]

In a post on her personal blog, Citizen Lab research fellow Lotus Ruan, who contributed to the new Citizen Lab report, commemorates Liu’s life and death, imploring those in mainland China to help ensure a lasting memory of Liu, and asking what implications authorities’ treatment of Liu in his final days could have on Beijing’s efforts to become a global  leader:

There are enough media coverage on Liu’s passing. What we should reflect next is the significance and indications of Liu’s death: what it means for us as an individual, to China as a country that longs to become a global leader, and to the international community in general. 

To each of us, the challenge lies in how not to let Liu Xiaobo and his legacy become one of the “Top 10 Trending Topics on Weibo” that would fade away as time goes by and more importantly, how not to let Liu Xiaobo become a collective amnesia. I am not saying that people, especially those based in mainland China, should take extreme forms of protests regardless of any consequences. Even simple acts such as telling friends who do not know or even hear of Liu Xiaobo, remembering and writing about him even in coded messages will be enough to keep the conversation and people’s interest going. 

To Chinese leaders, how they deal with Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife who has effectively been under house arrest since Liu’s imprisonment, will make a difference in how the world sees their governance and legitimacy. This is also a moment for China to reflect on its development path as it longs to become a global leader. Does it want to be known as a country with only economic achievement and no amicable soft power or one that as it becomes more affluent also matures into a more humane and tolerant state? The first option has gotten China a ticket to many world clubs and international organizations. But will it help China be accepted and become a true rule maker? [Source]

Read more coverage of the Citizen Lab report, including a round-up of the carefully staged official media coverage of Liu’s passing, from Global Voices Oiwan Lam.

China’s social media censors found an additional focus over the weekend. At What’s on Weibo, Manya Koetse describes their resurgent attention to posts showing cartoon bear Winnie the Pooh, who since 2013 has been used as a meme to mock President Xi Jinping. An ongoing “clampdown” on the animated bear may be related to heightened sensitivities in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress this autumn.


Winnie the Pooh censored in China after President Xi Jinping comparisons

Beloved book and animated cartoon character Winnie the Pooh is being censored in China, according to BBC News.

The Chinese name for Winnie the Pooh (Little Bear Winnie) is being blocked on Chinese social media sites because bloggers have been comparing the plump bear to China’s President Xi Jinping, the BBC reports. Animated GIFs of the character were deleted from the app WeChat, and those who comment on the site Weibo with “Little Bear Winnie” get an error message.

One internet meme that went viral was an encounter between Xi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an awkward handshake. Social media users combined the image of the two politicians with that of Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh.

Another moment that was memorialized by social media users was from 2015, when Xi poppoed out of the top of a limousine. A meme was born when an image was found of Pooh in his very own car.


A photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a 2015 military parade in Beijing (L), inspired the parody image at right, posted on China’s Weibo social media site.


A photo showing a meeting between Xi and President Obama provided another popular meme in 2013. This time, a picture showed Winnie the Pooh and his smiling friend Tigger, walking side by side.

The BBC reports that the ban mainly applies to comments on Weibo, a Facebook-like social network used by 340 million people a month, which makes it more popular than Twitter, according to the BBC.

The crackdown on Winnie the Pooh and ridicule of China’s leaders is strategically timed, the BBC says. There’s an important Communist Party conference scheduled, with several top government jobs up for grabs.

Chinese officials reportedly can block certain phrases to shut down discussions that run against the Communist Party.

Recently, authorities were able to virtually remove any existence of China’s top dissident Liu Xiaobo, the BBC reports. Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize, and died last week in custody. He was a professor, a writer and a human rights activist known for his participation in the infamous Tiananmen Square protests. CBS News’ Pamela Falk says he was an inspiration to a generation of young Chinese students and pro-democracy activists around the world.


From Liu Xiaobo to Winnie the Pooh, China’s net censors can make you disappear

Peter Hartcher

  • Peter Hartcher

The only Chinese person ever to receive a Nobel prize while living in China, the writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo, was able to spread his democratic manifesto, Charter 08, through the internet. The web, he said, was “truly God’s gift to the Chinese people”, allowing them to skirt official censorship.

By the time he died last Thursday, the internationally celebrated martyr to democracy must have been despondent at what China’s internet had become. In 2014, a political cartoonist published his conception of the Chinese web: A computer keyboard and mouse are chained and taped down, padlocked, while the screen shows only the heavy bars of a prison cell.

Under the unrelenting strictures of the Chinese Communist Party, the internet had become a virtual prison. It was to be Cheng Tao’s last political work. “This is my last satirical cartoon,” he wrote. “Don’t just glance at it: every piece was drawn under immense pressure. I draw and I share at immense risk.” His family had pleaded with him to stop antagonising the authorities, he explained. He was giving up. He would henceforth draw entertainment works, he said.

The party’s control of the web has only continued to intensify since. Confounding all predictions by Western tech experts, it has been extraordinarily successful in censoring the internet, guiding the public agenda and eliminating dissent.

One indicator of the party’s success was that, on the weekend, China’s web censors banned Winnie the Pooh. The name and images of the cartoon bear were being systematically removed because he had become too politically sensitive.Why? “While no official explanation was given, observers suggested the crackdown was related to previous comparisons of President Xi Jinping with the portly bear,” reports Yuan Yang of The Financial Times. It was nothing sinister. Xi was likened to the fictional character because they are both round-bellied and benign-looking. But censorship of political debate has become so thoroughgoing that the authorities don’t merely repress dissent or criticism but even subtle references and symbols.

As the British paper quotes a Chinese media expert, Qiao Mu, of Beijing Foreign Studies University, as saying: “Historically, two things have been not allowed: political organising and political action. But this year a third has been added to the list: talking about the President.” Even through cartoon allusions.

may seem ridiculous, but for the Chinese Communist Party this is deadly serious. Nothing is more important than “stability maintenance”, meaning the preservation of the party’s monopoly on power. A key reason that China’s Communist Party is the most durable authoritarian regime on earth is that there is no alternative. No one has been able to create any national organisation that could conceivably turn its hand to politics. This is a reason that the Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, movement was so ruthlessly repressed. Not because it was political – its emphasis is on spiritual meditation – but because it had a national organising structure.

Any of its remaining sympathisers who try to use the web to communicate covertly are subject to “increasing electronic surveillance”, says researcher Sarah Cook of the US-based Freedom House, with authorities “deploying geolocation technology to find and arrest them”. The internet has been turned from an instrument of possible organisation into a tool of repression.

The authorities are not content to police any hint of dissent. They create a thriving universe of pro-regime, pro-party and nationalist messages. Or as Harvard sociology professor Gary King puts it, the party pursues “cheerleading for the state” as “strategic distraction”. It is, in Beijing’s planning, just the beginning. The party has declared that its increasing power in the world will soon be matched by its power over global “discourse”.

The era of “Western strength and Chinese weakness” is at an end, says a senior official at the Central Party School, the institution that trains Communist Party cadres, executive vice-president He Yiting​. He wrote in a party journal, quoted by the China Media Project at Hong Kong University: “Not too far off in the future, China’s dominance in terms of development, institutions and governance will be transformed into discourse dominance on the international stage. The Chinese era of international discourse is at our doorstep.”

And the thrust of that discourse? He is not talking about fun stuff like Chinese film, cuisine or literature. He explains: “The most important thing here is that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is owed to the leadership of the Central Party with comrade Xi Jinping as the core, and the rejuvenation of Chinese discourse is led by the series of important speeches made by General-Secretary Xi Jinping.”

Unlike the cartoonist Chen, the democracy activist Liu Xiaobo never gave up. Through a cumulative total of 12 years in jail in four separate incarcerations, he remained committed to non-violent political change. Which is why he died of liver cancer last week in the same circumstances in which he received his Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 – in detention.

Xi Jinping is consolidating yet more power in the approach to the five-year party congress to be held late this year. He controls the “discourse” and Liu is not part of it. Liu is a hero in the West but almost entirely censored out of existence in China. Ordinary Chinese do not know his name. Even the phrase “rest in peace” has been comprehensively scrubbed from China’s internet since his death. There is no point in deluding ourselves. The authoritarian project is succeeding in China, just as the West’s confidence in its own democracy is failing.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.


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