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Limits on Content

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Limits on Content: An Overview

May 2012–April 2013

Censorship predictably intensified in advance of the leadership transitions at the November 2012 party congress and the March 2013 National People’s Congress session. Reports of unrest, such as Tibetans self-immolating, were especially curtailed. The methods used were generally more precise and less visible than in the past, with the exception of a campaign against Bloomberg and the New York Times for their probing reports on wealth accumulation by China’s first families. Instead of filtering out the individual articles, censors blocked the entire websites, depriving them of readership and advertising revenue.

Users in China can still access content hosted outside China using circumvention tools, at least until more companies follow China Unicom, which started severing connections on which circumvention was detected in December. Meanwhile, microblog users sometimes find that their posts have become invisible to others, requiring them to repost to keep their content in the public domain. These customized controls and manipulative practices are better understood thanks to some meticulous research and reporting published in 2012 and 2013.

In the past year, digital media also fueled popular participation in key debates over issues of public interest, such as smog levels in Beijing. But it is becoming harder to assess whether these movements represent a challenge to the censorship apparatus. They may be a sign that information authorities are more adept than ever at channeling outbreaks of discontent away from political issues and into local, finite, social matters.

In keeping with the unmatched size of their online population, Chinese authorities employ the most elaborate system for internet content control in the world. Government agencies and private companies employ thousands of people to monitor, censor, and manipulate content, from news reports to social-network pages. Routine censorship can be reinforced surrounding politically sensitive events, or just in response to the latest hot topic. Even this heavily censored and manipulated online environment, however, provides more space for average citizens to express themselves and air their grievances against the state than any other medium in China.

Content with the potential to delegitimize CCP rule is systematically censored. Criticism of top leaders or policies, both present and past, is almost always controlled—a category that encompasses the legacy of Mao Zedong, the 1989 military crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing, and the Korean War. Independent evaluations of China’s human rights record or CCP policies toward ethnic minorities and the banned Falun Gong spiritual group are also off-limits,[1] as are dissident initiatives that challenge the one-party regime. Names of established dissidents are frequently blocked, to prevent them gaining a wider following.

These standing taboos are supplemented by evolving, almost daily directives on negative developments or budding civic movements over issues like environmental pollution, food safety, or police brutality. Analysts increasingly agree that content control is aimed at suppressing nascent collective action, rather than comprehensively banning critical speech.[2] Individuals with significant social capital or a high international profile, which would allow them to mobilize mass support, are more likely to be censored.[3] As a result, censors can be remarkably tolerant of frustration vented at local governments or discussion of politically oriented terms like “democracy.”[4] The prevalence of this term and others, like “freedom of speech,” has risen in the Chinese blogosphere.[5] While that marks some progress toward openness, it also corresponds to a shift in CCP discourse. Censors first relaxed filters on the word “democracy” in 2005 after leaders redefined democratic governance as “the Chinese Communist Party governing on behalf of the people.”[6]

Chinese authorities are not transparent about censorship. International critics who question limits on content receive responses ranging from denial (“the Chinese internet is open”[7]) to defiance, manifest in the phrase “internet sovereignty,” meaning the right to practice censorship within Chinese borders. Domestically, leaders cite the need to curb pornography, gambling, rumors, and other harmful practices to justify content restrictions, though political topics are targeted at least as forcefully. Ironically, while burgeoning internet access has not overcome information controls, it has shone a light on the processes involved. Chinese freelance journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2005 for e-mailing propaganda department directives to an overseas news website;[8] today, similar directives are routinely leaked online. Internal copies of a 2010 speech outlining internet management were circulated in online forums, allowing users to compare them with the bowdlerized version circulated released to the public.[9] Criticism of the censorship system itself, however, is itself heavily censored. [10]

The CCP’s content-control system consists of three primary techniques: automated technical filtering, forced self-censorship by service providers, and proactive manipulation:

Automated technical filtering includes the best-known layer of the censorship apparatus: the blocking of foreign websites commonly referred to as China’s “Great Firewall.” The term implies a solid boundary, and in some cases, whole domain names or internet protocol (IP) addresses are blocked. “Web throttling,” which slows the loading of pages to render services nearly useless, is employed as well. Internet users reported slowed broadband speeds and narrow bandwidth characteristic of web throttling during the month of the 2012 party congress.[11]

More common, however, is the authorities’ use of deep-packet inspection technologies to scrutinize traffic, both the user’s request for content and the results returned, for an ever-evolving blacklist of keywords. If one is detected, the technology signals both sides of the exchange to temporarily sever the connection. This granular control renders censorship less noticeable to users, firstly because specific pages can be blocked within otherwise approved sites, and secondly because the interruption appears to come from the source of the information, not a third-party intrusion.[12]

Of course, some censorship is designed to remind users that certain content is out of bounds.[13] One study redefines the Great Firewall as a panopticon, arguing that it need not block everything if the knowledge of monitoring suffices to promote the self-censorship that is pervasive among Chinese internet users. Other research suggests that security forces are most secretive when they are also conducting surveillance to uncover who is accessing banned content—particularly if that data can subsequently be used to justify detention or some other violation of the user’s rights.[14]

Filtering is heterogeneous and often inconsistent, depending on timing, technology, and geographical region. ISPs reportedly take different approaches to the placement of filtering devices, which are not only in border routers, but also in the backbone and even in provincial-level internal networks, a development that would potentially allow interprovincial filtering.[15]

China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom extend automated technical keyword filtering to the mobile realm, monitoring text messages and deleting pornographic or other “illegal” content.[16] Users report that their correspondents receive blank messages in place of subject matter that contained apparently banned keywords. It is not clear exactly what content triggers deletion.[17]

The blanket blockage of select web applications isolates the Chinese public from an international network of user-generated content—and domestic internet firms from competition. The video-sharing platform YouTube and the social-media sites Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Foursquare are consistently blocked. Like a number of other services, Twitter was initially available and widely used, then blocked in 2009 in advance of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, once its potential for galvanizing collective action became apparent. It remains popular among Chinese users who are familiar with circumvention tools.[18] More recent blocks on applications like Google’s cloud storage service, Drive, were effected immediately.[19] Users of other international applications that remain unblocked complain of sporadic disruptions. Users of the online document-sharing service SlideShare, which is owned by the U.S.-based professional networking site LinkedIn, reported it was temporarily inaccessible in July 2012.[20] LinkedIn itself had been blocked for two days in February 2011.[21]

Forced self-censorship by service providers, makes commercial success contingent on compliance with content regulations. International web applications, once blocked, are quickly replaced by homegrown equivalents. Hundreds of millions of users are attracted to these domestic video-sharing websites, social-networking tools, and e-mail services.[22] As part of their licensing requirements, the companies must ensure that banned content is not posted or circulated; those that fail risk temporary or permanent closure.[23] Software for both censorship and surveillance is often built into their applications. For example, instant-messaging services such as Tom-Skype and QQ include programming that downloads updated keyword blacklists regularly.[24]

In addition to automated keyword filters, human censors delete postings on blogs, microblogs, comment sections of news items, and bulletin-board system (BBS) discussions before they appear to the public or shortly thereafter.[25] Experts say staff receive as many as three censorship directives per day by text message, instant message, phone call, or e-mail.[26] Local propaganda offices recruit volunteers to identify and report potentially undesirable content on social networks. [27]

Online news portals that operate without a press license are limited to reposting content that has already been approved by censors, rather than producing their own.[28] Propaganda directives to internet-based outlets often include specific instructions to amplify content from state media.[29] The search engine Baidu, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of China’s search market,[30] similarly manipulates the results it offers based on government instructions, not only removing proscribed material, but also favoring state-approved information over content from nongovernmental or foreign sources. In July 2012, after internet users began circulating short documentary-style videos on social networks to avoid restrictions on news broadcasts and movies, regulators ordered online video service providers to start deleting any items that failed adhere to “correct guidance,” a euphemism for censorship orders.[31]

Microblogging services, offered by Sina, Tencent, Sohu, and other companies, saw an astonishing 300 percent growth during their peak development period from 2010 to 2011. With more than half of China’s internet users registered for a microblog account by January 2013,[32] these fast-paced networks and their rambunctious user base pose a unique challenge to censors trying to rein in sensitive discussion. The CCP established party branches in the offices of four microblog providers in February 2012, according to news reports.[33] Company executives also benefit from political connections and patronage.[34]

Sina Weibo, benefiting in part from the vacuum left by the 2009 ban on Twitter, had accumulated 400 million registered accounts by November 2012,[35] though only 46 million  are active.[36] Unlike on Twitter, Weibo users can develop elaborate discussion threads in response to each post, all of which are lost if the original post is censored. The comment function can also be independently shut off to prevent isolated posts from gaining traction.[37]

Sina employs both automated and human monitors to manage Weibo content. Their methods include deleting individual posts or accounts, often with 24 hours of an offending post, but sometimes long after publication;[38] making published posts visible only to the account owner; and sending personal warnings.[39] In addition, researchers counted over 800 terms filtered from Weibo search results at various times, including “Cultural Revolution” and “propaganda department.”[40] Activists and other users with large followings come under particular scrutiny.[41]

Despite these efforts, the company has frequently fallen afoul of propaganda authorities. When the CCP’s purge of Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai in early 2012 prompted unconfirmed online reports of a failed coup, comment functions were temporarily disabled on both Sina and Tencent microblogs. State media reported that the companies were “punished for allowing rumors to spread.”[42] Sina subsequently closed several accounts for alleged rumor-mongering.[43] It also launched new user guidelines and a points-based system that assigned demerits to users who published banned content, leading to warnings and eventual account closure, while rewarding those who engaged in unspecified “promotional activities.”[44] The intervention may have taken a toll on the company’s market share. Rival microblog service Tencent announced 540 million registered users—with 100 million active daily—at the end of 2012.[45]

Foreign service providers must agree to self-censor in return for access to the immense Chinese market, and most comply. In 2012, New Tang Dynasty Television—a Chinese-language, New York–based broadcaster established by Falun Gong practitioners—reported that U.S. technology giant Apple had removed applications created by the station from its online App Store in China in July, on the grounds that their content was “illegal in China.”[46] In Chinese-language versions of Apple’s voice-controlled artificial intelligence system Siri, the system reportedly declined to answer questions related to the Tiananmen Square massacre, such as a query about “June,” and in one test it refused even to direct the user to Tiananmen Square.[47] China accounted for 20 percent of Apple’s sales in the first quarter of 2012, and the country is its second-biggest market after the United States.[48]

International service providers that refuse to censor content face an uncertain future. In 2010, Google lost significant market share when it began redirecting mainland users to its uncensored Hong Kong–based search engine. The company explained that it had made the decision after suffering sustained attacks on its intellectual property by military-grade hackers traced to Chinese computers.[49] By doing so publicly, and drawing attention to the way the same hackers had targeted Gmail accounts used by journalists and human rights activists focused on China issues, it also increased transparency about censorship.[50] Google retained its Chinese license and continued its less politically sensitive operations, like the AdSense advertising service and the Android mobile operating system, largely unimpeded.[51] Yet its flagship search engine has foundered in comparison with domestic competitors. In 2012, it began notifying Chinese users on which keywords were likely to trigger connectivity problems.[52] By 2013, it had turned off this notification function, which some users reported was itself subject to censorship.[53] If private companies choose not to alert readers about blocked content, censorship decisions remain both arbitrary and opaque. There are no formal avenues for appeal.

Chinese companies expanding overseas may have difficulty serving users accustomed to fewer online controls. In 2012, users of Tencent’s messaging program WeChat complained that the service was applying China’s censorship rules in Singapore and Thailand.[54]

Proactive manipulation is the third primary method of content control in China, and Chinese authorities view cyberspace as a field for “ideological struggle.”[55] Since 2005, propaganda units at all levels have trained and hired web commentators to post progovernment remarks and lead online discussions.[56] They also report users who have posted offending statements, target government critics with negative remarks, or deliberately muddy the facts of a particular incident, such as an account of police abuse.[57] Recent reports estimate the number of paid propaganda workers in the tens of hundreds of thousands.[58] These methods are not always effective. Many commenters are more concerned about filling their quota and impressing their bosses than mounting a convincing argument, and web users are wary of content manipulation. Companies also pay for positive comments to promote their products —known in public relations circles as astroturfing—which further erodes public trust in online content.[59]

Government employees also engage citizens in online discussions. In 2012, an official Sina report said 50,000 Weibo accounts were operated by government ministries and public officials.[60] Even Hu Jintao, who famously avoided unscripted encounters with the press during his presidency, engaged a cherry-picked audience of People’s Daily readers in a live web chat in 2008.[61]

The past year also offered an intriguing glimpse of CCP officials apparently wielding censorship tools against their opponents within the party ahead of the leadership shuffle. In mid-2012, Baidu returned fleetingly open results related to the 1989 crackdown and other human rights abuses associated with former president Jiang Zemin and his supporters. Observers speculated that President Hu’s rival CCP faction was relaxing controls to embarrass its adversaries.[62] Meanwhile, leftist websites that had been supportive of Bo and his neo-Maoist rhetoric were shut down after his ouster.[63]

Despite the technical filtering, enforced self-censorship, and manipulation, the internet is a primary source of news and forum for discussion, particularly among the younger generation. Chinese cyberspace is replete with online auctions, social networks, homemade music videos, a large virtual gaming population,[64] and spirited discussion of some social and political issues. Overtly political organizations, ethnic minorities, and persecuted religious groups remain underrepresented, though they have used the internet to disseminate banned content, and overseas media and human rights groups report sending e-mail to subscribers in China with news, instructions on circumvention technology, or copies of banned publications. Civil society organizations involved in charity, education, health care, and other social and cultural issues often have a vigorous online presence.

The word “netizen”—a direct translation of the Chinese wangmin, or citizen of the internet—conveys the legitimate sense of civic engagement associated with online exchanges. Microblogs have amplified these dynamics and generated a strong sense of empowerment among many Chinese users, censorship notwithstanding.[65] Whereas Chinese citizens traditionally trek to the seat of power to present their grievances, microblogs and other internet technologies offer a way to overcome the geographic, financial, and physical challenges of such petitioning. Moreover, despite the leadership’s dread of collective action, officials frequently yield to public pressure. Weibo users forced the authorities to start addressing air pollution in 2013 by raising their concerns in multiple cities and provinces.[66] In January, the CCP dismissed leftist Central Compilation and Translation Bureau Director Yi Junqing after an ex-lover blogged about their affair, drawing widespread opprobrium, in what the New York Times characterized as the latest in a “spate of scandals appearing online.”[67]

Online protests against official wrongdoing have gained considerable momentum and media visibility in the microblog era. One county-level party chief allegedly removed his expensive watch before appearing in photographs with Premier Li Keqiang in April 2013, perhaps to avoid becoming the latest local cadre to be censured for luxury spending. Internet users caught the tan line on his wrist and quickly found earlier photos that showed him with what seemed to be a designer timepiece.[68] In 2012, the story of a journalist’s suspension for exposing officials’ luxury cigarette habit in the city of Wei’an, published on his personal microblog, drew more attention than his original report.[69] Also that year, Chinese netizens expressed outrage over a case of compulsory abortion after photographs were posted online.[70] Censors do intervene if these stories and campaigns gain too high a profile or implicate overall CCP governance. After a disastrous storm in Beijing in mid-2012, resident microblog users complained about official rescue efforts and expressed fury when the municipality solicited donations for disaster relief. These comments were deleted in the tens of thousands, and flood-related search terms were blocked, despite an obvious threat to public safety.[71]

The transformative effect of online activism in China is undeniable, and yet the solutions that result from these high-pressure encounters typically fall short of systemic reform or democratic decision making. Consequently, they fail to ensure meaningful accountability.[72] After the Beijing floods, the city’s mayor announced his resignation, but he was quickly promoted to Beijing party secretary.[73] One year earlier, a deadly high-speed train collision in Wenzhou was first reported by Weibo users who circulated real-time reports, calls for help, and photos.[74] But in 2012, censors obstructed news coverage of the anniversary, and a promised investigation into the cause of the disaster had yet to contact its victims.[75]

Mobilization can also have a negative impact. Online thugs terrorizing officials for alleged corruption may look like a positive development, until the same forces attack ordinary internet users over a perceived insult. Nationalism and xenophobia are prominent components of Chinese cyberspace, though censorship targeting rational dissent instead of inflammatory discourse arguably magnifies their impact. In September 2012, censorship directives were either withheld or ignored following anti-Japanese protests linked to China’s territorial dispute with Japan over the uninhabited Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Many commentators interpreted the lack of censorship as a tacit endorsement of the protests, which escalated and turned violent until censors reentered the fray with a modulated message that successfully curtailed news coverage and discussion.[76] But the rioters are as likely to have influenced policymakers as any of the other competing military and foreign affairs agendas during the crisis because of the domestic security implications if they were not contained, according to the Canberra-based scholar Geremie Barmé.[77]

As high-profile events like these draw more attention to China’s pervasive information controls, censors find themselves pitted against not just political activists, but also ordinary citizens. It is common for users to counter censorship with humorous neologisms that substitute for banned keywords.[78] This forces censors to work overtime, temporarily filtering seemingly innocuous vocabulary like “river,”[79] “tomato,”[80] or “porridge.”[81] These overactive controls impinge further on daily life—jasmine flower sales, for instance, were affected when the word “jasmine” was blocked due to its association with Tunisia’s 2011 democratic revolution[82]—and inspire further acts of creative online rebellion. This version of the Chinese internet does not resemble a repressed information environment so much as “a quasi-public space where the CCP’s dominance is being constantly exposed, ridiculed, and criticized, often in the form of political satire, jokes, videos, songs, popular poetry, jingles, fiction, Sci-Fi, code words, mockery, and euphemisms.”[83]

The number of internet users who challenge information controls to access political content—rather than to download pornography or pirated movies—appears to be growing. Exact numbers of people actively combatting censorship are difficult to calculate. Internet expert Xiao Qiang put the activist community at two or three million in a mid-2013 estimate.[84] Others look for indicators like the number of Chinese users who continue to access Twitter, which can only be reached via circumvention software since its 2009 ban. However, those counts vary wildly, from thousands to 35 million; experts have dismissed the latter as vastly inflated.[85]

The ad hoc techniques these users commonly adopt to flout censors include opening multiple blogs on different hosting sites and circulating banned information directly through peer-to-peer networks, which bypass central servers. Text transformed into image, audio, or video files evades keyword sensors. Software developers, both domestic and overseas, also offer technologically sophisticated tools like virtual private networks (VPNs), which direct the user’s traffic—usually using an encrypted connection—through a server outside the firewall to circumvent technical filtering.

International news reports noted spikes in usage of these tools at politically important moments in early 2012—such as Bo Xilai’s ouster—when heavy censorship was in place.[86] Circumvention tool developers independently corroborated this for Freedom House. Significantly, developers said the baseline number of users increased as first-time users who adopted the tools during a crisis continued to use them, even after it dissipated.[87]

The growth in the use of such tools has spawned attempts to block them. In 2011, internet security experts noticed activity indicating that Chinese ISPs may have been testing a new system for identifying the type of encrypted services often used by circumvention tools.[88] By December 2012, China Unicom was reportedly cutting connections when it detected VPN usage.[89] Even when not actively disrupted, encryption may attract surveillance. While dozens of China-based companies, as well as overseas firms, promote an evolving roster of commercial circumvention tools, not all are transparent about user privacy. In the words of internet freedom expert Rebecca Mackinnon, “most people are focused simply on accessing banned websites and aren’t thinking about surveillance.”[90] This leaves a growing community vulnerable to invasive rights violations.

[1] A study conducted in 2011 by scholars at Carnegie Mellon found that up to 53 percent of microblog posts generated from Tibet were deleted. Byron Spice, “Carnegie Mellon Performs First Large-Scale Analysis of ‘Soft’ Censorship Media in China,” Carnegie Mellon University, March 7, 2012,

[2] “Preventing the organization of protests is as important, if not more important, than preventing users from reading unapproved content.” Jedidiah R. Crandall et al., “ConceptDoppler: A Weather Tracker for Internet Censorship,” Conference Paper for the 14th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, October 29-November 2, 2007,; King, Pan, and Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.”

[4] King, Pan, and Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.”

[5] Ashley Esarey and Xiao Qiang, “Digital Communication and Political Change in China,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 298–319, Xiao Qiang was an advisor for this report.

[6] Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 20.

[7] “Saying of the Week: China’s Internet Is Open,” China Digital Times, February 6, 2013,

[8] Bob Dietz, “As Wang Is Freed, Chinese Journalist Shi Tao Still Held,” Committee to Protect Journalists, August 31, 2012,

[9] Human Rights in China, “How the Chinese Authorities View the Internet: Three Narratives,” China Rights Reform Issue No. 2 (2010),

[10] King, Pan, Roberts “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.”

[11] “In Tandem with Slower Economy, Chinese Internet Users Face Slower Internet This Week,” China Tech News, November 6, 2012,

[12] Ben Wagner, “Deep Packet Inspection and Internet Censorship: International Convergence on an ‘Integrated Technology of Control,’” Global Voices Advocacy, June 25, 2009,

[13] The animated cartoon police officers Jingjing and Chacha, who appeared on Chinese computer screens to wag fingers at wayward users around the country in 2008, served as visible reminders of official oversight.

[14] Villeneuve, Breaching Trust.

[15] X. Xu, Z. Mao, and J. Halderman, “Internet Censorship in China: Where Does the Filtering Occur?” Passive and Active Measurement, Springer, 2011, 133–142,

[16] “China Mobile Users Risk SMS Ban in Porn Crackdown,” Agence France-Presse, January 13, 2010,; Elaine Chow, “So About that Sexting Ban in China,” Shanghaiist, January 20, 2012,

[17] Elaine Chow, “An Alleged List of Banned SMS Terms from China Mobile and Co.,” Shanghaiist, January 4, 2011,

[18] Rebecca MacKinnon, “China Blocks Twitter, Flickr, Bing, Hotmail, Windows Live, etc. Ahead of Tiananmen 20th Anniversary,” CircleID, June 2, 2009,

[19] Steven Musil, “Google Drive Crashes into China’s Great Firewall,” Cnet, April 25, 2012,

[20] “LinkedIn’s SlideShare Blocked in China,” China Media Bulletin, July 19, 2012, //

[21] Keith B. Richburg, “Nervous Unrest, Chinese Authorities Block Web Site, Search Terms,” Washington Post, February 25, 2011,

[22] Rick Martin, “Ogilvy’s ‘Social Media Equivalents’ in China 2011,” Tech in Asia, October 17, 2011,

[23] One, Fanfou, lost market share after a 2009 shutdown lasted several months. Melanie Lee, “Clampdown Rumored as Chinese ‘Twitter’ Sites Blocked,” Globe and Mail, August 23, 2012,

[24] TOM-Skype is a joint venture between Skype and Chinese wireless service TOM Online. Vernon Silver, “Cracking China’s Skype Surveillance Software,” Bloomberg, March 8, 2013,; Jedidah R. Crandall et al., “Chat Program Censorship and Surveillance in China: Tracking TOM-Skype and Sina UC,” First Monday 18, no. 7 (2013),; Jeffrey Knockel, “TOM-Skype Research,”

[25] King, Pan, and Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.”

[26] Xiao Qiang, “From ‘Grass-Mud Horse’ to ‘Citizen’: A New Generation Emerges through China’s Social Media Space,” Congressional-Executive Commission on China, November 17, 2011,

[27]Web 3.0 Yuan Nian De Zhong Guo Hu Lian Wang Hang Ye Zi Lv Shi Jian Yu Xi Kao” [Self-Disciplined Practice and Thoughts of Chinesse Internet Industry in Web 3.0],, April 2011,; “Beijing Zhao Mu Wang Luo Jian Du Zhi Yuan Zhe” [Beijing to Recruit Volunteers for Network Monitoring], Beijing News, May 26, 2012, .

[28] “Interim Provisions on the Administration of Internet Websites Engaged in News Posting Operations,” November 1, 2000, excerpts available at

[29] Keith B. Richburg, “Chinese Editors, and a Web Site, Detail Censors’ Hidden Hand,” Washington Post, April 13, 2011,

[30] Phil Berlowitz, “Baidu Revenue and Profit Growth Rate Slow in Fourth Quarter,” Reuters, February 4, 2013,

[31] “Regulators Announce New Restrictions on Online Video,” China Media Bulletin, July 12, 2012, //

[32] Not all accounts are active. “Di 31 Ci Zhongguo Hulianwangluo Zhuangkuang Tongji Baogao” [The 31st Statistical Report on China’s Internet Development,” China Internet Network Information Center, January 15, 2013,

[33] Qiao Long, “CCP Proposes Cells for Microblogs,” Radio Free Asia, February 7, 2012,

[34] “Tech Company Leaders Join Legislative, Advisory Bodies,” China Media Bulletin, March 7, 2013, //

[35] Josh Ong, “China’s Sina Weibo Passes 400m Users, Acknowledges Pressure from Rival Tencent’s WeChat,” The Next Web, November 16, 2012,

[36] Gady Epstein, “Small Beginnings: Microblogs are a Potentially Powerful Force for Changes, But They Have to Tread Carefully,” Economist, April 6, 2010,

[37] Gady Epstein, “The Great Firewall: The Art of Concealment,” The Economist, April 6, 2013,

[38] Keith B. Richburg, “China’s ‘Weibo’ Accounts Shuttered as Part of Internet Crackdown,” Washington Post, January 3, 2013,

[39] Xiao, “From ‘Grass-Mud Horse’ to ‘Citizen.’”

[40] Xiao, “From ‘Grass-Mud Horse’ to ‘Citizen.’” See also Tao Zhu et al., “The Velocity of Censorship: High-Fidelity Detection of Microblog Post Deletions,” Paper for 22nd USENIX Security Symposium in Washington D.C. in August 2013,; King-wa Fu and Michael Chu, “Reality Check for the Chinese Microblog Space: A Random Approach,” PLoS ONE, Volume 8(3), 2013,

[41] David Bandurski, “Brutality and Tragedy Unseen,” China Media Project, February 1, 2012,;

David Bandurski, “Thank Goodness for Hong Kong,” China Media Project, January 31, 2012,

[42] “China’s Major Microblogs Suspend Comment Function to ‘Clean up Rumors,’” Xinhua News, March 31, 2012,

[43] “Boxun News Site Attacked Amid Bo Xilai Coverage,” Committee to Protect Journalists, April 25, 2012,

[44] Experts believe “promotional activities” involve reporting other users or promoting progovernment content. See, “China,” OpenNet Initiative, August 9, 2012,; “Sina Weibo Introduces ‘User Contract,’” Caijing, May 9, 2012,

[45] “Tencent Microblog Registered User Base Hits 540 Mln,” Yangcheng Evening News, January 21, 2013, available at

[46] “LinkedIn’s SlideShare Blocked in China,” China Media Bulletin, July 19, 2012, //

[47] “Apple’s Digital Assistant Flunks Test on Taboo Topics,” China Media Bulletin, June 21, 2012, //

[48] Bruce Einhorn, “Apple vs. Google: Starkly Different China Experiences,” Bloomberg Businessweek, June 12, 2012,

[49] David Drummond, “A New Approach to China,” Google blog, January 12, 2012,

[50] Alexandra Stevenson, “Google’s China Market Share: Declining,” Beyondbrics (blog), Financial Times, April 22, 2011,

[51] Loretta Chao, “Chinese Regulators Renew Key License for Google,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2011,

[52] Alan Eustace, “Better Search in Mainland China,” Inside Search (blog), Google, May 31, 2012,

[53] “Google Turns Off China Censorship Warning,” BBC, January 7, 2013,

[54] “China’s Tencent Accused of Censoring App Users Abroad,” China Media Bulletin, January 24, 2013, //

[55] Oiwan Lam, “China: The Internet as an Ideology Battlefield,” Global Voices Advocacy, January 6, 2010,

[56] David Bandurski, “Internet Spin for Stability Enforcers,” China Media Project, May 25, 2010,

[57] Propaganda workers are colloquially known as the 50 cent party, after the amount they are reportedly paid per post, though recent reports put the going rate as low as 10 cents, while some commentators may be salaried employees.  See, Perry Link, “Censoring the News Before It Happens,” New York Review (blog), The New York Review of Books, July 10, 2013,, and Rongbin Han, “Manufacturing Consent in Censored Cyberspace: State-Sponsored Online Commentators on Chinese Internet Forums,” Paper for Annual Meeting of America Political Science Association, New Orleans, August 31-September 2, 2012,

[58]Perry Link, “Censoring the News Before It Happens.”

[59] Rongbin Han, , “Manufacturing Consent in Censored Cyberspace.”

[60]Shou Fen Bu Wei Weibo Yun Ying Bao Gao Mian Shi Zhuan Jia Jian Yi Bu Yi Guo Du Mai Meng ,” [The First Microblog of Government Ministry is Published. Experts Advise That It Should Not Be Overused], Xinhua News, August 25, 2012,

[61] The chat was an example of top leaders’ efforts to avoid unscripted interactions. While People’s Daily readers already represent a self-selecting group likely to support the CCP, news reports said many of the chat’s participants were paid. David Bandurski, “FEER: China’s Guerrilla War for the Web,” China Media Project, July 7, 2008,

[62] “Users Report Fleeting Censorship Gaps on Taboo Topics,” China Media Bulletin March 29, 2012, //

[63] “Microblog Comments Suspended to Allow Rumor ‘Cleansing,’” China Media Bulletin, April 12, 2012, //

[64] China’s online gaming culture is regulated by contradictory controls. Game consoles were banned in 2000, ostensibly for health reasons, but some 120 million Chinese players access online games via computers and mobile devices. Moreover, the CCP heavily subsidizes the production of games that promote ideological themes for propaganda purposes. Some 2013 reports said the Ministry of Culture was planning to lift the console ban. Malcom Moore, “China Embraces Online Gamers,” Telegraph, January 20, 2013,

[65] David Barboza, “Despite Restrictions, Microblogs Catch On in China,” New York Times, May 15, 2011,

[66] Epstein, “Small Beginnings.”

[67] Madeline Earp, “Shallow Victory for China’s Journalists, Protestors,” Committee to Protect Journalists, July 5, 2012,

[68] Laura Zhou, “Watch Imprint on Quake Official’s Wrist Goes Viral on Internet,” South China Morning Post, April 24, 2013,

[69] Earp, “Shallow Victory for China’s Journalists, Protestors.”

[70] “Forced Abortion Stirs Netizen Outcry, Husband Missing after Interview,” China Media Bulletin, June 28, 2012, //

[71] “Beijing Flood Criticism Erupts Online amid Media Controls,” China Media Bulletin, June 26, 2012, //

[72] According to one study, censors stopped blocking names of villages whose residents were protesting as soon as traditional media reported on the provincial authorities’ response, even though tensions had not yet fully died down and the effectiveness of the response had yet to be shown. In other words, reports on protests in the context of an ostensibly benevolent response from party officials are not perceived as a threat worthy of censorship. See, “Finish Study Analyzes Keyword Censorship during Mass Incidents,” China Media Bulletin December 13, 2012, //

[73] Gong Lei, “Beijing Gets New Party Chief,” Xinhua, July 3, 2012,

[74] Sharon LaFraniere, “China Finds More Bodies, and a Survivor, in Trains’ Wreckage,” New York Times, June 25, 2011,; Michael Wines and Sharon LaFraniere, “Baring Facts of Train Crash, Blogs Erode China Censorship,” New York Times, June 28, 2011,; “Train Crash Cover-Up Fuels Public Outrage,” China Media Bulletin, July 28, 2011, //

[75] Madeline Earp, “Propaganda Officials Miss the Boat on ‘China’s Katrina,’” Committee to Protect Journalists, July 26, 2012,

[76] William Wan, “Chinese Government Both Encourages and Reins in Anti-Japan Protests, Analysts Say,” Washington Post, September 17, 2012,

[77] “The Chinese government […] was pushed into certain directions […] and saying, “If we go in such a direction, the masses will attack the Public Security Bureau, and the foreign affairs ministry and the army—we’ll just go with the masses. And that’s an extraordinary development.”” “A Discussion with Geremie R. Barme,” Sinica Podcast, March 8, 2013,

[78] Brook Larmer, “Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke,” New York Times, October 26, 2011,

[79] The surname of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin means “river.”

[80] The Chinese word for “tomato” is a homonym for the phrase “western red city,” a reference to Chongqing and its purged party boss, Bo Xilai. Madeline Earp, “Chinese Censors Target Tomatoes amid Bo Xilai Scandal,” Committee to Protect Journalists, July 5, 2012,

[81] “Porridge” evoked the Southern Weekly anticensorship protest by referring to a common southern Chinese delicacy.

[82] Andrew Jacobs, “Catching Scent of Revolution, China Moves to Snip Jasmine,” New York Times, May 10, 2011,

[83] Xiao, “From ‘Grass-Mud Horse’ to ‘Citizen.’”

[84] Rebecca MacKinnon, “The Shawshank Prevention,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2012,

[85] Jason Q. Ng, “There Are NOT Millions of Twitter Users in China: Supporting @ooof’s Result and Refuting GWI’s Conclusion,” Blocked on Weibo (blog), January 6, 2013,; Jon Russell, “No, Facebook Does Not Have 63.5 Million Active Users in China,” The Next Web, September 28, 2012,

[86] MacKinnon, “The Shawshank Prevention.”

[87] E-mail communication with circumention tool developer who requested anonymity, June 2012.

[88] Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza, “China Tightens Censorship of Electronic Communications,” New York Times, March 21, 2011,; Andy Greenberg, “China's Great Firewall Tests Mysterious Scans on Encrypted Connections,” Forbes, November 17, 2011,

[89] Charles Arthur, “China Tightens ‘Great Firewall’ Internet Control with New Technology,” Guardian, December 14, 2012,

[90] MacKinnon, “The Shawshank Prevention.”