Jason Q Ng is the brains behind the fantastic Blocked on Weibo, which examines what words and phrases are blocked on China’s most popular microblogging site. We talked to Jason about the blog, censorship on the Chinese internet, and the newly released printed collection Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (And Why).
Shanghaiist: What inspired you to start Blocked on Weibo?
Jason Q Ng: When I worked as a book editor before graduate school, I was fortunate enough to work with this fantastic media scholar, Ying Zhu, and commissioned her to write a book on China Central Television, the state TV broadcaster in the mainland. In it, she interviewed journalists, producers, editors and I was blown away by the contradictions of every day life for a media practitioner and media company in China. When I went to grad school, I originally planned on doing a similar analysis of book publishers, but one day in a political science class, my professor Pierre Landry showed us the graph on page one of the book showing the complete drop off of internet connectivity in Xinjiang during the protests in 2009. From there, my focus shifted to the Internet and trying to uncover the new ways that authorities in China had developed to controlling information online.
SHist: Since you began the site in October 2011, how has censorship changed on the Chinese web? Do you see any improvement in terms of freer speech, or is the situation getting worse?
JQN: I’ve noted a marked decrease in the usage of keyword blocks described in the book. I theorize that the censors on Weibo have been shifting more toward a system of deleting posts. Though post deletions have been part of the censorship strategy since the beginning of Weibo, I think it’s only now that the censors are starting to trust the people who perform the manual post deletions (or the computer algorithms that run the deletions) to start eliminating some of the blanket search blocks. I wrote more about this on Tea Leaf Nation:
Before, Chinese users knew when their results were extra sensitive (most, if not all, Chinese users are aware that censors routinely work behind the scenes to delete sensitive posts), yet the new changes – combined with other tactics documented by GreatFire like only showing search results from verified users for certain terms and delaying posts from appearing in search results – create even more uncertainty as to the boundaries of discourse online, perhaps encouraging greater self-censorship by users. What is and is not off-limits has now become slightly harder to determine – another step in making censorship invisible and all-pervasive.
SHist: What’s the strangest thing you’ve come across in your research on censorship in China? What’s the most obscure thing to be censored (from an outside perspective)?
JQN: Well the keyword that gave me the most joy when I finally figured out what it was referring to was 毛腊肉 (literally, “hair bacon”) because it stumped me for the longest time. And unlike some of the others in the book, this one is still blocked despite the fact that just about no one actually uses the term! Again, this seems like another case where the human element of censorship is still evident: someone just hasn’t gotten around to removing the block on this.
毛腊肉 (“hair bacon” / mao larou) is a reference to Mao’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing. The character mao means hair, but is also Mao’s surname. larou commonly refers to bacon, but literally means “preserved meat.” Thus, the preserved meat of Mao: his embalmed body. The term is generally used in a derogatory fashion.
Why it is blocked: Referring to Mao as a slab of meat is undoubtedly offensive to a government that still officially reveres the Great Helsman, though only 70% of the time. Netizens have also used 毛腊肉 as a way to criticize the current government, as in “毛腊肉 would not approve of the current economic reform policies…”
SHist: Do you think Chinese speakers are at an advantage when it comes to bypassing censorship, thanks to the many homonyms each character possesses?
JQN: Limitations breed creativity. I don’t think Chinese speakers are specifically unique or advantaged, but the longer information controls last, certainly, the more creative some users will get. The thing to be concerned about though is that at some point these controls will simply become status quo, and that it’ll be considered completely normal for such limitations to exist. I think it perhaps already has reached that point for some users, but fortunately, despite Weibo’s restrictions, there has been I think an increase in the sorts of charged discussions that were once only found on certain message boards. There’s a growing sense that local authorities can be held publicly accountable, that certain things aren’t worth sacrificing for short-term benefits, and so on, and Weibo is one of the spaces that has encouraged and aided the development of this consciousness.
[Buy the book on Amazon // Blocked on Weibo // Follow Jason on Twitter]