Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sina Weibo Censors Searches Relating to Beijing Floods

On July 23, 2012, the state-sponsored Global Times reported:
The heaviest rainstorms in 61 years hit the capital over the weekend, resulting in 37 deaths recorded as of 5 pm Sunday, authorities have announced.
A total of 25 people drowned, six were killed by collapsing houses, five by electrocution, and one by lightning strike, the Beijing municipal government said on its Sina Weibo account. Over 1.9 million residents have been affected, officials say.
The screenshots show that, while a search on Sina Weibo in the evening of July 24 for "Beijing Downpour Death Toll" (北京暴雨死亡人数) returned over 9 million results, the same search the following day returned no results, just a notice saying "In accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results for 'Beijing Downpour Death Toll' have not been displayed. (根据相关法律法规和政策,“北京暴雨死亡人数”搜索结果未予显示)

In fact, as this screenshot, also taken on July 25, shows, all searches containing the phrase "death toll" (死亡人数) were being censored.

On July 26, 2012, the state-sponsored People's Daily published an editorial "Death Toll is Not a 'Sensitive Topic'" (伤亡人数不是“敏感话题”) by Fan Zhengwei (范正伟). It began with a citation to Chapter 12 of the Confucian Analects (the following is Legge's translation):
The stable being burned down, when he was at court, on his return he said, 'Has any man been hurt?' He did not ask about the horses.
The editorial went on to say:
Also in recent days, Beijing Party Secretary Guo Jinlong has emphasized that "the situation regarding flood fatalities will be report to the public in a timely manner. It is only when "openness" is combined simultaneously with "timeliness" and more information is provided more quickly that the people will truly be taken as the foundation, and the death toll will be "desensitized." Only then will it be as Engels said, and more will be learned from disasters and mistakes than from ordinary times.
These screenshots show that, on the morning of July 27, Sina Weibo was still censoring searches for phrases such as "Beijing Deaths" and "Fangshan Deaths."

During the day on July 27, the Chinese government raised the official death toll to 77.

By midnight on July 27 Sina Weibo had stopped censoring searches relating to the flood's death toll.

As the one-week anniversary of the flooding approached, however, Sina Weibo began to institute new censorship, this time related to memorials for the dead. For example, this screenshot, taken on July 28, shows Sina Weibo was censoring searches for the characters "head seven" (头七),which refers to the Chinese tradition of mourning on the seventh day after someone's death.

Similarly, this screenshot, taken on July 27, 2012, shows that the "hot result" for a search on Sina Weibo for "Black Clothes White Flowers" (黑衣白花) was the following, posted at 4:30 pm that day:
Tomorrow afternoon two o'clock, black clothes white flowers, Guangqumen.

The left-hand screenshot, taken at the same time, shows that a search on Sina Weibo for "Guangqumen" (广渠门 - a district in Beijing) returned no results, just a notice saying "In accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results for 'Guangqumen' have not been displayed. (根据相关法律法规和政策,“广渠门”搜索结果未予显示). The right-hand screenshot shows that Sina Weibo stopped censoring searches for "Guangqumen" shortly after 2 pm on July 28.

These screenshots show that at about this time Sina was also censoring searches for "Beijing Civil Affairs Office" (北京民政局) and "Donate your sister." (捐你妹)

This censorship probably had something to do with users' reactions to the Office's posts regarding donations. For example, this screenshot shows a post by the Beijing Civil Affairs Office saying "The Capital Airport Group made a 5,000,000 compassionate donation." (首都机场集团500万捐款献爱心).

Here are some comments that users left on the post - before the Office began blocking comments.
Its all forced.
I'm guessing it was stolen directly from employees' salaries.
Let the employees donate.
[Sigh] I lost my appetite when I read this. Donate your sister why don't you.
Yet again forced to donate.
Finally, this screenshot shows that a search on Sina Weibo for "Southern Weekend" (南方周末) on July 28 returned no results, just a notice saying "In accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results for 'Southern Weekend' have not been displayed. (根据相关法律法规和政策,“南方周末”搜索结果未予显示).
Sina may have implemented this censorship as a result of reports by Weibo users that editors had removed several stories about the Beijing flood from the weekly newspaper's July 26 edition.