Tuesday, December 18, 2012

[Updated 12/27/2012]Sina Weibo Enacts New "7 Day Delay" Function for Sensitive Terms Following 18th Party Congress

[UPDATE: Limited testing on December 26 and 27, 2012, indicates that Sina Weibo has stopped employing its seven day delay - see below for details.]

On November 10, 2012, Reuters published a report entitled "China Party Chief Stresses Reform, Censors Relax Grasp on Internet." An excerpt:
China's largest microblog service unblocked searches for the names of many top political leaders in a possible sign of looser controls a month after new senior officials were named to head the ruling party. 
Searches on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog for party chief Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and other leaders - terms that have long been barred under strict censorship rules - revealed detailed lists of news reports and user comments.
What's actually happened is that Sina Weibo is now imposing a seven day delay on search results for these names, as well as other "sensitive terms" (such as the name of lawyer Xu Zhiyong (许志永)).  Sina Weibo does not notify users when it does this. Read on for more details and examples.

The Standing Committee of Political Bureau of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party ("PBSC") comprised the following nine members: Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), Wen Jiabao (温家宝),  Jia Qinglin (贾庆林), Li Changchun (李长春), Xi Jinping (习近平), Li Keqiang (李克强), He Guoqiang (贺国强), Zhou Yongkang (周永康).

It is worth noting that Sina Weibo did not always censor searches for the names of all members of the PBSC. For example, this screenshot, taken in February 2012, shows that a search on Sina Weibo for "Xi Jinping" returned hundreds of thousands of results, including posts made just minutes before.

These screenshots were taken on October 27, 2012, and show that by then searches on Sina Weibo for the names of all of the members of the Political Bureau 17th CPC Central Committee always returned the same result - a censorship notice informing the user that "In accordance with relevant laws,  regulations, and policies, search results for 'XXX' have not been displayed." (根据相关法律法规和政策,“XXX”搜索结果未予显示。).

As noted previously on this blog, during the 18th Party Congress (November 8 - 14), Sina Weibo began tweaking its censorship mechanisms, at first eliminating the censorship notice in favor of saying it could find no results. Then it restored the censorship notice in some cases, while in other cases it appeared to show complete search results, but attempting to view more than one page of results would eventually result in a censorship notice. See -

At around noon on November 15, 2012, Xinhua announced the "List of members of Standing Committee of Political Bureau of 18th CPC Central Committee": Xi Jinping (习近平), Li Keqiang (李克强), Zhang Dejiang (张德江), Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), Liu Yunshan (刘云山), Wang Qishan (王岐山), and Zhang Gaoli (张高丽).

The screenshots below show that, two weeks after the announcement of the new Politburo, Sina Weibo administrators had yet to settle on a consistent approach to censoring information about the Communist Party's new leaders. At first glance, it initially appeared that Sina administrators had decided to not censor searches at all. For example, in the left-hand screenshots below, searches for "Xi Jinping" and "Li Keqiang" apparently returned thousands of results and there is no censorship notice anywhere on the page. A closer look reveals, however, that all of the "Hot Posts" were several days old, and the posts following the "Hot Posts" were actually delayed by almost exactly 48 hours.

The right-hand screenshots show that Sina Weibo administrators continued to gradually increase the amount of censorship following the initial relaxation. By November 27, search for "Xi Jinping" was once again returning no results, only a censorship notice, and a search for "Li Keqiang" was returning no results from the previous 48 hours - the most recent result was three days old, and there was only one result from that day.

One month after the announcement of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Sina Weibo appears to have settled on a "new normal" - it will impose a one week delay for search results for all PBSC member's names in Chinese, except for "Hot Posts". The screenshots below show that the most recent results for searches for "Xi Jinping" on December 13 and 14 are from December 6 and 7, respectively.

Sina Weibo does not display a censorship notice for these search results.

On December 14, 2012, Sina Weibo was showing results but imposing the delay for searches for the names of all members of the Politburo Standing Committee, as well as Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. It was, however, completely censoring searches for "Wen Jiabao."

At the bottom of each search result page, Sina Weibo informs users "In order to provide more varied search results, we have excluded some posts that are relatively similar, you can click here to see all results." (为了提供多样性结果,我们省略了部分相似微博,您可以点击查看全部搜索结果) For uncensored results clicking on this link will take users to an up-to-the-second stream of posts. In the case of the names of Politburo Standing Committee members, however, the user is told "Apologies, unable to find results relating to 'XXX'" (抱歉,未找到“习近平”相关结果。). These screenshots, which show what happens when the link was clicked after a search for "Xi Jinping," indicate that sometimes it takes a few minutes for Sina Weibo to remove search results.

In the left-hand screenshot above, Sina Weibo returns a single search result, along with a censorship notice. The right-hand screenshot, taken a few hours later, shows no results and no censorship notice, just a notice saying no results could be found.

Sina Weibo also continued to engage in selective censorship for queries related to China's leadership. These screenshots, taken on November 13, show that searches for "XJP" and "Xi Jinping" in Pinyin returned no results, just a censorship notice.

As another example, these screenshots show that, while Sina Weibo was returning delayed results for "Peng Liyuan" (彭丽媛 - Xi Jinping's wife) in Chinese characters, searches for "Peng Liyuan" in Pinyin returned no results, just a censorship notice.

Finally, these screenshots show that Sina Weibo completely censored searches for "Xi Mingze" (习明泽 - Xi Jinping's daughter) in both Chinese characters and Pinyin.

The new rule is not only being applied to leaders and their families. These screenshots show that, whereas a search for "Xu Zhiyong" on November 27 returned results from as recently as November 25, the same search on December 18 did not return any results from the preceding seven days (with the exception of "hot posts").


These screenshots, taken on December 26, show that Sina Weibo was no longer imposing a seven day delay for searches for "Hu Jintao" and "Li Keqiang." The same was true for the names of all other members of the 18th PBSC. Sina continued, however, to completely censor searches for "Wen Jiabao."