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Significant jump of China’s censorship capabilities before the Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Massacre

Posted by Author on June 1, 2013

Beginning early Friday morning, users of Sina Corp.’s massively popular Weibo microblog were able to search for information about one of the most sensitive incidents in recent Chinese history: the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

In a serious shift of censorship tactics just days ahead of the anniversary of the government’s bloody June 4, 1989 crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen, Sina appears to have begun to allow searches for terms associated with the highly sensitive event. But instead of turning up content related to the incident, searches yield results that have nothing to do with the protests or the government’s heavy-handed response.
The move represents a significant jump in the sophistication of censorship capabilities of the company, according to Greatfire.org, an organization that monitors Chinese censorship and first reported on the change in tactics on Friday.

Companies like Sina and Tencent Holdings Ltd. that run microblogs are left to censor content on their own by the Chinese government, according to analysts. The government only acts when it decides too much sensitive information is getting through the companies’ censors, as happened last year when Beijing suspended the commenting function on the two companies’ microblogs after rumors of a coup in Beijing spread across the Internet.

In the past, searches for most sensitive results returned an error message or a notice informing users that results could not be displayed due to government regulations. For those sensitive terms that could be searched, a filtered list of results from roughly a week in the past would be displayed.

Now Sina seems to have the capability to return a cleaned up list of search results of posts put up within an hour, a significant technological jump according to Greatfire.org. The effect is that users searching for sensitive terms are more likely to believe posters are actively discussing the subject, but not saying anything controversial.

On Friday, a China Real Time search for “Tiananmen Incident” did not return the customary message from Sina informing the user that search results could not be displayed due to “relevant laws, regulations and policies.” Instead the search returned results about a separate Tiananmen incident that occurred on Tomb Sweeping Day in 1976, when Beijing residents flooded the area to protest after they were prevented from mourning the recently deceased Premiere Zhou Enlai.

That incident led to the purge of Deng Xiaoping, who deemed the protests an act of patriotism when he returned to power in 1978.

Searches for other Tiananmen-related terms like the date “6/4” turn up only posts that incidentally make use of the date without referring in any way to the 1989 protests and killings.

A spokesman for Greatfire.org said that the ability to search for the sensitive terms was by turns enabled and disabled throughout the day, a potential indication that the company is only testing the capability and may not keep it enabled indefinitely.

If it sticks, the change in tactics opens up the possibility that those using Weibo, which has become a key channel for dissemination of news and opinions in China, may no longer be aware they are being censored.

“They effectively make it look like people are talking about the issue, but there is nothing worthwhile being said,” said the Greatfire.org spokesman, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the group’s work.

“If someone mentioned to you, ‘There was an incident in Tiananmen many years ago,’ you’d search it and think they were talking about 1976,” he said.

The new function is likely to send a chill down the spines of the tens of thousands in Hong Kong and Taiwan who regularly gather to commemorate the massacre, for whom one common refrain comes from Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

– WSJ.com

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