Protests, not criticism, the target for China's Internet censors, study says

A new study from Harvard University investigates how China's online censorship operates

China's Internet censors freely allow users in the country to criticize the government, but are quick to delete social media posts with the potential to start protests, suggests a new Harvard University study released on Thursday.

"With respect to speech, the Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains," said the study, which was conducted by Harvard professor Gary King and two university PhD candidates, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts.

China has long been infamous for its strict censorship of the Internet for anti-government content, blocking sites including Facebook and Twitter, while forcing local social networking sites in the nation to delete online posts or block searches on sensitive topics.

To monitor all the information, authorities deploy 20,000 to 50,000 Internet police to censor unwanted content, the study estimates, while also employing 250,000 to 300,000 Internet commentators to post positive information about the government. Outside of website and keyword blocking, authorities will manually read and then remove content they find objectionable, the study added.

To better understand which topics authorities were prone to censoring and why, the study analyzed millions of social media posts from 1,382 Chinese websites made during the first half of 2011. To narrow down its investigation, the researchers choose social media platforms including blogs, and BBS boards where users can fully express their opinions, but excluded Twitter-like microblogs.

Through its analysis, the study found that China's Internet censors will heavily suppress topics that involve the possibility of inciting protest. This was evidenced by how two of the most censored topics were the protests in China's Inner Mongolia region and in Zengcheng, a city in the country's Guangdong province. In both cases, local Chinese clashed with authorities, resulting in fights and demonstrations.

Other topics that were heavily censored were the arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, outrage over children suffering lead poisoning in China's Jiangsu province, and the bombing of government buildings by a disgruntled Chinese farmer, whose land was seized by authorities.

But the study also found thousands of social media posts that harshly criticized the government, but still remained online for users free to read. In one example, a user had written: "This is a city government that treats life with contempt ... A city government that is shameless with greed, a government that trades dignity for power, a government without humanity..." The post, however, remained online, because it was written without a call to organize action.

"Indeed, despite widespread censorship of social media, we find that when the Chinese people write scathing criticisms of their government and its leaders, the probability that their post will be censored does not increase," the study wrote, speculating that this approach allowed the government to learn the views of its citizens and satisfy their concerns.

China's Internet police will act fast when deleting unwanted posts, according to the study, censoring content within 24 hours of the original posting. But in scrubbing the Internet of information that can lead to protests, authorities will target posts regardless of whether they oppose or support the government.

The study also found that abrupt increases or decreases in Internet censorship can also signal imminent action by the government. For instance, in the days before Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by authorities, the study found an uptick in censored social media posts about him. A similar trend occurred with former Chinese police chief Wang Lijun in the days before he was demoted.

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