Spare a moment for the Chinese censor, stuck between a Communist Party that demands strict control and a few million Web users who increasingly expect the ability to speak their minds online.
As controversy over a censored newspaper grows into one of China’s biggest and potentially most significant free-speech fights in years, party officials are likely seeking greater control at exactly the moment that outraged Web users are making that task most difficult. At least one censor on Weibo, the popular Twitter-like service that often serves as the closest China has to a public national conversation, seems to have snapped.
A rant was posted from a Weibo account belonging to @Geniune_Yu_Yang, which is identified as belonging to a Weibo manager, about the pressure from government officials and complaints from regular users. To be clear, he’s not a state employee: Weibo self-censors, employing folks like @Geniune_Yu_Yang to implement the party’s ever-evolving guidelines on what is and isn’t allowed.
The message, translated into English by Global Voices blogger Oiwan Lam, indirectly explains the mechanics of Weibo censorship. He compares Chinese government censorship to a famous scene in the 1988 Italian film “Cinema Paradiso,” in which a priest watches a movie before it can be shown in public, ringing a small bell to indicate scenes that the theater staff should censor. He scolds users for complaining, arguing that Weibo’s method of having human censors manually delete posts and accounts, rather than doing it automatically, allows them greater freedom.
He also boasts that Weibo censors had at first resisted government calls for suppressing the Southern Weekly story: “At its very early stages, we were under a lot of pressure. We tried to resist and let the messages spread,” he writes, pointing out that the news spread widely before being silenced. “This is our accomplishment already.” Hardly a surprise, then, that @Genuine_Yu_Yang’s message was quickly deleted, as was his entire account. Here’s the full post, in English:
Last night in [Sina] Weibo, apart from the Propaganda Department, my work unit was the second most popular target of netizens’ verbal attack. The screen was full of the terrifying note: “The micro-blog has been deleted.” The platform looked like a sinking ship with thousands of holes on it. My boss, Lao Shen’s [Sina] Weibo’s page is full of cursing. In particular, after the Southern Weekly incident had been reported by Netease [a popular web portal] extensively yesterday, attacks on Sina’s cowardice and its role as the running dog [of the Propaganda Department] reached a climax. I was so frustrated and finally fought with a famous online script-writer. After I cooled down, I reflected upon the whole thing, feeling the urge to write a long micro-blog to explain the situation in detail.
Very often, you can’t see the truth when you just see the phenomena and when you are overwhelmed with anger.
1. If we don’t delete your post, the alternative is that your account will be banned. This platform belongs to the public. It has changed our life and can exercise influence on the society and government through the spread of opinion. On the one hand, we have millions of netizens, on the other hand, we have, not Sina [Weibo, but the government and the authorities]. Since the day [around the end of March 2012] when Sina Weibo suspended its comments function for three days, a special group of people have the authority to decide on the criteria for giving out alert signals, and can make [Sina] Weibo go “game-over” as simply as treading on some ants without giving a damn about people’s needs. When they issue urgent orders (like the Emperor’s 18 golden orders in ancient time), you have to execute them.
We need [Sina] Weibo to deliver voices. But a hand is manipulating behind us. Someone is doomed to be sacrifice in this game. We live in a country full of special and sensitive barriers and we have to operate within a set of rules.
2. With such background, we have the second thesis: The strategy on deletion and distribution. Please think about this: You guys keep posting messages like machines, and the micro-blog secretaries keep deleting them. If we don’t delete messages one by one and suspend accounts, we could have saved more time and energy. We could have served better as the running dog. You can see the messages before they are deleted, right? You still have your account functioning, right? You are all experienced netizens, you know that the technology allows us to delete messages in a second. Please think carefully on this.
3. In some cases, other platforms have more space than Sina. Sina is the biggest tree and everyone is using the platform. “Classmate Xuan” [nickname for the Propaganda Department] will watch every single act. Once the leaves of the tree move, the bell rings. The way we receive orders is similar to the way the Catholic Father in the movie Cinema Paradiso rings his hand bell whenever there is a kissing scene. We have to take orders whenever we hear the ringing bell.
Before this incident occurred, and at its very early stages, we were under a lot of pressure. We tried to resist and let the messages spread. This is our accomplishment already. Our official account @Sina_Media reported on the suspension of the Southern Weekly instantly, and the news was retweeted by @headline_news, which was again retweeted again 30,000 times in 10 mins. Then we got the order from “Classmate Xuan” and we had to delete it. Fortunately, the message had been distributed. A friend from Penguin website left a warm message in my microblog: This is a battle. Sina [Weibo] is a human flesh shield. It is a courageous act.
4. Expectantly, my bosses have to go through tea session [euphemism for police interview] again. I have to stop here.