This article was published in the South China Morning Post on June 27, 2012.
A software program that can recover deleted posts from the mainland microblogging site Sina Weibo has been developed at the University of Hong Kong.
Mainland censors monitor the Chinese version of Twitter for politically sensitive posts and delete them but a university pilot project, WeiboScope, allows researchers to recover and analyse the deleted postings. After beginning work on the project early last year, researchers are starting to share their findings.
The most frequently deleted posts in the past month referred to controversial figures such as civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng , US Ambassador to China Gary Locke and former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai .
Since the mysterious death of mainland activist Li Wangyang on June 6, WeiboScope has recovered hundreds of deleted posts about the incident. Li has become one of the most censored topics in the WeiboScope database.
Civic Party lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee confirmed yesterday that her Sina Weibo microblog was still blocked after being shut down on Monday after she posted messages about the July 1 rally in Hong Kong and Li’s death.
More than 300 million Chinese citizens use Sina Weibo to communicate with each other and share articles, videos and photos.
WeiboScope tracks the profiles of 300,000 Sina Weibo users, who have more than 1,000 followers. The program downloads their posts throughout the day, and by comparing their profiles at different times, researchers can identify deleted posts.
Mainland censors are able to delete posts from any Weibo account, even if the user lives outside the mainland.
On June 8, censors deleted this post from Hong Kong film director Alfred Cheung Kin-ting: “[China's] leaders need to bear in mind that a change in the course of history is happening while they’re oblivious. Is Li Wangyang really just a corpse? … he was nearly paralysed, and couldn’t see anything. How could he tie [the noose?]. Gosh.” The post was deleted within five hours.
Dr Fu King-wa, the lead developer of WeiboScope at HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said he could tell the difference between posts deleted by users and ones deleted by censors. “The latter will show up with the message, ‘Permission denied’,” Fu said.
WeiboScope can recover deleted posts that do not contain any “blacklisted” keywords, said Fu. This can help researchers understand how bloggers try to avoid censorship.
On May 3, WeiboScope recovered this post from journalist Xiong Peiyun, which lambasted the government’s treatment of Chen without including any sensitive keywords: “How can you not be ashamed that a dignified citizen must flee from his own country? You must live up to the sun that shines every day across this land. Sixty years [of CCP rule], and what this country needs is to settle its soul …”
Fu said: “The fact that Chinese censors were able to find and delete Xiong’s post means that Chinese censors are manually monitoring Sina Weibo.”
Government censorship of Sina Weibo is not foolproof. Many posts with politically sensitive content slip through and it can take censors several hours to find and delete posts.
After Bo was ousted as Chongqing party secretary in March, speculation and rumours erupted on Weibo and censors struggled to keep up. On April 3 a post by writer and racing car driver Han Han, criticising the government for shutting down commenting functions on Weibo, was reposted 60,000 times before censors deleted it seven hours later.
Harvard University researchers estimate the number of mainland censors at 20,000 to 50,000. WeiboScope’s search functions are not available to the public, but Fu provides data to researchers and media groups on a case-by-case basis.
“We want to acquire more funding so that we can make the service available to the public,” said Fu. “We currently have a very limited understanding of the impact microblogs have on China economically, socially and politically, and we hope our data can stimulate more research.”
Fu presented his findings last month at the Chinese Internet Research Conference in Los Angeles, which also featured research from Peking University and Chinese University of Hong Kong.
At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, researchers have created a smaller-scale software program that uses keyword searches to identify posts deleted from Sina Weibo.
Zhang Jiajun, 25, a financial analyst in Shanghai, says more mainlanders are expressing their thoughts online. “Foreigners might think that Chinese people don’t have internet freedom, but we do have opportunities to express ourselves, and Weibo is a very important start,” he said.
Dr Ashley Esarey, a media expert at Whitman College in Washington state, said: “The kind of public discussion that’s been happening online since Bo Xilai’s ousting did not happen after former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu was removed for corruption in 2006.”