King-Wa Fu

[IBWSC13 Feature Stories] China’s Censorship Crisis

August 14, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

“It is a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” wrote George Orwell in his classic political satire and science fiction novel, Nineteen-Eighty Four.  The book, considered one of the greatest English language novels, was published in June 1949, four months before the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Little did Orwell know that some 60 years later censors in China would be replacing Mao’s “Little Red Book” with lessons from his dystopian masterpiece.  One thing that would likely not have surprised Orwell, however, is the emergence of one of the biggest trends in information technology — the analysis and manipulation of “big data.”

The intersection of these two issues  — censorship and big data – was the subject of a talk given by Hong Kong University’s Dr. Fu King-wa to this year’s IB Conference on August 13.  Dr. Fu, a professor at the university’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, is the architect of a project called “Weiboscope,” which tracks social media sites in China, particularly Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular.

“Big data starts with the fact that there is a lot more information floating around these days than ever before, and it is being put to extraordinary new uses… Big data is also characterized by the ability to render into data many aspects of the world that have never been quantified before,” said Dr. Fu quoting from Foreign Policy Magazine.

In its initial phase, Dr. Fu’s project compiled the profiles of 350,000 Sina Weibo users having more than 1,000 followers.  His team then developed software that automatically downloaded their posts and tracked when a post was made, when it was deleted by censors, and what key words the government used to screen content.  In a subsequent phase, Dr. Fu is researching how information spreads on China’s various social media sites.

Dr. Fu credited China’s netizens with devising unique ways to get around the censors by using self-created code words or persona to mask sensitive subjects.   The Chinese government’s response, however, has resulted in some amusing but alarming instances of Orwellian censorship.  One case resulted in Chinese censors blocking Internet searches of the Chinese word for “tomato,” due to its association with the location of an ongoing political scandal.

Dr. Fu’s research team compiles such examples of official censorship and their related key words on the Weiboscope website, which is accessible worldwide, except in China.  “The target of my research is to serve the Chinese people, but the major users are international audiences,” said Dr. Fu.

Dr. Fu characterized China as having “the most sophisticated censorship system in the world,” partly due to its multiple layers.  Not only did China employ sophisticated software for screening key words, but it also recruited teams of monitors to surveil the most popular bloggers and other politically sensitive sites.

The HKU professor told IB Conference participants that censorship in China — including the banning of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter – was creating serious social consequences for the country.  The absence of press freedoms and the tight controls on information would continue to raise obstacles to learning, hinder China’s connectivity to the world, and impose great costs on the economy.

In Dr. Fu’s view, one of the greatest casualties of China’s censorship regime was the country’s students, who this year make up 20 percent of the IB Conference student body.

Martin Murphy, from JMSC, HKU