Last week, Xi Jinping's chairmanship of the Communist Party was announced, and collectively, the Chinese Internet breathed a sigh of relief. Netizens rejoiced as the web returned to its normal speed, while censors, government officials, and Internet companies finally allowed themselves to stop fretting about making any missteps during the highly sensitive week-long, once-in-a-decade political meeting -- the 18th Party Congress -- which decided China's new leadership structure.
Within a few hours, the top trending topics on Sina Weibo, China's homegrown equivalent to Twitter, included political topics like incoming Premier Li Keqiang's resumé and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's November 15 comments that he isn't bothered by online criticism because such things are normal in a democracy. But for most of the week-long Party Congress, however, the top Weibo chatter (part censorship, part apathy) had focused mostly on Chinese pop celebs.
Though the blocks varied, terms censored on Weibo throughout the Congress period included the names of numerous Communist Party politicians; shiba da, the Chinese abbreviation for the Party Congress; several unrelated homophones of shiba da; the word "Sparta" (which sounds like shibada in Chinese); the euphemistic phrase "area of political importance" (the meeting was held at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, which lies close to Tiananmen Square); and words pertaining to taxis and windows (due to much-ridiculed rules directing Beijing taxi drivers to remove their rear window cranks during this period, apparently to prevent protestors from throwing ping-pong balls containing political messages).
Few people remain unaware that the Internet is censored for China's 538 million users, but misperceptions persist about how it works. Here are five of the most common myths about Chinese online censorship, debunked.
1. Censorship means the Chinese are left in the dark.
Nope. While China chatter is rife with stories of people who today still have no idea, say, that Beijing massacred civilians on Tiananmen Square, for the most part, Chinese Internet users are cosmopolitan, educated, and informed. Many use, or at least know they can use, circumvention technology like VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access blocked content. (These will always thrive, if nothing else, in order to access porn.)
Chinese netizens are aware of what they're missing, in part because the censorship apparatus makes little attempt to hide itself. Attempts to visit blocked sites sometimes return responses that make them indistinguishable from genuine technical issues, but most return messages such as "Sorry, the host you were looking for does not exist, has been deleted, or is being investigated." Until the beginning of November, searching for blocked terms on Sina Weibo returned the message "Due to relevant laws and regulations, results are not displayed." Now though, the message reads "Sorry, unable to find [keyword] related results." Sometimes the blocked messages are more playful: In 2006, the Internet Surveillance Division of the city of Shenzhen's Public Security Bureau even launched two cutesy Internet police cartoon characters, named Jingjing and Chacha, who appear on websites to remind users they're being watched. Their names come from the syllables of "jingcha," Chinese for "police." Beijing launched its own version in 2007.
Perhaps the best evidence of netizens' knowledge of their own censorship, though, is their hatred of Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and the architect of the censorship system's blocking mechanism, nicknamed "The Great Firewall."