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Sina Weibo Censorship Jumps the Shark

May Fourth celebrations this year in Chengdu.

I’ve seen a lot of things censored on Sina Weibo, and it’s not often I am taken by surprise. I am, after all, deeply cynical when it comes to the topic of censorship in China. And censorship on weibo has gotten pretty crazy of late, with terms getting blocked left and right, sometimes even terms that come from official state media reports. But even so, I had to do a double take when I saw this on Twitter this afternoon:

For those not familiar with Chinese history, this will take a little explaining. “五四运动” means the May Fourth Movement, a famous protest in Tiananmen Square during which students banded together to oppose the Chinese government’s corrupt and ineffectual practices as well as foreign interference. And if that sounds pretty politically sensitive, it was — when it happened in 1919.

In fact, the May Fourth Movement has long been celebrated in the People’s Republic because it coincides roughly with the a broader movement for Chinese self-sufficiency and learning from the West that led to, among other things, the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The anniversary — which is today, by the way — has become a holiday in China celebrating youth because the original May Fourth protests were organized and executed primarily by university students. As you’d expect, the Chinese news today is full of plenty of stories about the holiday and the anniversary in general (this is the 93rd); for example: this, this, and this.

Yet somehow, searches for the May Fourth Movement are blocked on Sina Weibo. It’s possible that this is just a mistake, that this term was caught in the crossfire of attempts to censor references to a more recent and more sensitive protest. But even if it’s unintentional, it’s still a pretty ridiculous thing to end up on the blocked list 93 years after the event in question took place.

It’s also a good reminder that what’s censored on Sina Weibo is primarily controlled by Sina; there’s virtually no chance that someone in the Chinese government would order it to block searches for “May Fourth Movement.” Internet companies all self-censor; it’s just part of the business environment in China. Sometimes, it seems, they go a bit further than anyone in the government — or anyone with common sense, really — would go. That is how we got here: a national holiday and a celebrated moment in Chinese history, blocked on weibo.

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