Strange Censorship on Sina Weibo: Bug or Conspiracy?


Crazy rumors are swirling this morning about Wang Lijun, a Chongqing vice-mayor who may or may not have attempted to enter the US embassy in Chengdu and request political asylum. This story exploded on Weibo, and this morning I have witnessed a very bizarre pattern of censorship there.

When a story this sensitive goes viral, Sina generally blocks searches for relevant search terms so that while people can still talk about the issue and don’t feel like they’re being censored, it’s impossible to get the big picture of what folks outside your social group are saying. Before today, every time I saw this happen, search terms were blocked for extended periods of time (weeks, months) until the story had faded out of the news.

This morning, things were different. When I first checked Sina Weibo, around 10 AM, searches for “Wang Lijun” weren’t being censored. But then shortly after that, I checked again and a search for Wang returned the typical censorship error message:

In accordance with the relevant laws and regulations, your search results cannot be displayed.

I figured that was the end of it, so I was shocked when just a little while later searches for the term began to go through again. Had Sina blocked the term by accident? Was there a bug? Just a few minutes later, the term was blocked again. Then around noon it appears to have been unblocked again, and as of this writing, it remains unblocked.

A screenshot from the first time searches for Wang Lijun were blocked

This is, to put it lightly, unusual. I’ve never seen a blocked term get unblocked so quickly, not to mention a term get blocked, unblocked, blocked again, and then unblocked all in the space of just a few hours. So what’s going on here? Was it some kind of bug?

There’s no way to know for sure — Sina is never going to comment on this sort of thing — but it seems possible that with the basic story still up in the air, the folks at Sina aren’t really sure whether this term should be blocked or not, and are doing their hemming and hawing in public. (Contrary to popular belief, most Chinese internet censorship is practiced by service operators like Sina who must attempt to decipher for themselves where the “line” is, although the government does sometimes issue specific orders to block objectionable content).

Another theory, suggested by @niubi on Twitter, is that Sina operators may be letting a certain amount of Wang-related chatter get through on purpose because it will damage the reputation of his boss Bo Xilai. Bo is expected to assume a high-level position in China’s national government this year, but the possible attempted defection of someone high in his administration could seriously damage his chances, and there are factions within China’s Communist Party that would be interested in seeing him fall.

Of course, it’s all pure speculation at this point. The rumors may be entirely false, and while Sina Weibo’s censorship pattern this morning was definitely odd, it could have been a bug or some other error. Whatever’s going on, though, it’s definitely interesting.

Most recently, Sina Weibo has been in the news for reduced new user registration numbers as the March 16 real-name registration deadline looms.

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