Using Language to Evade Online Censorship in China
Officially, Chinese law prohibits media content that could “endanger the country by sharing state secrets. In practice, this includes everything from dissident sites and news servers such as CNN and the BBC, to sexually explicit content and even health sites. As a result, netizens and the Chinese government engage in a game of cat and mouse, where each constantly maneuvers to outsmart the other. Controversial websites are routinely blocked, search results are filtered, and online forums are peppered with posts from the government employed propagandists. But infamous government censors notwithstanding, China maintains a robust online culture - bloggers, activists, and ordinary internet users find unexpected and inventive ways to get their voices heard. That doesn't mean they are talking politics - most aren't - but those that do have, thus far at least, continued to identify new and innovative ways to keep the conversation going despite censorship.
In 2010, almost a third of China’s population was online. Chinese internet users alone now outnumber the entire population of the United States, and the numbers are growing. According to a recent study by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), over half of China’s Internet users spend their online hours browsing blogs and social networking sites, and a third post to BBS (Bulletin Board Systems). In contrast, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that only 38% of US Internet users spend time on social networking sites, and 8% post to an online blog, news group, website or photosite.
The Tools and Tactics
Strict online censorship has forced Chinese Internet users to create a rich vocabulary of colloquialisms to evade automatic filters. Two common examples include the acronym ZF for zhèngfǔ, or government, and wǔ máo dǎng or the 50 cent party - commenters allegedly paid 50 cents per post uploaded praising the government. Of course, the catch-22 is that slang cannot be a useful tool for communication unless it is accessible to a broad audience. However, once it enters Chinese Internet vernacular it also appears on the Chinese government’s radar.
As a result, bloggers perpetually find creative methods for disseminating information undetected. Recently, multiple Western news sources picked up a story of one such Chinese Internet meme: the grass mud horse. In Chinese, ‘grass mud horse’ which sounds similar to the vulgar English phrase ‘fuck your mother’, quickly became a symbol of online resistance. A children’s video about the grass mud horse received over 1.4 million hits. Cartoons, articles, and descriptions of it’s battle with the ‘river crab’ - a Chinese pun representing the government’s efforts to promote a ‘harmonious’ society - proliferated.
For the government, adding ‘grass mud horse’ to a growing list of blacklisted phrases is easy enough, but this type of broad stroke approach deletes innocent references along with subversive ones. Consequently, references to the grass mud horse, river crab, and other puns continue to slip by censors.
Aside from word play, Chinese bloggers manipulated the text itself to remain under the radar. Chinese blogs are normally written left to right and horizontally, similar to English text. During 2008's Guizhou riots bloggers used text reformatting to evade censors. Bloggers were able to flip their text to the traditional right to left, top to bottom format using a simple text reformatting tool. The directionality of the text made it difficult for automatic detectors to catch banned words and phrases.
The Stumbling Blocks
China’s creative internet communication solutions are only temporary and far from ideal. The government is continuously employing more advanced censorship tools to maintain control over online speech. Additionally, the messages bloggers wrap inside puns, cartoons, satire, videos, songs, and stories can be difficult for the average user to understand. A message lost of its audience is still a victory for censors.
Bloggers around the world dealing with internet censors can learn a lot from the Chinese internet community. Years of dodging government censors has forced Chinese bloggers to create a rich armory of evasion tactics. The biggest lesson may be the circumventing censorship can be about more than simply choosing the right tool - sometimes the smartest way to do so is by changing behaviors because they are, after all, often a lot easier to adapt quickly when the government catches wind your tricks than is most technology.blog comments powered by Disqus