China stepped up its campaign in 2018 to control what news and information its citizens can see.
While censors continued heavyhanded control for any content deemed dangerous for social stability, including Peppa Pig videos and the letter “n”, regulators also deployed more sophisticated methods, going beyond Chinese social media and working harder to curate and shape what Chinese residents consume.
Authorities have been forcing activists on Twitter to delete their accounts and shutting down the social media accounts of university professors. Apolitical content is coming under more scrutiny. In October, almost 10,000 social media accounts for outlets publishing entertainment and celebrity news were closed.
The country’s largest internet companies have also stepped up self-censorship. The messaging platform WeChat issued a statement in November, promising to step up its policing of “politically harmful information” while in April, the boss of Jinri Toutiao, a content aggregator, issued a public apology more similar to self-criticisms in Mao Zedong’s era.
WeChat groups were regularly shut down and users sending messages to friends often found themselves the victim of censorship when their messages appear not to go through.
“WeChat group takedowns and news item deletions are happening with greater regularity across a shifting slate of topics,” said Rui Zhong, a programme assistant at the Kissinger Institute on China.
These were some of the banned phrases this year:
‘Amend the constitution’
At the March annual meeting of China’s national legislature, lawmakers voted almost unanimously to abolish term limits for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely.
In the leadup to the meeting and afterwards, phrases like “amend the constitution”, “I don’t agree”, “proclaiming oneself emperor” and the letter “n” were censored. “Emigration” and “Winnie the Pooh”, a reference to Xi that has been censored off and on over the years, was also blocked.
‘Back up the car’
In September, Chinese economist Wu Xiaoping released a controversial commentary arguing that the utility of the country’s private sector had been exhausted and such companies should now step aside.
Commentators quickly criticised Wu’s proposal as “driving history backwards” to a time of a command economy. As a result, the term “back up the car” was also censored.
In addition to domestic issues, Chinese regulators also tried to limit how much the US-China trade war was discussed, and censored certain types of articles and comments on US vice-president Mike Pence’s polemical speech on China, and the arrest of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
“Censorship focus shifted from local issues to China’s global image, foreign affairs and economy,” said King-wa Fu, head of Weiboscope and WeChatscope at Hong Kong University’s School of Journalism and media studies, a project analysing Chinese censorship.
In January, a woman named Luo Xixi published allegations against a professor who forced himself on her when she was a student 12 years ago. Inspired by her account and the subsequent firing of the professor, other women began posting under the hashtag #MeToo or in Chinese version, woyeshi #我也是 .
When that phrase was censored, internet users began using a homonym mitu#米兔 or “rice bunny’. That too was blocked. Still the movement expanded and has led to revelations against professors, journalists, heads of NGOs, the head of a large Buddhist monastery and a well-known CCTV host.
‘Quangong carbon leakage’
In November, officials in Quanggang in the southern Fujian province reported a spillage of C9, a crude oil that is toxic to humans, off the coast of Fujian.
Local residents posted photos and accounts online of residents being sent to the hospital, arguing that the leak was more serious than officials claimed. Internet searches for “Xiamen Quangong carbon leakage” were blocked and video and posts related to the spill were deleted.
Officials initially reported that only seven tonnes of the chemical were dumped into the water. At a press conference later that month authorities admitted that almost 70 tonnes had been spilled.