Prompted by recent “Occupy” protests in the United States, last week China’s largest microblogging service, Sina Weibo, begun censoring a long list of phrases that combine the Chinese word for “occupy” (占领) and the name of places in China. The official Chinese policy on the Occupy Wall Street movement is that the protests are “worth pondering.” However, Sina Weibo’s recent actions suggest the country is concerned that the protests that have cropped up in so many parts of the world may take hold in China.
The Chinese government, with its well-established history of online censorship, has struggled with how to handle microblogging sites such as Sina Weibo. Earlier this month, China expressed the desire to clamp down on “Internet rumors” on its microblogging services. And yesterday China detained 3 Internet users for spreading online rumors. Thus, the “Occupy” filtering is part of a broader, concerted effort to control the potentially disruptive effects of microblogging.
These fears have some justification. As recently as mid-October, protesters in Hong Kong began their own “occupy” movement, camping out in front of HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong’s financial district. More generally, microblogging has proven troublesome for Chinese censors in the past few months, having been influential in the public outcry that followed the high speed train crash in Wenzhou and the shutdown of a chemical plant in Dalian. China seems increasingly unwilling to risk further insubordination instigated via microblogging services.
Although China has struggled with how to handle microblogging, this most recent filtering seems overly paranoid about the power of microblogging. There are reasons to believe that any “Occupy” movement in China would face a difficult uphill battle. Moreover, recent history suggests that microblogging simply moves too fast for China’s current censoring regime. Thus, if an “occupy” movement is going to take hold, this attempt at filtering is unlikely to pose a practical hurdle. This is particularly true because there are no indications that any other microblogging sites other than Sina Weibo are filtering the “occupy” language. The blocking does, however, serve a symbolic purpose – China has indicated to any potential protest organizers that the bureaucracy is watching.