Environmental Protest in China Triggers Wave of Online Censorship

What weren't you allowed to say on China's social networks over the past two days? Words like "protest," "Dalian," and "PX." Even the Chinese word for "stroll," which has become a code word for protest, has been off limits.

As the international press has reported, at least 12 000 citizens protested in front of the municipal government offices in the northeast port city of Dalian on Sunday. The citizens were demanding that the Fujia Chemical Plant shut down in the wake of a near accident: During a tropical storm last week, high waves broke through a seawall and nearly inundated the facility. The plant makes the toxic chemical paraxylene, or PX, which is used in polyester products.

The protest was a huge, surprising success. According to the Financial Times, Chinese officials responded on Sunday by ordering the plant to close immediately, and promising to relocate it. But Chinese Internet users can't bask in their victory online, and may not even know the protest's outcome due to a surge of online censorship. 

China's Internet censors have been deleting posts and pictures of the protest as fast as they can find them, and searches for sensitive keywords bring up a message saying that the search results can't be displayed under relevant laws and policies.

The excellent China Media Project from the University of Hong Kong has documented some of the blocked searches and posts that have mysteriously vanished. Most of the censorship action is happening on the microblog site Sina Weibo, a massively popular service that works like a souped-up Twitter.

According to The New York Times, the Chinese government's censors have responded to the incident with broad strokes.

They also canceled a news show last week about dangerous projects in Dalian just before it was to be shown on CCTV, China’s government-controlled television network. When the host, Bai Yansong, complained online, his microblog on Sina Weibo was frozen. He struck back on another account. “This is the public information sphere!” he wrote. “I really don’t know what you are afraid of.”

Interestingly, this story may both begin and end with Sina Weibo: Reuters reports that the call to protest started as an online meme.

"A poster was put on the Internet yesterday [Saturday] calling people to 'stroll' on Sunday morning starting from 10 a.m. on the People's Square, near which the Dalian government is located," a resident in Dalian, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone.

For more on the fascinating Sina Weibo phenomenon, read "What Are You Allowed to Say on China's Social Networks?" from IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the social Web.

PHOTO: A protest photo that has been passed around the Web, taken by an anonymous Weibo user.

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