150 words you're not allowed to say on the internet in China

First aired on Metro Morning (29/08/13)

It's hard to imagine just how the Chinese government manages to monitor 600 million registered users on Weibo (China's version of Facebook), but it does. In his new book Blocked on Weibo, Jason Ng describes how the Chinese government put the internet behind the "great firewall." In a recent interview on Metro Morning, he talked about exactly how the online surveillance works.

"Not only do they have advanced algorithms for detecting posts that might be of sensitive nature and allow them to flag content quickly, but there's thousands of human censors going through these posts and judging every second what's okay and not," Ng told host Matt Galloway. Like facebook and twitter, Weibo is a place for people to express their every thought and discuss the minutiae of everyday life. It may seem mundane, but this freedom of expression has "brought down politicians, it's changed how we view scandals in China" according to Ng.


Ng said the crackdown on the internet begins with individual words. The algorithms are most effective when looking for key inflammatory words and phrases. Blocked on Weibo contains 150 of those banned words. "They range from very political, obvious words like 'tank'," he said, to "somewhat more obscure words, including words that are caught accidentally."

Sometimes it can seem that the bans are completely irrational. For instance, the algorithms pick up the words "hair bacon." Ng explained that the Chinese word for hair is very similar to Mao (after Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong), and preserved meat is often a reference to his corpse.

Despite the censorship, Ng says Chinese citizens aren't under complete control and robotic algorithms aren't necessarily the most effective way to stop internet chatter. "Like any creative users in any society, Chinese internet users have developed these sorts of workarounds," said Ng. He went on to explain that they often embed words within images so that their message gets through without being picked up by the authorities. Also, censorship isn't consistent and the rules are murky. "Depending on the whims of an official on any particular day, one word could be totally okay to discuss and the next day not."

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