On February 20, 2017, Feminist Voice (女权之声), one of the most active non-governmental feminist organizations in China, reported that its official account on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, had been silenced for 30 days.
“The content you recently posted has violated the state’s laws and regulations; your account will be banned for 30 days.” This is the only message Feminist Voice’s Weibo account administrators got from Sina. There was no further expatiation of what content in particular had led to the punishment or which law the content had violated.
The gag order, screenshot by Feminist Voice and shared widely by many activists, soon caught the attention of Chinese internet users. While many have joined the campaign to voice support for Feminist Voice, others had mixed reactions to the news. Under a thread asking “how to evaluate Feminist Voice’s being banned from posting on Sina Weibo for 30 days” on Zhihu, China’s Quora-platform dominated by male, well-educated, urban middle class users expressed disapproval of the group. Seventy-three people liked a comment that says “they deserved it.”
This does not come as a surprise as feminism has to some extent been stigmatized or is at least faced with complicated public opinion in Chinese society. However, there is a profound reason why everyone should support Feminist Voice on this particular matter to fight back against Sina Weibo’s decision — even if you do not agree with the group’s stance. Feminist Voice has initiated a much-needed effort to question company processes for censoring content.
In the past couple days, many supporters have been challenging Sina’s decision and simply asked: “why, how, and what Feminist Voice offended.” This is a badly needed step to push for the overall transparency of China’s information control mechanisms.
Sina Weibo is hardly the only company that enables large-scale and realtime censorship, nor is China the only country that enforces information control on the internet. International technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter all enforce some sort of content monitoring and controls on their platforms. Democratic countries around the world have been adopting various censorship tools to stifle undesired opinions. But one of the major differences or issues with China’s information control system is that it has been extremely arbitrary and opaque.
China’s current censorship policy largely thrives on such secrecy and unaccountability. The case of Feminist Voice has once again demonstrated the dilemma that each and every person is facing on the Chinese internet: nobody knows where the bottom line is.
Even among supporters of Feminist Voice themselves, there have been a number of different theories trying to explain why the gag order was issued six days after the group posted a Chinese translation of an article calling for a new “militant feminist struggle” to counter U.S. President Donald Trump’s “aggressively misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and racist policies.” An editor at Feminist Voice attributed the censorship to the Chinese government’s bid to stifle criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump while some said it was “just another [example of] self-censorship by Sina.” Others believed that the gag order was due to a long-existing rejection of feminism and gender equality under the patriarchal Chinese culture. Still others considered the punishment as “part of a public opinion war and a battle for influence in China.”
While internet users are familiar with the message “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, content cannot be shown,” or have even taken for granted, it is exactly such vagueness and non-transparency that makes it impossible to either justify or challenge China’s censorship policy.
The negative impact of the lack of transparency is not limited to civil society organizations or political comments but it infiltrates into internet users’ day-to-day life.
A study by The Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto discovered that, among other keywords, “侣行” (On The Road), a widely-welcomed online travel show, along with “叙利亚” (Syria), “坚守科巴尼” (Hold Fast Kobane) would trigger censorship on some of China’s most popular live-streaming apps. While it is widely speculated that this censorship is related to Islamic State and terrorism issues, no one knows why exactly these phrases are taboo.
In late January 2017, Chinese internet users noticed that a popular drama called Go Princess Go and five other series produced for online streaming were no longer available. Up till now there has not been any official response as to why these series were pulled out, leaving censorship watchers and media critics to guess whether it was because of bisexual content, time travel themes, or other unknown reasons. The list goes on and on.
“It has always been like this. Nobody knows where the boundary is. They only know that it used to be there,” a representative of an unnamed Chinese internet company told Financial Times.
As one Weibo user said, “I don’t agree with many things [said by] Feminist Voice and Chen Yaya [a gender equality researcher critical of letting governmental or government-approved organizations dominate the course of feminism in China]. Sometimes I even find them quite stupid. But I strongly oppose censoring them. Debates would bring us closer to the truth. Only those who pay dirty tricks would stab someone in the back.” Joining Feminist Voice and others to question Sina Weibo’s gag order could be an opportunity to push forward a more transparent and less arbitrary information control mechanism.
Lotus Ruan (@lotus_ruan) is a Canada-based researcher who focuses on China’s ICTs policy and industry as well as Chinese politics in general. Follow her blog here.