Monday, July 12, 2010

How I came to be killed on microblog [Translated blog-post]

[This is a translated article. For the original blog-post in Chinese by Kursk, please click here]

On July 10th, 2010, my microblog account was killed off by the service provider. To me this was not unexpected, but what surprised me was the fact that it took them this long.

I registered with the Sina microblogging site (the mainland Chinese answer to Twitter) since it first became operational. Later I came to have my online identity verified as a Hong Kong blogger. This verification could be described as a sort of special treatment -- once your online identity has been verified, there is less chance of your account being deleted unilaterally.

During my days of microblogging, there were times when my posts got deleted because they touched on topics that are considered politically sensitive. My strategy was to try to push the boundaries as much as possible, like playing a game with the online editors of the microblog service in testing the limits of their political tolerance as far as possible.

About a fortnight before June 4th (the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre), most of my boundary-pushing posts didn't escape the fate of deletion. Then I received a private message from an online editor, asking for my views to see if there is a way of arriving at some form of mutual resolution.

As the authority for deletion rests with them, I realised that there was not much point to continue posting the way I did, and so I decreased my frequency of blogging such boundary-pushing posts. Later I got in touch with one of the Sina online editors through MSN, and I understood more from him their policy of managing politically sensitive posts, while he also learnt more about the thinking of Hong Kong-based users from me (especially in relation to June the 4th, as well as our general political beliefs and ideologies). At the end I told him that many Hong Kong users will continue to blog about politically-sensitive topics, even when knowing full well that these posts will be taken down.

According to these online editors, there are dedicated Sina editors specially tasked with monitoring politically-sensitive posts, with the authority to delete individual posts or entire accounts as they see fit. I asked them if they would be overwhelmed with too many politically-sensitive posts to be able to deal effectively with all of them, and he replied in the negative, saying that they have plenty of resources at their disposal, both technological and human, to deal with all the online traffic. Moreover, they are not the only ones participating in Internet policing, as the relevant government departments are also involved. As regards 'boundary-pushing' posts, they have many years of experience in dealing with those.

If they are not seen to be policing the micro-blogosphere effectively, their company could easily follow in the footsteps of those who had had their entire operations shut down by the authorities (such as 飯否, 校內網, blogbus).

Finally, when June the 4th arrived, there was indeed an online battle waged between microbloggers and online editors lasting over ten hours (for details please see my previous "Epilogue from the First Microblogging Battle" blogpost). Lots and lots of posts got deleted, lots of accounts were also deleted, and even emoticons (a.k.a. 'smilies') were prohibited from being shown. As a result of this battle, I arrived at several -- not absolutely proven, it must be said -- conclusions:

1. Politically-sensitive words are automatically filtered.
2. Some users who are recognised as keen "boundary-pushers" (those who are savvy enough to not use actual politically-sensitive words, but make use of metaphors and other subtle references), will be specially monitored to see if they are indeed making politically sensitive posts.
3. When your posts have been continuously filtered a number of times, there will be a period when all your posts are being pre-moderated before they could be published.
4. Once your filtered posts reach a certain number, your account will be purged.
5. If the account belongs to a specially verified blogger (i.e. those with usernames ending in "V", such as those of media personalities, stars, academics, celebrities and well-known bloggers, etc.), the chance of account deletion is very small. The most that would happen is for posts to be withheld and remain unpublished.

As mine was a verified account, I thought the chance of it being deleted was quite small, especially as the politically-sensitive month of June was already past. Thus it was a total surprise for me to wake up one morning and discover, completely out of the blue and without any prior indication, notification or consultation, that my account was deleted. Over on Douban net, at least they would tell you how many chances you have remaining for rules infraction before they would permanently delete your account. Not so for Sina. I made some enquiries, and the response I got was that official scrutiny was getting much tighter these days, so much so that a rival microblogging site (搜狐微博) had their entire service shut down by the authorities, and so they have to be extra vigilant. As I had previously blogged too many politically-sensitive posts, word came from on high that my account had got to go.

I reflected at length, just what had I been posting lately that could conceivably lead to my account being purged?

After some deliberation, I think it might have to do with the following. There was this photo I posted about two weeks ago that depicted Tiananmen Square the day before the June 4th massacre (see below picture), which didn't attract that much attention and had never been deleted. And then on the first anniversary of the Xinjiang riots, I asked simply on my microblog, "Does anyone remember what day it is?" Perhaps the post that raised the most ire of the authorities is the one where I had subtly indicated that a Tibetan Buddhist leader has recently opened a Twitter account to disseminate news in Chinese.

My verified Sina account being killed off is thus probably due to a combination of the following factors:

1. Probably because I don't have any modicum of fame to speak of (other bloggers and media personalities shouldn't have to worry too much as long as they have a certain level of renown);

2. Probably because I managed to blog three boundary-pushing posts (as mentioned above) within the space of one month that escaped the initial notice of the online editors, and so somebody got blamed and then my account got the boot (so if you no longer blog about June the 4th or ethnic issues you should be fine);

3. Probably because I re-blogged a picture showing a group of protesters wearing V-for-Vendetta masks facing off a line of police, which in turn got re-blogged many times by many others (so you should be safe if you don't post images depicting acts of popular uprising that attract a lot of eyeballs on the Internet).

As the saying goes, you get what comes with the territory (出得嚟行,預咗要還。). Having opened my microblog account for well over half a year, in the process getting to know many kindred spirits online, and having escaped so many previous "content harmonization" Internet purges before, I count myself lucky to have survived this long. As I've often said before, Pity the poor editors. I guess this time the online editors and the relevant authorities have finally rid themselves of a nuisance.

I have since opened another account (, please feel free to add me). The former Kursk who communicated with the online editors got purged. This time I wouldn't be so kind. At worst they would kill off my account again, and I would just re-open another account again. I am not scared of being invited to tea with the authorities anyway -- let them try and catch me in Wanchai and extradite me to the mainland if they got any balls.

Something funny just happened also: I was using my new account to announce the fact that I had been killed off and have now reincarnated, and even this new post got deleted. Now I am really pissed off: Dear oh dear editor, aren't you just getting a tad paranoid?

Having said all that, I'm sure someone would come along and comment on the fact that the online editors themselves are only doing their jobs, that I shouldn't insist on being such a party pooper. I don't agree with this view at all, not when every day there are bloggers in mainland China who got fired from their jobs, who got sent down to the countryside, who got invited to tea with the authorities and who got arrested for simply following their conscience and disseminating news online. Here we have the freedom to say what we want, are we to shut up just so that the Internet police can have an easier job? If we were to do that, how could we in good conscience face those mainland bloggers who got jailed by the authorities?

And perhaps someone would say, Look at you lot of good-for-nothing idealistic Hongkongers, what right have you to comment on the affairs of mainland China? To this I would say, we have plenty of fellow travellers in mainland China on the Internet, and we also have plenty of fellow travellers in mainland China in real life. The voices of these people are not yet entirely extinguished online. Those who are oppressed to within an inch of their lives by corrupt officials, police authorities, city-planners, and property conglomerates, as well as those who sympathise with such oppressed -- these people are calling out every day, and this government is hell-bent on silencing their voices. We live on a patch of Chinese soil that happens to be free, so that it is easier for us to hear their voices, and so we have an even greater duty to help them spread and broadcast their words.

Today I was murdered, tomorrow it could be you.

- - -

Original article by Kursk, 10th July, 2010. Translation by Snowdrops, 12th July, 2010.

[Again, for the original blog-post in Chinese by Kursk, as well as the photographs mentioned, please click here]

Further reading:

一個容不下微博的國度 (from 森之星球)


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