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Researcher tracks China's censored words on Weibo

Jason Q. Ng has authored a new book Blocked on Weibo: a collection of 150 words blocked by Chinese government censors. Photo: Michael Gregory

Hairy bacon, Canadian French and leopard print: all terms axed from the online vocabulary in China, according to a new book published by a University of Toronto researcher.

A Google Fellow at the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs, Jason Q. Ng’s book Blocked on Weibo is a collection of 150 words that the Chinese government has censored on the popular Chinese equivalent to Twitter and Facebook, known as Sina Weibo.

"It's by far the most important and most active site in China for vibrant discussion about social affairs," Ng told Metro Morning host Matt Galloway. "It's brought down politicians, it's changed how we view scandals in China."

A former book editor and academic with a specialty in East Asian studies, Ng arrived at his list of forbidden terms after taking over 700,000 entries on Wikipedia China and creating a computer script that would search them on Weibo.

After nearly two months, he had arrived at 1,500 terms that government censors had apparently banned, 150 of which made it into his book.

Many of the terms related to political events or pornography, but others were quirky homonyms or metaphors that attempted confuse government officials monitoring the web.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse that users have to play to get around the censors,” said Ng. “In a way it sort of plays into the censors hands, this very fact that you have to use these sorts of code words means you’re not connecting at the larger audience at hand."

The Chinese characters for 'hairy bacon’ left him stumped for a while before finding an online recipe for preserved meat — the censors had blocked the word because it was in fact an insult to Mao Zedong who is embalmed and laying in state in Tiananmen Square.

'Canadian French' is a problematic term because a word of it unintentionally contains "dafa," which is short for Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong, the outlawed cult in China.

600 million users

Ng said that while “everyone has their favourites” of the list of words, the uses and potential impacts of Weibo should be taken seriously with its over 600 million registered users.

“It’s very important because of so many social media movements that have started to come out of it,” Ng said, citing an alleged cover-up by the Chinese government after a high-speed train crash in 2011 that left 39 people dead. “An uproar began on Weibo and citizens actually made them stop."

The U.S.-based China Digital Times, an online news site run by graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, has also used Ng's script to add to their own list of censored words.

Anne Henochowicz, a translation coordinator with CDT, said that while China's control of the internet may appear "monolithic" it's important for Western countries to understand how the government is attempting to control public discourse.
Blocked on Weibo is a new book by the University of Toronto's Google Police Fellow. Blocked on Weibo is a new book by the University of Toronto's Google Police Fellow.  (Supplied)
"The Chinese internet is a place of flux, where words are sensitized, desensitized, and re-sensitized according to the news cycle," said Henochowicz.

Disgraced politician Bo Xilai's full name has been blocked on and off since 2012 as he remains on trial for corruption allegations. Chinese users of Weibo started to use "Captain Bo" and "King Who Pacified the West" before those terms were blocked as well.

"Unfortunately it sort of speaks to the way in which the censorship has worked," said Ng. "The very fact that you have to use these coded messages means you can't speak to citizens who don't understand the code."

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