Banned by Beijing

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Just saw this great post by the editors of supchina:

"Here are all the words Chinese state media has banned:  A full translation of the style guide update from Xinhua, and why it matters." (8/1/17)

We can be grateful to the editors for their reliable translations, complete with Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin romanizations, with word spacing and tonal diacritics.

The list is divided into sections on "Politics and society" (including politically incorrect and vulgar terms), "Law", "Religion and society", "Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, territory, and sovereignty", and "International relations".  Specialists in all of these areas will have a field day examining these sensitive terms and analyzing their political, social, and cultural implications.  I encourage everyone who has an interest in contemporary China to avail themselves of this extraordinary opportunity to get inside the most fundamental level of the censorial apparatus of the Communist Chinese state.

Extremely long though the Xinhua guide is (they truly saved the best item for last!), it is basically a usage and style sheet of more lasting duration.  But, in terms of what actually gets banned and censored day to day, month by month in China, it is just the tip of the iceberg.  The number of more ephemeral banned and censored terms in China is far greater than what's on the Xinhua list.  For example, during the Arab Spring, references to "jasmine" were forbidden, even though that is the name of one of the most popular songs in China (including for some presidents!) and a favored tea.  Allusions to frogs and toads were often ruled out because they were nicknames for Jiang Zemin.  More recently, we have seen that mention of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and Winnie the Pooh were blocked.  And so on and so forth.  Ditto for overt and coded references to train wrecks, earthquakes, explosions, intra-Party squabbles, pollution indices, etc., etc., etc.

For those who wish to go beyond the Xinhua list, Citizen Lab has produced a number of important reports on keywords censored from Weibo, WeChat, video streaming, and other apps and social media platforms.

China Digital Times' "Collecting Sensitive Words: The Grass-Mud Horse List" catalogues censored Weibo search terms from April 2011 to the present (scroll down the very extensive spreadsheet).  To my knowledge, this is the longest running and most extensive list of banned words.

For archives of deleted social media posts, check out FreeWeChat, FreeWeibo, and Hong Kong University's Weiboscope, which allows you to search for particular words and see if postings about them are being censored.

The Great Firewall’s (GFW) many layers of blocking, deleting, filtering, and other types of censorship probably make a comprehensive list impossible. Some keywords (or website functions) are blocked according to users’ regions — the first example to come to mind is Weibo’s freeze on image and video uploads from overseas users around June 4 this year.  There have been other region-specific blocks as well, especially when mass incidents are involved.

For the latest developments, see:

"China is perfecting a new method for suppressing dissent on the internet: America should pay attention" Sean Illing, Vox (8/2/17)

A new study by Gary King of Harvard University, Jennifer Pan of Stanford University, and Margaret Roberts of the University of California San Diego suggests that China is the leading innovator on this front. Their paper, titled “How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument,” shows how Beijing, with the help of a massive army of government-backed internet commentators, floods the web in China with pro-regime propaganda.

Here are some links to help you appreciate the enormity (in both senses) of censorship in the PRC:

See especially the last two items, but there are many more posts on this topic (search here).

The lengths to which netizens will go to circumvent the GFW are legendary.  Here's one example:

"In China, internet censors are accidentally helping revive an invented 'Martian' language", Visen Liu, Quartz (7/30/17)

Finally, I was fortunate to receive from Geoff Wade this extraordinary report that was posted 35 minutes ago:

"Rogue chatbots taken offline in China after refusing to say they love the Communist party" (ABC News [Australia])

Chinese messenger app QQ introduced two chatbots — BabyQ and XiaoBing — in March but they were removed by media company Te[n]cent after social media users shared conversations in which the bots appeared to criticise the CCP.

The Financial Times reports that in response to the question "Do you love the Communist Party?" BabyQ simply replied: "No."

And according to screenshots posted by Taiwan's Apple Daily, one user sent a message to BabyQ reading "Long live the Communist Party" only to be told: "Do you think that such a corrupt and incompetent political regime can live forever?"

When quizzed on its patriotism, the bot dodged the question by replying: "I'm having my period, wanna take a rest."

Time for me to take a rest too.

[h.t. Jichang Lulu; thanks to Riccardo Cociani, Jeremy Goldkorn, Brendan O'Kane, and Anne Henochowicz]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2017 @ 11:41 pm

    Banning and blocking of censored terms have been a fact of life in China since the internet began to operate there. On the other hand, as the power of the internet grows, the government feels the need to go beyond that, with the result that internet restrictions are becoming ever tighter, including selective shutdowns of all or portions of the internet:

    "China’s Internet Censors Play a Tougher Game of Cat and Mouse" by Paul Mozur, NYT (8/3/17)


    The shutdown was unusual, and came without warning.

    Chinese censors tested on Thursday a new way of shutting down websites and cutting off the country’s internet users from the rest of the world.


    China has embarked on an internet campaign that signals a profound shift in the way it thinks of online censorship. For years, the China government appeared content to use methods that kept the majority of people from reading or using material it did not like, such as foreign news outlets, Facebook and Google.

    Now the authorities are targeting the very tools many people use to vault the Great Firewall. In recent days, Apple has pulled apps that offer access to such tools — called virtual private networks, or VPNs — off its China app store, while Amazon’s Chinese partner warned customers on its cloud computing service against hosting those tools on their sites. Over the past two months a number of the most popular Chinese VPNs have been shut down, while two popular sites hosting foreign television shows and movies were wiped clean.


    The shift — which could affect a swath of users from researchers to businesses — suggests that China is increasingly worried about the power of the internet, experts said.


    VHM: Part of the intensifying crackdown on the internet may indeed be due to government recognition of the power of the internet, but I personally believe that it also has to do with the growing tension in the upper echelons of the CCP during the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress that will be held this fall. Profound political transformations are occurring, and the leaders do not want any discussion or even recognition of the factional infighting that has been going on since Xi Jinping assumed power and which is reaching a fever pitch as the 19th Party Congress approaches. Xi and his closest associates want to have the ability to shut down the internet immediately and completely if they deem that necessary in the face of serious dissension surrounding the 19th Party Congress, regardless of the impact it may have on business and research. As for entertainment and edification, they really don't care about that at all if they feel their total control is threatened by widespread dissemination of information concerning political instability.

  2. Alex said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 3:13 am

    unfortunately it seems many Western nations and universities are following the same path starting with what's not PC (using social pressure/career pressure) and then trying to outlaw free speech.

    I look at the Evergreen college video
    sure makes me think of the student red guard during the cultural revolution.

    I didn't know whether to laugh or cry or puke when I saw the dean interviewed who said he wasn't afraid and they were just having a dialogue while they followed him around yelling at him.

    I shudder to think what the US will be like by the time my kids grow up and are selecting potential universities.

    Very unfortunate.

    Even the press which label the "anti fascist" use language to influence thought. To me those black masked mobs are fascist.

    “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

    We cant control what happens in China but its sad we don't try to stop what's happening in our countries.

  3. Alex said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 7:34 am

    Sorry to bring an element of social commentary into this blog. Im in several group chats for expats in China and the growth of identity labeling has been off the charts. It has gotten to the point where I just say its time for you to label me something when the facts presented dont support their "social" cause.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    There's obviously a potential difference between Xinhua's in-house stylebook and a potential rulebook for censors. Xinhua is a mouthpiece for the regime, so if it's always going to speak about Hong Kong or Taiwan using the regime's preferred phrases and eschewing the regime's dispreferred phrases, that shouldn't be that big of a deal. The bigger question is whether PRC residents doing their own writing on the internet (or independent/private-sector journalistic publications, to the extent that's a coherent concept in the PRC) can get away with not following the Xinhua stylebook and using, if they want to, the alternative phrasings Xinhua would eschew. And I take it the answer to that is, it varies, by topic, time, and varying level of governmental sensitivity. But if whatever de facto rulebook the censors are using at any given point in time for non-XInhua writers is not quite so restrictive as Xinhua's own stylebook, that's important to keep in mind.

  5. Christopher Coulouris said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    I remember after 9/11 there was a list of about 200 songs that were not to be played on the air waves. One song was Seek and Destroy by Metallica. Do not remember how long the songs were bannd for. I was in China in 2008 when the Sichuan earthquake happened. The internet was shut down for 2 days as well as other forms of entertainment such as Ktv places, movie theaters etc….

  6. Daniel Tse said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 11:03 am

    Does anyone know the reasoning behind the following item, and what Xinhua is implying they would prefer as a replacement?

    Do not call Hamas a terrorist group [恐怖组织 kǒngbùzǔzhī] or extremist group [极端组织 jíduānzǔzhī].

  7. Chris C. said,

    August 4, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

    "I remember after 9/11 there was a list of about 200 songs that were not to be played on the air waves."

    There were no government directives to do so. That was one large media company asking its affiliates to reconsider certain programming that, under the circumstances, might be perceived as being in poor taste. It was also not an outright ban, just a suggestion.

    There's a huge difference between that and government censorship of free expression.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    The following report is both amusing and highly revealing.

    "China’s Dissident Chatbots:
    Tencent provides a glimpse of what Chinese think of their leaders."

    Wall Street Journal
    By The Editorial Board
    Aug. 3, 2017 7:04 p.m. ET

    Beijing’s system of internet censorship relies on tens of thousands of workers to remove comments critical of the Communist Party. So what does the average citizen really think of the one-party state? A couple of artificial-intelligence programs run by a Chinese internet company suggest resentment of the country’s rulers is running high.

    Tencent introduced two “chatbots” in March to provide information in a conversational manner similar to Apple’s Siri. The programs were designed to learn how to make conversation by listening to Chinese netizens. Like children, the programs started to repeat what they heard, and that’s when the problems began.

    Taiwan’s Apple Daily newspaper printed screenshots of the chatbots attacking the Communist Party. BabyQ asked one user, “Do you think such corrupt and incapable politics can last a long time?” XiaoBing mocked President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” slogan, saying, “The Chinese dream is a daydream and a nightmare.” Its Chinese dream was “to move to America.”…

  9. Mark Metcalf said,

    August 5, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    Here's the Apple Daily link (with screenshots):

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

    List of banned terms compiled by Jason Q. Ng:

    List of banned terms compiled by Citizen Lab:

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