China further tightens speech on social media

China has been tightening its hold on netizens, with local social media giants publishing their users’ locations and banning the use of similar-sounding words meant to skirt censorship, says a report in The Strait Times.
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Microblogging platform Weibo said on July 13 that it will step up efforts to clean up the use of homophones that are meant to “spread unhealthy or illegal messages”, adds the report noting that the content editors will supervise more closely the use of language on the platform, and improve the way Weibo identifies offensive words.

China has been tightening its hold on netizens, with local social media giants publishing their users’ locations and banning the use of similar-sounding words meant to skirt censorship, says a report in The Strait Times.
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Microblogging platform Weibo said on July 13 that it will step up efforts to clean up the use of homophones that are meant to “spread unhealthy or illegal messages”, adds the report noting that the content editors will supervise more closely the use of language on the platform, and improve the way Weibo identifies offensive words.

Chinese netizens have long favoured the use of homophones to escape the country’s tight censorship. They also transliterate English into Chinese to get away with sensitive topics, according to the Strait Times report from Beijing.

Illustrating the report said, when discussing women’s rights in China, netizens may use “mi tu” or “rice bunny” to replace “MeToo”, a movement started in the United States that highlights sexual violence against women.

More recently, netizens have used the Chinese word for moist, “run”, to signify their intention to migrate after authorities placed Shanghai – the country’s most international city – under a strict lockdown in April that lasted for more than six weeks.

The sudden tightening of Covid-19 restrictions left many residents without sufficient food supplies and in need of medical attention in the early weeks. Residents went online to air their grievances, which have been reported by both domestic and international media.

Netizens have also used the Chinese name of Dutch investment bank ABN Amro, which is “Helan Yinhang”, to talk about a long-running bank scam in central Henan province where depositors from all over the country have allegedly fallen prey, the report said.

The case involved about 40 billion yuan (S$8.2 billion), making it one of China ‘s worst financial messes. A violent protest erupted in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, on July 10 after the depositors could not withdraw their savings.

Weibo’s latest announcement drew more than 180 million views and sparked 32,000 comments the day it was published.

Since March, the platform, along with other Internet companies such as Zhihu, Xiaohongshu and ByteDance, has also started publishing their users’ locations based on their Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top regulator, published an updated draft set of rules in October last year that proposed for online platforms to display users’ IP at “a significant place on their page”.

For users in China, platforms must show the province or city where they are located, according to the draft. For those overseas, the country where they are based must be shown.

Weibo said that its decision to publish the names of the provinces where users are posting from aims to clarify misinformation on recent current affairs such as the Russia -Ukraine conflict and domestic Covid-19 outbreaks, but did not elaborate, the report stated.

Xiaohongshu, which resembles Instagram, said that publishing IP addresses will prevent users from “pretending to be locals” and “spreading rumours”.

Social media companies outside of China, including Meta which owns Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter, let users decide whether they want to display their location and where they are posting from. Netizens have voiced privacy concerns about these latest measures, and lamented that the already-small space for free speech in the country is fast closing up.

China, which has the world’s highest number of Internet users at about one billion, has a vibrant online community, where users have so far enjoyed a greater degree of freedom compared with offline media, the majority of which are state-controlled, the Singapore daily said.

Some social media users have said that they plan to get around the new measure on publishing users’ locations by masking their IP addresses with virtual private networks (VPN). It is illegal to use VPN in China, though enforcement has been lacking.

China has long played a game of cat-and-mouse with its netizens when it comes to censorship, the report quoted Prof Ang of Nanyang Technological University as saying. In his view much depends on how the new censorship is enforced. “Its effect will be largely psychological”.

Netizens will continuously find new ways to get ahead of censors, Prof Ang said.

“The attempts at creative bypass will again lead to further attempts at censoring those attempts… It’s a never-ending cycle,” he was quoted as saying. ###