Crackdown on Chinese Bloggers Who Fight the Censors With Puns
By MICHAEL WINES
Published: May 28, 2012
BEIJING — One of China’s largest hosts of Twitter-like microblogs decreed new punishments on Monday for users who post comments that its editors — and by extension, China’s government censors — deem inappropriate.
The service, Sina Weibo, imposed “user contracts” that award each of its 300 million microbloggers a starting score of 80 points.
Points can be deducted for online comments that are judged to be offensive. When a blogger reaches zero, the service stated, a user’s account will be canceled. Users who suffer lesser penalties can restore their 80 points by avoiding violations for two months.
Deductions will cover a wide range of sins, including spreading rumors, calling for protests, promoting cults or superstitions and impugning China’s honor, the service stated.
Most notably, the contracts also will punish time-honored tactics that bloggers have used to avoid censorship, like disguising comments on censored topics by using homonyms (where two different Chinese characters have nearly identical sounds), puns and other dodges.
To evade censors, bloggers have referred to the dissident artist Ai Weiwei by using the Chinese characters for “love the future,” a rough homonym of his name. Such ploys would be punished with a loss of points under the new rules.
Sina officials left unclear how many points a user would lose for a specific violation. But they said that microbloggers could increase their score to 100 points by supporting unspecified promotional activities, and would receive “low credit” warnings should their total fall below 60 points.
The restrictions are not new by themselves. Government censors already control what appears on the Internet, and corporate minders at Sina Weibo and other sites have long complied with their orders, deleting offensive comments, sly homonyms and other posts that rile the government’s sensibilities.
The point system, however, appears to be a muted effort to extend that control by warning users when they approach the boundaries of official tolerance. Internet companies like Sina that are privately operated tread a thin line between too-lax censorship that might draw government punishment and overly strict rules that would quash the lively debates that make the services popular.
The new rules were announced in early May and took effect on Monday.
Chinese propaganda authorities have progressively clamped down on the freedoms of Internet users since last year, when a high-speed train wreck in Zhejiang Province unleashed an online flood of angry antigovernment comments.
Censors have all but shut down comments this spring about the scandal involving Bo Xilai, the suspended Politburo member, and Chen Guangcheng, the dissident who sought refuge in the United States Embassy in Beijing.
The government briefly banned users from commenting on microblog posts on Sina Weibo and a rival service, Tencent QQ, apparently as a warning against spreading rumors about government instability surrounding Mr. Bo’s troubles.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 29, 2012, on page A5 of the New York edition with the headline: Crackdown on Chinese Bloggers Who Fight the Censors With Puns.