China’s web censors are playing a game of “whack-a-mole” against online search terms being used to spread information about Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese human rights advocate who has reportedly escaped house arrest and taken refuge in a U.S. embassy.
The Chinese and U.S. governments are both tight-lipped on Chen’s whereabouts, but that’s not stopping rumors from flying on Weibo, a Twitter-like service that’s extremely popular in China.
However, Chen’s disappearance is an embarrassment for the Chinese government. Its team of Internet censors is hard at work blocking terms used by Chinese citizens to spread information about Chen’s whereabouts.
Weibo, a Chinese-run company is the most popular microblogging service in China, but foreign services exist as well. Twitter and other social networks operate in the country only on the promise they will comply with state-mandated censorship guidelines.
Chinese users first employed “blind man” as code for Chen immediately after his disappearance became known. After that was blocked by censors, “embassy” became a popular term before it, too, was squelched.
“Sina the weibo now has been unable to search the embassy information,” reported Weibo user mobbyca and translated through Google Chrome. “This trick everyone learned, is not a good thing.”
Users who try searching Weibo for these terms are greeted with an ominous warning: “According to relevant laws and policies, results are not displayed.”
Weibo users have switched to more complex phrases to stay ahead of Beijing’s officials. Just as China’s censors figure out which phrases to ban, activists spread a new code — and another mole pops up for the censors to whack.
“Going into the light” has become widely used as a reference to the activist, according to Reuters, because the phrase represents defection but also because of a play on words on the middle Chinese character in Chen’s name. References to “Shawshank Redemption,” a film featuring a prison breakout, are also being used.
Chen is an outspoken advocate against China’s “one child” policy and use of forced sterilization and abortions. He was arrested and jailed for four years in 2006, and he’s been under house arrest since. According to reports, Chen fled his home in eastern China last week with the help of his supporters. Other activists claim Chen is at the U.S. embassy, a situation that’s added strain on relations between Beijing and Washington.
Chinese citizens aren’t the only ones to use code words to talk about sensitive topics on the Internet. Recently, French election watchers used code phrases on Twitter to share voting results in defiance of laws against early reporting.