By Zhang Lei
He couldn’t take it anymore.
When Hong Kong writer and poet Liao Weitang found his online photo album had been deleted by douban.com, he quit, leaving behind the 3,000 friends he had made over two years.
“I had a great time here,” he wrote in his leaving statement to users of the Chinese mainland social networking service, “despite my account twice being suspended and having 100 posts deleted.
“But just lately this website has gone insane. It’s like half of the 5,000 most-commonly-used words are banned.”
The final straw for Liao was the deletion of The Beautiful and Strong People, an album featuring Hong Kong youths and artists involved in a protest against the HK$66.7-billion Hong Kong to Shenzhen and Guangzhou high-speed rail link. Photos of kneeling, barefoot youths were apparently deemed too political.
“I shot beautiful young faces, nothing radical or provocative,” Liao said. “But they just couldn’t let it go.”
“I stuck it out for two years with Douban, posting poems and comments, trying to bring a little truth and alternative values to my friends behind the Great Firewall.
“But I’ve got to have a bottom line somewhere. The Web master repeatedly tested my principles. So finally I decided to leave this website that is becoming renowned for self-castration.”
Douban used to be more flexible with him back in the old days, Liao said. For example instead of deleting, website managers might close off content by making it “private” not public. Or entries were not erased immediately, perhaps after a day or two, he recalled.
“That way, hundreds and thousands would see them,” he said.
As one of only a few Kong Hong writers willing to operate in this compromised Internet environment, Liao said he had savored the opportunity to communicate with isolated mainland friends.
“I posted on Douban what the public needs to know, saving more personal stuff for my blog.”
Initiated in 2005, Douban has 33 million registered users: mostly students and intellectuals who enjoy the social networking service’s simple design and user-generated content like books, movies and albums. More recently, Douban’s tightening censorship has upset some veteran members.
It got to the point that Peking University student Fang Kecheng wrote an open letter of complaint to Douban for suspending his account, dubbing the website a “dictator”.
According to Fang, users and Web masters had been forced into playing hide-and-seek with Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949, a banned book by Taiwan writer Lung Yingtai.
As the book’s International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was forbidden on the mainland, users kept the title but altered the ISBN in order to share their comments and ratings.
Douban’s Web masters spotted the incorrect ISBN, erased the title and re-inserted the original, correct title. Seeing this, Fang changed the title back again, which led to his account being closed.
“I can’t believe contributing entry content can be a crime,” Fang said. “Any user can submit information they think is right on a website that relies on user-generated content.”
Fang wanted to find out whether the book’s sensitivity had contributed to his punishment and so he got his friend to change the title back again. His friend’s account was also closed.
It wasn’t the censorship per se that enraged Fang and other Web users, it was Douban breaching its own published code of conduct.
“Douban’s ban is unreasonable and random,” Fang wrote. “It’s authoritarian because you can be banned for three days, seven days or forever with no justification and all your diaries, albums, collections and messages are gone.”
Douban’s rules state users must receive three warnings before such a final, permanent closure: After a first warning, the account is suspended three days. The second warning leads to a week’s ban. Only after a third warning is the account supposed to be closed down permanently.
Fang’s open letter led to the lifting of a closure on his account.
Self-censorship is the rule of survival that prevents popular websites from being shut down, Zoe Wang, a veteran website developer told the Global Times.
“I can understand an author being outraged when his post gets deleted, but it’s even harder to operate a website as I have to suffer the humiliation of supervisory organs and handle all the criticisms coming from users,” she said.
“How can you hope to pay your staff or maintain your users’ statistics if the website is shut down all because of one sensitive post?”
“You can never relax,” said the small website operator.
“You’re always keeping your phone switched on and waiting for that emergency call from the authorities requiring deletion of a post.”
What’s worse, she said, was the complete absence of clear-cut rules for deciding whether or not to delete an online post.
“The criterion of sensitivity depends on many aspects such as the political environment, the website’s background, size and location, as well as the different understandings of Web masters.”
Douban was extraordinarily cautious about its content as it had no background or ties to government, according to a source close to an editor at the site.
“Once you’re shut down, nobody can save you,” the source said.
No editor from Douban would go on the record when the Global Times contacted them.
“Douban recalls clearly the fate of Fanfou, Yeeyan and Blogbus,” Fang said.
They were three of the most well-known mainland websites closed down last year, according to the Southern Metropolis Weekly. The latter two were recovered in January.
Fanfou founder Wang Xing was pondering how much to up censorship during the July 5 Xinjiang riot last year when he got his answer.
The Twitter-style microblogging service for 100,000 registered users was closed down almost immediately for “violating related rules”, according to the China Business News Weekly.
Wang hasn’t given up hope of bringing Fanfou back some day. Seven months on, Wang still refused to comment.
A site that published collaborative user-submitted translations of English and Chinese articles, Yeeyan was shut down in November last year for violating the regulation on “running a news information service”.
According to this national regulation, any organization applying for the establishment of an Internet news information service on the Chinese mainland must have registered capital of no less than 10 million yuan and at least five Chinese mainland editors who have engaged in journalism for longer than three years.
Yeeyan relaunched 39 days later under tight self-censorship, with all “political” news removed.
“It was difficult to figure out what we can say and what we cannot,” Chen Haozhi, founder of Yeeyan, told the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend.
The most devastating issue for translators was finding so much of their hard work deleted, said a former volunteer.
“It wasn’t our fault because we couldn’t twist the original meaning of the news stories,” she said.
“I’ve got absolutely no idea what is sensitive and what is not.”
Admittedly, she said, they knew their work was “risky” as “most foreign news about China is negative”.
Yeeyan’s partnership with the Guardian newspaper had made the staff especially proud, the translator said.
“The website attracted many readers as it helped them bypass the two walls,” she said. “Most Chinese face two obstacles: the Great Firewall and the language barrier.”
Neutering was the only option for Yeeyan if they wanted to continue in business, she said.
Yeeyan was also bound by copyright law, she said. The translation company had to delete a group translation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster The Lost Symbol and apologize to the book’s Chinese publisher last year.
Aside from suffering censorship or shutdowns for reasons unknown, a common complaint among Internet users and website operators is the lack of an appeal.
“You can only go to related departments and beg them to give you another chance,” Liao said.
As the Web master of an online poetry forum, Liao has a list of sensitive words he received from the local Internet authority.
“They hope we will delete posts containing these words,” he said, “but I don’t see it making much sense.”
The forum was shut down twice last year.
“We have no idea why,” he said. “It came all of a sudden.”
In response, the site’s server was moved to Hong Kong.
“It’s impossible to rescue your website if you violated the related law,” a Web master from China Unicom, Beijing branch, told the Global Times.
“As long as Douban is growing, it won’t care about what users say because the real threat comes from the authorities,” Fang said.
It’s pointless fighting the system, he said.
“We can only fight the slavish social environment and gradually gain a sense of citizenship,” he said.
There are 14 general laws and regulations governing illegal online behavior, all vague and lacking in detailed, practical provisions, according to Li Yonggang, a professor of Internet politics from Nan-jing University, in his newly published book Our Great Firewall: Expression and Governance in the Era of the Internet.
“As a result, it’s difficult to draw a line when operators and Web users censor, apart from the well-known restricted field of political issues,” he wrote.
There are more than 10 government organs entitled to supervise the Internet, Li said. This inevitably gives rise to conflicts, he believed.
Bans are also increasingly unpredictable, he said. Recipients receive no explanation and no comeback. Chinese mainland Web users tend to react with a pessimistic, alienated and impotent attitude.
“Chinese may criticize the evils of society, but at the same time they feel like participants,” Li said.
“In fact the Great Firewall is rooted in our hearts as so little ‘harmful information’ will ever come to light thanks to individuals’ self-discipline and website operators’ self-censorship.”
Online opinion is a double-edged sword, said Wang, also a bulletin board moderator. Irrational online outcries aren’t helping anyone, she argued. She cited the online petition for Sun Zhigang, famously beaten to death in 2003 for not carrying a temporary living permit.
Observers attributed the ending of the policy of custody and repatriation to online public sentiment. In fact, Wang said, the change of policy came about because of the SARS breakout.
“They were all eager to sign a petition when something happened but in fact it only led to the shutting down of these significant forums.
“We can’t stop censorship, but we can articulate the truth with a more rational attitude. When different opinions coexist, people find their own answers.”
Censorship is also necessary to prevent certain kinds of harm being done to others, argued Zhu Wei, a professor at China University of Politics and Laws in Beijing.
“The nude picture scandal wouldn’t have run out of control if there was no Internet,” he said. “Unrestricted, freedom can lead to violence.”
According to the newly-passed Tort Liability Law, any Web user or service provider who infringes upon the civil rights and benefits of another is liable.
This new catch-all is a valuable control over online opinion. According to Article 36, the infringed party can inform the Web service provider to delete, shield or cut the links as well as any other necessary measures.
“The Web service provider who doesn’t take necessary measures after receiving this information will bear joint liability along with the Web user,” the law states.