This Chart Explains Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Internet Censorship

What goes through a Chinese web user’s head the moment before he or she hits the “publish” button? Pundits, scholars, and everyday netizens have spent years trying to parse the (ever-shifting) rules of the Chinese Internet. Although Chinese authorities have been putting ever more Internet rules and regulations on the books—one famously creates criminal liability for a “harmful” rumor shared more than 500 times—the line between what’s allowed and what isn’t, and the consequences that flow from the latter, remains strategically fuzzy. And that’s just how Chinese authorities like it.

But a discerning observer can still sketch out the shadowy form of the (often unwritten) rules that govern the Chinese web. Before posting, a Chinese web user is likely to consider basic questions about how likely a post is to travel, whether it runs counter to government priorities, and whether it calls for action or is likely to engender it. Those answers help determine whether a post can be published without incident—as it is somewhere around 84 percent or 87 percent of the time—or is instead likely to lead to a spectrum of negative consequences varying from censorship to the deletion of a user’s account to his or her detention, or even arrest and conviction. The flowchart below, based on my years following developments in Chinese cyberspace, provides a glimpse into the web of considerations that may determine the fate of a post—or its author.

Graphic by David Wertime, Shujie Leng, & Josef Reyes—Foreign Policy

A few nodes on this chart merit particular explanation:

  • Being famous on the Chinese Internet isn’t necessarily desirable. So-called “Big Vs,” or well-known social media commenters, are more likely to be scrutinized, censored, and jailed. They are thus likely to think extra hard before sharing anything on an open platform.
  • Posts that don’t criticize the government can be censored if they seem likely to spur private action on a major public issue. For example, in early March authorities quashed discussion of seemingly government-approved environmental documentary “Under the Dome” after it triggered a nationwide discussion on pollution.
  • Posts that get people to hit the streets are likely to get the axe, even if they aren’t political. In March 2011, authorities censored posts spreading the rumor that salt could stave off radiation poisoning from the recently ruptured Fukushima reactor in neighboring Japan, because the rumor had led to a run on the commodity.
  • The Chinese government wants web users to call out specific instances of corruption in the Communist Party—just not publicly. That’s why the website for the country’s top corruption watchdog allows citizens to report graft directly to government authorities.
  • Posts that criticize the government aren’t automatically censored. General grousing about the government by a small-time user isn’t going to topple the ruling party, which means the censors are unlikely to care.

There is much, of course, the above graphic does not and cannot capture. A user, for example, may have a powerful backer that allows him or her to push the envelope—or conversely, a history of activism that makes any post suspect. And the consequences beyond censorship are too uncertain and multifarious to be visually represented.

It’s also worth emphasizing that most posts are left alone. But that’s only after each survives a gauntlet of possible pitfalls, managing not only to obey laws as written but also to avoid contravening the interests or sensibilities of the central government and relevant local officials. That’s led to endemic self-censorship, particularly when the topic hits at anything even approaching politics. In turn, that makes Chinese cyberspace less likely to host the kind of raucous (and, to the government, potentially destabilizing) national debates and movements that used to spring up without warning before authorities tightened the screws on online speech starting in late 2013. China’s web users now have a strong incentive to stick to entertainment and e-commerce, rather than using the web as a platform for speech and debate on the major issues shaping their country’s future.