Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-nr4z6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-22T07:41:35.525Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 May 2013

Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University
Gary King is Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, 1737 Cambridge Street, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138 (, (617) 500-7570.
Jennifer Pan is Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Government, 1737 Cambridge Street, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138 ( (917) 740-5726.
Margaret E. Roberts is Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Government, 1737 Cambridge Street, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138 (


We offer the first large scale, multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this, we have devised a system to locate, download, and analyze the content of millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the subset they deem objectionable. Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt to and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 85 topic areas. Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future—and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Ada, Sean, Farrell, Henry, Lync, Marc, Sides, John, and Freelon, Deen. 2012. “Blogs and Bullets: New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring.” Scholar
Ash, Timothy Garton. 2002. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Bamman, D., O'Connor, B., and Smith, N.. 2012. “Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media.” First Monday 17: 35.Google Scholar
Bellin, Eva. 2012. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring.” Comparative Politics 44 (2): 127–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Blecher, Marc. 2002. “Hegemony and Workers’ Politics in China.” The China Quarterly 170: 283303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Branigan, Tania. 2012. “Chinese politician Bo Xilai's wife suspected of murdering Neil Heywood.” The Guardian April 10. Scholar
Cai, Yongshun. 2002. “Resistance of Chinese Laid-off Workers in the Reform Period.” The China Quarterly 170: 327–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chang, Parris. 1983. Elite Conflict in the Post-Mao China. New York: Occasional Papers Reprints.Google Scholar
Charles, David. 1966. The Dismissal of Marshal P'eng Teh-huai. In China Under Mao: Politics Takes Command, ed. MacFarquhar, Roderick. Cambridge: MIT University Press, 2033.Google Scholar
Chen, Feng. 2000. “Subsistence Crises, Managerial Corruption and Labour Protests in China.” The China Journal 44: 4163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chen, Xi. 2012. Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Chen, Xiaoyan, and Ang, Peng Hwa. 2011. Internet Police in China: Regulation, Scope and Myths. In Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating, and Instrumentalising the Online Carnival, eds. Herold, David and Marolt, Peter. New York: Routledge, 4052.Google Scholar
Crosas, Merce, Grimmer, Justin, King, Gary, Stewart, Brandon, and the Consilience Development Team. 2012. “Consilience: Software for Understanding Large Volumes of Unstructured Text.”Google Scholar
Dimitrov, Martin. 2008. “The Resilient Authoritarians.” Current History 107 (705): 24–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Duan, Qing. 2007. China's IT Leadership. Vdm Verlag Saarbrücken, Germany.Google Scholar
Economy, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Bigger Issues Behind China's Bo Xilai Scandal.” The Atlantic April 11. Scholar
Edin, Maria. 2003. “State Capacity and Local agent Control in China: CPP Cadre Management from a Township Perspective.” China Quarterly 173 (March): 3552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Edmond, Chris. 2012. “Information, Manipulation, Coordination, and Regime Change.” Scholar
Egorov, Georgy, Guriev, Sergei, and Sonin, Konstantin. 2009. “Why Resource-poor Dictators Allow Freer Media: A Theory and Evidence from Panel Data.” American Political Science Review 103 (4): 645–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Esarey, Ashley, and Xiao, Qiang. 2008. “Political Expression in the Chinese Blogosphere: Below the Radar.” Asian Survey 48 (5): 752–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Esarey, Ashley, and Xiao, Qiang. 2011. “Digital Communication and Political Change in China.” International Journal of Communication 5: 298C319.Google Scholar
Freedom House. 2012. “Freedom of the Press, 2012.” Scholar
Grimmer, Justin, and King, Gary. 2011. “General purpose computer-assisted clustering and conceptualization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (7): 2643–50. ScholarPubMed
Guo, Gang. 2009. “China's Local Political Budget Cycles.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (3): 621–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Herold, David. 2011. Human Flesh Search Engine: Carnivalesque Riots as Components of a ‘Chinese Democracy.’ In Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating, and Instrumentalising the Online Carnival, eds. Herold, David and Marolt, Peter. New York: Routledge, 127–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hinton, Harold. 1955. The “Unprincipled Dispute” Within Chinese Communist Top Leadership. Washington, DC: U.S. Information Agency.Google Scholar
Hopkins, Daniel, and King, Gary. 2010. “A Method of Automated Nonparametric Content Analysis for Social Science.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (1): 229–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Huber, Peter J. 1964. “Robust Estimation of a Location Parameter.” Annals of Mathematical Statistics 35: 73101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
King, Gary, and Zeng, Langche. 2001. “Logistic Regression in Rare Events Data.” Political Analysis 9 (2, Spring): 137–63. Scholar
Kung, James, and Chen, Shuo. 2011. “The Tragedy of the Nomenklatura: Career Incentives and Political Radicalism during China's Great Leap Famine.” American Political Science Review 105: 2745.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kuran, Timur. 1989. “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution.” Public Choice 61 (1): 4174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lee, Ching-Kwan. 2007. Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lindtner, Silvia, and Szablewicz, Marcella. 2011. China's Many Internets: Participation and Digital Game Play Across a Changing Technology Landscape. In Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating, and Instrumentalising the Online Carnival, eds. Herold, David and Marolt, Peter. New York: Routledge, 89105.Google Scholar
Lohmann, Susanne. 1994. “The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989–1991.” World Politics 47 (1): 42101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lohmann, Susanne. 2002. “Collective Action Cascades: An Informational Rationale for the Power in Numbers.” Journal of Economic Surveys 14 (5): 654–84.Google Scholar
Lorentzen, Peter. 2010. “Regularizing Rioting: Permitting Protest in an Authoritarian Regime.” Working Paper.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lorentzen, Peter. 2012. “Strategic Censorship.” SSRN. Scholar
MacFarquhar, Roderick. 1974. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution Volume 1: Contradictions Among the People 1956–1957. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
MacFarquhar, Roderick. 1983. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution Volume 2: The Great Leap Forward 1958–1960. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
MacKinnon, Rebecca. 2012. Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Marolt, Peter. 2011. Grassroots Agency in a Civil Sphere? Rethinking Internet Control in China. In Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating, and Instrumentalising the Online Carnival, eds. Herold, David and Marolt, Peter. New York: Routledge, 5368.Google Scholar
Nathan, Andrew. 2003. “Authoritarian Resilience.” Journal of Democracy 14 (1): 617.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Brien, Kevin, and Li, Lianjiang. 2006. Rightful Resistance in Rural China. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Perry, Elizabeth. 2002. Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China. Armork, NY: M. E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
Perry, Elizabeth. 2008. Permanent Revolution? Continuities and Discontinuities in Chinese Protest. In Popular Protest in China, ed. O'Brien, Kevin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 205–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Perry, Elizabeth. 2010. Popular Protest: Playing by the Rules. In China Today, China Tomorrow: Domestic Politics, Economy, and Society, ed. Fewsmith, Joseph. Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 1128.Google Scholar
Przeworski, Adam, Alvarez, Michael E., Cheibub, Jose Antonio, and Limongi, Fernando. 2000. Democracy and Development: Poltical Institutions and Well-being in the World, 1950–1990. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ratkiewicz, J., Menczer, F., Fortunato, S., Flammini, A., and Vespignani, A.. 2010. Traffic in Social Media II: Modeling Bursty Popularity. In Social Computing, 2010 IEEE Second International Conference. Minneapolis, MN IEEE, 393400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reilly, James. 2012. Strong Society, Smart State: The Rise of Public Opinion in China's Japan Policy. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Rousseeuw, Peter J., and Leroy, Annick. 1987. Robust Regression and Outlier Detection. New York: Wiley.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schurmann, Franz. 1966. Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Shih, Victor. 2008. Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Shirk, Susan. 2007. China: Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Shirk, Susan L. 2011. Changing Media, Changing China. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Teiwes, Frederick. 1979. Politics and Purges in China: Retification and the Decline of Party Norms. Armork, NY: M. E. Sharpe.Google Scholar
Tsai, Kellee. 2007a. Capitalism without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Tsai, Lily. 2007b. Accountability without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Whyte, Martin. 2010. Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Xiao, Qiang. 2011. The Rise of Online Public Opinion and Its Political Impact. In Changing Media, Changing China, ed. Shirk, Susan. New York: Oxford University Press, 202–24.Google Scholar
Yang, Guobin. 2009. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Zhang, Liang, Nathan, Andrew, Link, Perry, and Schell, Orville. 2002. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: Public Affairs.Google Scholar