Skip to main content Accessibility help

How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression



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.


Corresponding author

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 (


Hide All
Ada, Sean, Farrell, Henry, Lync, Marc, Sides, John, and Freelon, Deen. 2012. “Blogs and Bullets: New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring.”
Ash, Timothy Garton. 2002. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bamman, D., O'Connor, B., and Smith, N.. 2012. “Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media.” First Monday 17: 35.
Bellin, Eva. 2012. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring.” Comparative Politics 44 (2): 127–49.
Blecher, Marc. 2002. “Hegemony and Workers’ Politics in China.” The China Quarterly 170: 283303.
Branigan, Tania. 2012. “Chinese politician Bo Xilai's wife suspected of murdering Neil Heywood.” The Guardian April 10.
Cai, Yongshun. 2002. “Resistance of Chinese Laid-off Workers in the Reform Period.” The China Quarterly 170: 327–44.
Chang, Parris. 1983. Elite Conflict in the Post-Mao China. New York: Occasional Papers Reprints.
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.
Chen, Feng. 2000. “Subsistence Crises, Managerial Corruption and Labour Protests in China.” The China Journal 44: 4163.
Chen, Xi. 2012. Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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.
Crosas, Merce, Grimmer, Justin, King, Gary, Stewart, Brandon, and the Consilience Development Team. 2012. “Consilience: Software for Understanding Large Volumes of Unstructured Text.”
Dimitrov, Martin. 2008. “The Resilient Authoritarians.” Current History 107 (705): 24–9.
Duan, Qing. 2007. China's IT Leadership. Vdm Verlag Saarbrücken, Germany.
Economy, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Bigger Issues Behind China's Bo Xilai Scandal.” The Atlantic April 11.
Edin, Maria. 2003. “State Capacity and Local agent Control in China: CPP Cadre Management from a Township Perspective.” China Quarterly 173 (March): 3552.
Edmond, Chris. 2012. “Information, Manipulation, Coordination, and Regime Change.”
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.
Esarey, Ashley, and Xiao, Qiang. 2008. “Political Expression in the Chinese Blogosphere: Below the Radar.” Asian Survey 48 (5): 752–72.
Esarey, Ashley, and Xiao, Qiang. 2011. “Digital Communication and Political Change in China.” International Journal of Communication 5: 298C319.
Freedom House. 2012. “Freedom of the Press, 2012.”
Grimmer, Justin, and King, Gary. 2011. “General purpose computer-assisted clustering and conceptualization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (7): 2643–50.
Guo, Gang. 2009. “China's Local Political Budget Cycles.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (3): 621–32.
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.
Hinton, Harold. 1955. The “Unprincipled Dispute” Within Chinese Communist Top Leadership. Washington, DC: U.S. Information Agency.
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.
Huber, Peter J. 1964. “Robust Estimation of a Location Parameter.” Annals of Mathematical Statistics 35: 73101.
King, Gary, and Zeng, Langche. 2001. “Logistic Regression in Rare Events Data.” Political Analysis 9 (2, Spring): 137–63.
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.
Kuran, Timur. 1989. “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution.” Public Choice 61 (1): 4174.
Lee, Ching-Kwan. 2007. Against the Law: Labor Protests in China's Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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.
Lohmann, Susanne. 1994. “The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989–1991.” World Politics 47 (1): 42101.
Lohmann, Susanne. 2002. “Collective Action Cascades: An Informational Rationale for the Power in Numbers.” Journal of Economic Surveys 14 (5): 654–84.
Lorentzen, Peter. 2010. “Regularizing Rioting: Permitting Protest in an Authoritarian Regime.” Working Paper.
Lorentzen, Peter. 2012. “Strategic Censorship.” SSRN.
MacFarquhar, Roderick. 1974. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution Volume 1: Contradictions Among the People 1956–1957. New York: Columbia University Press.
MacFarquhar, Roderick. 1983. The Origins of the Cultural Revolution Volume 2: The Great Leap Forward 1958–1960. New York: Columbia University Press.
MacKinnon, Rebecca. 2012. Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. New York: Basic Books.
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.
Nathan, Andrew. 2003. “Authoritarian Resilience.” Journal of Democracy 14 (1): 617.
O'Brien, Kevin, and Li, Lianjiang. 2006. Rightful Resistance in Rural China. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Perry, Elizabeth. 2002. Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China. Armork, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reilly, James. 2012. Strong Society, Smart State: The Rise of Public Opinion in China's Japan Policy. New York: Columbia University Press.
Rousseeuw, Peter J., and Leroy, Annick. 1987. Robust Regression and Outlier Detection. New York: Wiley.
Schurmann, Franz. 1966. Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Shih, Victor. 2008. Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shirk, Susan. 2007. China: Fragile Superpower: How China's Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shirk, Susan L. 2011. Changing Media, Changing China. New York: Oxford University Press.
Teiwes, Frederick. 1979. Politics and Purges in China: Retification and the Decline of Party Norms. Armork, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Tsai, Kellee. 2007a. Capitalism without Democracy: The Private Sector in Contemporary China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Tsai, Lily. 2007b. Accountability without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whyte, Martin. 2010. Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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.
Yang, Guobin. 2009. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York: Columbia University Press.
Zhang, Liang, Nathan, Andrew, Link, Perry, and Schell, Orville. 2002. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: Public Affairs.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed