Feb 18, 2013 · 4 minutes

Proving that they aren’t shy about clamping down on unwanted social media content, China’s censors blocked the Sina and Tencent Weibo accounts of Kaifu Lee, one of the Chinese Internet’s most prominent figures, over the weekend. At the same time, a fledgling Chinese-language tech blog was censored for apparently the same reason: criticizing the leadership of Jike, a two-year-old search engine launched by Community Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. Both Lee and the blog have since turned to US-based publishing platforms to make their voices heard.

Lee, former head of Google China and the founder of VC-firm and incubator Innovation Works, has 30 million followers on Sina Weibo, but that didn’t stop the authorities making an example of him in the wake of recent critiques of Jike that he posted to his account.

According to the tech blog Huxiu, Lee had suggested government money was being misspent on the search engine, which is a total non-force in search, given the dominance of Baidu, which claims more than 70 percent market share, and Qihoo, a distant second, with less than 10 percent market share. Lee also questioned the Party’s decision to appoint Deng Yaping, a former Olympic table tennis champion, as CEO of Jike. The criticisms followed widely circulated rumors that Jike was about to lay off a quarter of its staff of 400, which the company has strongly denied. (That last link leads to Global Times, which is the English counterpart of People’s Daily and is also a government mouthpiece.)

While Lee is a well-connected and influential investor, his comments might just have been a bridge too far for the censors, especially given Lee’s similar previous criticisms of the government. According to Bloomberg, Lee has recently published complaints about China’s restrictive Internet controls, China’s Internet infrastructure, and a censorship dispute involving the Southern Weekly newspaper.

Lee’s criticisms are not out of line with similar remarks made by other prominent voices on Weibo, such as Han Han, but he does present himself as more of a target for attention from the authorities because he is a Taiwan-born American citizen. It may be the case that the Party finds it more difficult to stomach criticism from someone it views as essentially an outsider – especially one with so much apparent clout.

More concerningly, however, this latest case of censorship speaks to frustrations about the government’s willingness to keep cracking down hard on dissent on social networks. As the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos expressed to PandoDaily in an interview last year, there was some hope that Weibo could free up political discourse in China and allow for more dissent. Lee has been at the forefront of Weibo-inspired optimism, even going so far to write a book called “Weibo Changes Everything.”

To get around the temporary ban (his Weibo account now appears to be active again), Lee took to Twitter, where he has almost 1 million followers. He didn’t post any more criticisms of Jike, but this morning he did Tweet a link to a Bloomberg story about the censorship.

Meanwhile, in a bold move, young tech blog Huxiu has reported in English how it was censored by the government in relation to the Jike story. Posting to its infrequently updated Tumblr site, Huxiu reported that a February 16 article critical of Deng and Jike that it published on its Chinese-language site has since been taken down at the request of censors. The anonymous article was apparently responsible for starting the rumors about the layoffs and management’s alleged dissatisfaction with Deng in the first place.

“In the noon of February 17, 2013, Huxiu.com received mail from the relevant departments that request us to delete the Jike Search article reports,” read Huxiu’s post. It also found that all other versions of the story re-published or shared by other sites had vanished from the Internet. The same afternoon, Huxiu published an article that analyzed Jike’s gains and losses under Deng, but the site was forced to remove that too.

It is unusual for any Chinese publication to disclose the conditions under which it was asked to censor content. Unlike other countries in which Internet users are told why certain sites are being blocked, China’s censorship apparatus is opaque. A Harvard study about censorship in China has noted that some of the information most likely to be censored is anything that discusses the censors themselves.

Huxiu seems to have found a way around that problem by publishing in English on a US-based site, just as Lee turned to an American platform, Twitter, when his Chinese social voice was throttled. While these moves might help get their stories out to an international audience, however, they may ultimately prove to be of little consequence. China’s government and the vast majority of its Internet users are very domestically focused. For many of them, if it didn’t happen in Chinese and in China, it might as well not have happened.

[Image by IssacMao]