In a modern office building on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Tianjin, rows of censors stare at computer screens. Their mission: delete any post on Sina Weibo, a microblogging site deemed offensive or politically unacceptable.
However, the people behind the censorship of China’s most popular microblogging site are not aging Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatchiks. Instead, they are new college graduates. Ambivalent about deleting posts, they grumble loudly about the workload and pay.
Managing the Internet is a major challenge for China. The ruling CCP sees censorship as key to maintaining its grip on power — indeed, new measures unveiled on Monday last week threaten jail time for spreading rumors online.
At the same time, China wants to give people a way to blow off steam when other forms of political protest are restricted.
Reporters interviewed four former censors at Sina Weibo, who all quit at various times this year. All declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the work they once did. Current censors declined to speak to reporters.
“People are often torn when they start, but later they go numb and just do the job,” said one former censor, who left because he felt the career prospects were poor. “One thing I can tell you is that we are worked very hard and paid very little.”
Sina Corp, one of China’s biggest Internet firms, runs the microblogging site, which has 500 million registered users. It also employs the censors.
The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
‘STRESSFUL, DEAD-END JOB’
Reporters got a glimpse of the Sina Weibo censorship office in Tianjin, half an hour from Beijing by high-speed train, one recent weekend morning.
A dozen employees, all men, could be seen through locked glass doors from a publicly accessible corridor, sitting in cramped cubicles separated by yellow dividers, staring at large monitors.
They more closely resembled Little Brothers than the Orwellian image of an omniscient and fearsome Big Brother.
“Our job prevents Weibo from being shut down and that gives people a big platform to speak from. It’s not an ideally free one, but it still lets people vent,” a second former censor said.
The former censors said the office was staffed 24 hours a day by about 150 male college graduates in total. They said women shunned the work because of the night shifts and constant exposure to offensive material.
The Sina Weibo censors are a small part of the tens of thousands of censors employed in China to control content in traditional media and on the Internet.
Most Sina Weibo censors are in their 20s and earn about 3,000 yuan (US$490) a month, the former censors said, roughly the same as jobs posted in Tianjin for carpenters or staff in real estate firms. Many took the job after graduating from local universities.
“People leave because it is a stressful dead-end job for most of us,” a third former censor said.
Sina’s computer system scans each microblog before they are published. Only a fraction are marked as sensitive and need to be read by a censor, who will decide whether to spare or delete it. Over an average 24-hour period, censors process about 3 million posts.
A small number of posts with so-called “must kill” words such as references to the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong are first blocked and then manually deleted. Censors also have to update lists of sensitive words with new references and creative expressions bloggers use to evade scrutiny.