How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Collective Expression

37 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2012 Last revised: 13 Jul 2014

See all articles by Gary King

Gary King

Harvard University

Jennifer Pan

Stanford University

Molly Roberts

Harvard University

Date Written: 2012


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 large subset they deem objectionable. Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 95 issue 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 collection 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, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet.

Keywords: China, censorship, collective action, social media

Suggested Citation

King, Gary and Pan, Jennifer and Roberts, Molly, How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism But Silences Collective Expression (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Gary King (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1737 Cambridge St.
Institute for Quantitative Social Science
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-500-7570 (Phone)


Jennifer Pan

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Molly Roberts

Harvard University ( email )

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