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China rushes to erase activist from social media

By Joe McDonald and Didi Tang
Associated Press / May 1, 2012
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BEIJING—A well-known blind activist's escape from house arrest in China has set off a cat-and-mouse conflict on the Internet between censors and netizens.

As word of Chen Guangcheng's flight surfaced and spread last Friday, admirers rushed to popular Chinese social media to cheer him on -- and the censors swung into action to block key phrases.

Here's a look at some of those phrases, which serve as a case study of the Communist government's extensive Web censorship -- and how the public tries to evade the controls:

--CHEN GUANGCHENG: China's most popular microblog site, Sina Weibo, and other services bar searches for Chen's name in Chinese characters and English letters after news emerges Friday of his April 22 escape.

--A BING: Some users start referring to Chen as A Bing, a popular blind folk musician. But censors catch on and by late afternoon Friday, Sina Weibo and other services block that name.

--BLIND MAN: Users refer to Chen, who lost his sight in childhood, as "blind man" or "blind lawyer." After those terms are barred Friday, some users start using a medical term for fat under the heart that looks like the Chinese character for blind.

--DONGSHIGU and LINYI: The names of Chen's home village and the city nearby are blocked on Friday. Some posters start writing the names using different Chinese characters with similar pronunciation.

--C-GUANG-C: Some posters try to evade the censors by using Chen's initials or unusual spellings for his name such as C-Guang-C, but are blocked.

--AMERICAN EMBASSY and CONSULATE: Also blocked on Friday, following reports that Chen is under the protection of U.S. diplomats.

--CHEN KEGUI: On Friday afternoon, bloggers get a break when authorities post a notice online saying Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, is wanted on charges of fighting with police. The notice is widely reposted, sometimes with comments added questioning why he should have attacked police.

--PEARL: Searches for He Peirong, the fellow activist who drove Chen out of his village, are blocked, so users switch to calling He by her nickname, Pearl. Pearl then becomes a banned search term.

--THREE REQUESTS: In a video posted online, Chen made three requests to Premier Wen Jiabao, China's No. 3 leader -- protect the safety of Chen's family, investigate his illegal detention and tackle corruption. The term "three requests" is blocked.

--SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: State television airs the American prison break film "Shawshank Redemption" on Saturday, and some tweet that it was an indirect nod to Chen. "Shawshank Redemption" then becomes a banned search term.

--THE MOLE, THE WOLVES, THE LION: Some users resort to writing parables about "the mole" escaping from the "wolves," or local guards, and calling upon "the lion," or the Communist Party leadership.

--UA898: The United Airlines flight from Beijing to Washington, used in the past by Chinese dissidents going into exile. After speculation surfaces that U.S. and Chinese officials are negotiating a deal for Chen to travel to the U.S., Sina Weibo starts blocking searches for this flight number.

--GREAT ESCAPE: Users avoid censors by referring to Chen's "Great Escape," a phrase also used on Friday and Saturday by Chinese workers ahead of a long weekend for the International Labor Day holiday.

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