China appears to be loosening its well-known vice-like grip on what can and cannot be said on Weibo (its version of Twitter), but don't be fooled — it's not easing up on censorship.
A team of researchers from Hong Kong, Sweden and the U.S. have found that the Communist Party seems to be deleting far fewer posts that it used to find objectionable.
Weibo is by far China's most popular microblogging platform, and has some 297 million monthly active users.
The researchers published a paper detailing their analysis of 13.2 billion blog posts on Weibo over a five year period, from 2009 to 2013.
They found that millions of posts containing sensitive content were allowed through the gates. Much of Weibo is censored by machines and by hand, and in the past, posts talking about official corruption or political uprisings would have been deleted.
"Weibo may be used to organise or at least coordinate (protests)."
But the researchers found over 5 million posts accusing officials of corruption. Over 300,000 posts talked about riots and other social conflict, and 2.5 million posts related to protests and strikes.
Some of these posts were made during or even before the events occurred.
"The fact that people begin discussing events before they happen indicates that Sina Weibo may be used to organise or at least coordinate collective action events," the paper says, adding that users who posted about these were less likely to be banned or muted.
As a result, people may have been lulled into a false sense of security. Many of the users posting about these topics did not attempt to hide their identities by opening new or throwaway accounts.
Social media as a tool for monitoring
But people thinking a semblance of freedom creeping into Weibo may be misled. Allowing people to talk about corruption may be a way for the central government to keep a closer eye on local officials, the paper's authors say.
Weibo is censored at a national level, and provincial officials can't influence what content gets scrubbed.
"A complete cleanup of sensitive content can impair the regime's ability to learn from bottom up information and to address social problems before they become threatening," says the report.
"Social media in China is likely to increase the power of the central government at the expense of local governments."
In 2013, the Chinese government passed laws meting out tough punishments like jail time for online rumour spreading.