A censorship worker dubbed Blowfish Princess (河豚公主) from a major Chinese social media platform has recently revealed details of her everyday work in an interview with prominent Twitter whistle-blower Teacher Li on YouTube. Below is an English excerpt of the interview published on Global Voices with Teacher Li’s permission.
Teacher Li (TL): What was your daily routine as a platform censor?
Blowfish Princess (BP): I have two major tasks: compiling online opinions for platform operators and reviewing content like working in an assembly line. The amount of content is massive, involving images and texts.
TL: How do you collect online opinions?
BP: We mainly gather China-related news from overseas media outlets, such as reports from BBC and posts from anti-Chinese dissidents from X [formerly Twitter] about protests and negative news like the chained woman and last year’s protest at Sitong Bridge.
The censor worker further explained that they would circumvent China's Great Firewall to find related information on the subject they were focusing on. Then, they compile the content into a document and send it to a group of platform administrators so that they can filter the related information. The platforms are fined if any user mobilizes a protest through their social media and communication tools. Related authorities may even summon the platform operator with threats over its operation license when a major incident occurs.
TL: What about images and videos?
河豚公主: 是这样的，比如说有一张图，他画的是领导人，然后这种图片我们就会下载好，然后打包好做一个入库的，配合平台的算法就是入库掉，然后这张原图就是传不上…先机器审核，然后发现一些问题, 人工加来看这些机器审核出来的
BP: Let’s say we spot an image of a [Chinese political] leader, we would download it and save it in a database. Then, the AI would block the image from uploading to the platform. The AI does the first round of censoring, and when it fails, humans step in.
TL: So the censor team has to work around the clock? And exactly how many items do you have to censor per working day? Also what is the censored content about?
BP: Yes, we work in three shifts around the clock to review commentaries and images. We have a quota. For images, we have to check more than 12,000 items in one shift… most censored images are pornographic. Embedded advertisements are not allowed. Political content is less as they are primarily text-based.
TL: Are there rules that tell you what should be censored, or is the judgment subjective?
河豚公主: 是有一个专门规则，但是我认为的违法就是对中国政府不利的一些作品、评论这些肯定是要被删除掉的[…] 影射的的话，它有一些关键词也是被机審给删除掉了，比如说包子这两个字就是敏感詞，其他的一些是主观去审核。
BP: There are written rules. But in general, commentaries and content that are against the Chinese government’s interests are considered illegal and must be deleted. As for homonyms and mockeries, some sensitive terms, such as Baozi (which means “Bun”, a nickname for Xi Jinping), are already filtered away. The remaining ones are reviewed subjectively.
Blowfish Princess explained that Chinese President Xi Jinping is the most sensitive topic. Any nickname, homonym, or cartoon (such as Winnie the Pooh) depicting Xi in a negative light would be blocked, and the user's account would be banned. Within the censor team, Xi is referred to as Leader Number 1; other leaders are usually mentioned according to their titles.
TL: You need to learn a lot to do the job. After being exposed to so much political dissent, how would you describe the political orientation of your colleagues?
河豚公主: 怎么说呢，就是境外反贼，他们所有的东西我们就是要看嘛，然后各种谐音感要知道一些… 我觉得我认识的同事，他们一般不喜欢这个工作，然后就是政治立场，绝对不会支持删除…我的话怎么说呢？就比如说去年疫情疫情，我自己被困在家中，然后还要立场上政政府的清零政策只能说好，封得對封得好这样子，然后实际上我自自己被封在家中，连大门都出不去…我觉得这个工作一点都不好，就是很黑暗很黑暗…或许我很快会换工作，就是离开这个巡察言论的工作
BP: Indeed, we need to read information circulating among overseas dissidents, and we need to know what the homonyms and coded terms are. Among my colleagues, I don’t think they liked the job, and they disagreed with such kind of censorship practice.
Let me put it this way: I was trapped at home during the pandemic last year, but I was supporting the government’s zero-COVID policy and lockdown while I couldn’t even step out of my door… The work was evil, very dark… it's very likely I will change my job soon, and give up this censorship work.
TL: What administrative power do you hold when performing your work?
BP: I hold the power to delete content. If the user account publishes content which is related to politics, leaders, anti-CCP, independence movement, or the June 4 incident, I can delete the user account…
Teacher Li: Would you receive censorship instructions from the Cyberspace Administration? How frequently are these instructions handed down to the workers? And what is the nature of these instructions?
河豚公主: 会的, 网信办会发通知，他让我们做什么就做什么，他会发一些像样本图文或者视频的内容，讓我们看一下… 是二十四小时不定时，他会下发给你…就比如说你早上九点发了，然后他可能下午五点才发，然后六点六点七点又发，连续要发好几条…内容比如说強拆，然后爛尾楼的業主去抗议，然后警察暴力执法… 还有他就会发一张境外媒体的新闻稿，然后說他唱衰中的经济，这种这种也不可以… 还有是领导人的负面新闻
BP: Yes, we receive notifications from the Cyberspace Administration and follow whatever they tell us to do. The notifications usually urge us to keep an eye on listed images, videos or textual contents… The notifications are handed down around the clock without a specific time frame… For example, sometimes you receive one at 9 a.m. The next one comes at 5 p.m., then 6 p.m., 7 p.m. or so… The content usually is about forced demolition or protests such as against unfinished construction by property owners or police violence… sometimes they would send an overseas news report with a comment, such as it spread negative view on China’s economy, all these have to be censored… of course, negative news about leaders is forbidden.
TL: Can you describe some of your busiest moments?
河豚公主: 疫情的时候还是蛮忙的，就是有各种疫情，各种冲塔的言论，然后指责防疫政策这种。四通桥的时候也是蛮忙的，白紙运动要抓紧抓紧时间找嘛… 找找看有没有什么谐音或者是变体之类, 有的话就是要封號…通过就是后台的系统搜关键词…然后他们的所有的用户发言，它都会有显示，包括私信内容… 在平台上都是全面拦截, 账号的话一般来说都是封禁的
BP: We were pretty busy during the pandemic as critical views were circulating regarding the pandemic policy. Sitong Bridge protest was another busy moment, as well as the White Paper Protest as we needed to keep searching if there were any homonyms or coded expressions about these incidents. Once we found one, we imposed a complete ban on the user account… we also used the backdoor search system to look for key terms… any user who mentioned these key terms, even if they mentioned them in a private chat, they were all listed in the system. When a key term was identified, it would be blocked in the platform, and the user account would be banned.
TL: Do you have any advice for internet users in China?
河豚公主: 我觉得就平常聊天话基本审查是不会管的，但是如果你提及政治上面的东西，比如说你指责共产党哪个政策不好，或者是你是業主你指責爛尾樓，你说你要去抗议之类的，那们这种的话就是会被拦截，甚至私信内容我们也能看到，也是会拦截的，然后严重的话就是封号了，封你半个月，一般是只有涉及政治的话才会永久，就是侮辱领导人这种，其他的话就是处罚都比较轻，然后在平台发言需要緊慎吧… 反正的话，就是只能说好，可能有不好，只能说做的对，做的好，我们支持这样子。
BP: The censor would not intervene in daily conversation, but once you mention something political, like criticising the party policy or as a property owner you criticize unfinished construction and tell others that you would protest, the related content would be blocked even if they are private conversation. More serious violations would lead to account suspension, such as for 15 days. A complete ban of a user account would occur in highly political cases such as insulting the leaders. Otherwise, the sanctions would be lighter. You must be careful when talking on social media and communication platforms… which means you must be positive. Even if things are not good, you have to say yes and be supportive.
TL: Anything you want to say before ending this interview?
BP: I wish this censorship system would be abandoned soon. I hate this sector, it's so painful working here. But I can’t shift to another sector right now, that’s why I keep on learning whenever I have free time so that I can leave this hell… I am not condemning anyone; I just hope that people can have a bit more open environment for free expression. The current system is way too much.