Was a Japanese newspaper obliterated from Weibo for excessive wordplay?

A computer shows the logo of China’s popular Sina Weibo microblogging service.
A computer shows the logo of China’s popular Sina Weibo microblogging service.
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This week the 1.3 million Chinese online followers of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun woke up to find that instead of news coverage, there were only digital tumbleweeds—Asahi’s website was blocked by China’s Great Firewall and all four of its Chinese-language social media accounts were deleted.

The cause remains a mystery. Asahi has contacted the four microblogging companies, including Sina Weibo and Tencent, but none have responded. Asahi’s former Weibo operator posted a cryptic message on his personal account that only read: “An order from above.”

It’s not surprising that Asahi might have angered China’s censors. It had a reputation for clever wordplay that evaded banned words and topics, earning it the friendly Japanese honorific Asahi-kun among its Chinese audience. The South China Morning Post reports that Asahi gained a reputation (and many fans) in China for adding winking references to its posts by slyly using Chinese characters, which the Japanese language largely shares:

When thousands of Chinese took to the streets of major cities on a hot Sunday in August last year, the Japanese paper posted the three Chinese characters for “Sunday”. Each of the two sun symbols in the word displayed small crosses, making them look like graves.

Tension between China and Japan has been high in recent months after a series of spats over the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputed island chain. Nationalism is on the rise in Japan and China is providing easy ammunition for right-wing anti-Beijingers by exploiting contested gas deposits. Two Chinese newspapers accused Japan on Thursday of dangerous politics over the issue, which they claim threatens regional security.

China has often blocked foreign press outlets that step out of line—a New York Times report about the accumulated wealth of China’s former prime minister led to its website becoming inaccessible last year. A number of other Western outlets, including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, still have active Chinese-language sites and social media presences—at least until they too run afoul of the cyptic and capricious censors.