Censorship on one of China’s biggest social networking sites reached its highest level since November on Sunday, as the Communist Party proposed removing presidential term limits, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Weiboscope project.

After the official Xinhua news agency announced a list of proposed constitutional amendments, the watchdog tool recorded a spike in censorship with 24.9 messages deleted out of every 10,000 posts on monitored accounts. Weiboscope monitors over 120,000 Sina Weibo accounts for censored content.

Fu King-wa, the head of the project, told HKFP that the ratio of deleted posts on the microblogging platform spiked on Sunday afternoon, after the news broke. The level almost reached the 27.7 post average during the forced Beijing migrant worker evictions and the kindergarten child abuse scandal last November.

weiboscope feb 25
Photo: Weiboscope.

The ratio of censored posts had dropped again by the next day as many of the monitored accounts – many of whom were usually quite outspoken – were temporarily suspended by Weibo. Users were also blocked from posting a range of sensitive keywords, according to Fu.

Fu said that different internet platforms appeared to be each using their own methods to censor posts related to the constitutional change, rather than following top-down orders to block the same set of keywords.

According to China Digital Times, a string of keywords were blocked from being posted on Weibo as of Tuesday, including “the wheel of history,” “ascend the throne” and “Yuan Shikai,” who became the first president of the newly-formed Republic of China in 1912 and is known for attempting to declare himself emperor.

The letter “N” was also censored briefly on Weibo, according to CDT.

But according to Weiboscope, a post about Yuan Shikai was posted shortly before 8am on Wednesday, but was deleted about an hour later after it was re-shared by Chow Po-chung, a Hong Kong philosophy professor who is followed almost 200,000 Weibo users.

The content was a “today in history” post on how Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor on December 11, 1915: “The results of that day’s ballot count showed that, out of all 1993 of the provincial people’s representatives, there were exactly 1993 that supported the constitutional monarchy, without one vote against… several months later, Yuan Shikai was forced to announce the abolishment of the monarchy,” the post said.

Fu said though it was merely a history post, “everyone can see that posting it at this time is a metaphor about current events, so perhaps the monitors saw this, interpreted that it was referring to something else and took action.”

“It appears as though a lot of human inspection was used to conduct this censorship, including [censoring] so-called KOL [Key Opinion Leaders] who are followed by many.”

Non-profit organisation GreatFire.org, which monitors blocked websites and keywords in China, said it saw an increase in users to its app, which lets people circumvent censorship.

The proposed changes to the constitution will be submitted to the annual full session of the National People’s Congress – China’s rubber-stamp legislature – in March.

President Xi Jinping is expected to be handed a second term in office during the session and, if the proposed changes are made, he could stay on as leader indefinitely.

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Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.