Chow Po-chungs sixth Weibo account was killed on August 11, one day after he posted a photo of Hong Kong’s Lion Rock with the caption: “Hong Kong, my home.”

Chow, a political philosophy professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had anticipated this. A few weeks earlier, China had enacted a broad and vaguely worded national security law in Hong Kong, which criminalizes pro-independence sentiments, and anything else that authorities interpret as “splittist” or damaging to China’s sovereignty. 

Lion Rock, a mountain overlooking central Hong Kong, has become a symbol of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Within hours of Chow’s post, the comment section beneath it was flooded with nationalistic comments and personal attacks. He estimated hundreds of users reported him to Weibo for “trying to divide China,” and his account was deleted.

Nearly 550 million people — more than 60% of China’s internet users — have an account on Weibo, a microblogging platform owned by the Beijing-based Sina Corporation. Since its launch in 2009, the platform evolved into a rare space for public discussion in China, crucial for disseminating information, shaping political discussion, and generating grassroots campaigns, until heavy censorship kicked in two years later.

Chow opened his first account in 2011. He shared the joy of becoming a new father, photos with students, his teaching notes, his essays, and his experience partaking in social movements. He also facilitated and participated in ideological and philosophical debates with young Weibo users. He amassed 180,000 followers before being censored in June 2018. Five of his accounts have since been deleted, some due to posts about the protests, others for no obvious reason. 

“I considered every message I posted as my last one,” Chow says. 

While Weibo has always censored accounts, as Chinese authorities have stepped up their crackdown on freedom of speech and tightened their grip over all aspects of Chinese life in recent years, political discussions on the platform have become even more muted. Due to pervasive censorship and self-censorship, conversations on Weibo are even more cautious. Zhahao, or “account bombing,” where accounts voicing dissenting opinions get censored, have become more common. Ultranationalistic and chauvinist narratives now drown out critical posts, making it harder for users to speak their minds.

Chinese authorities give social media platforms general guidance about what topics and users to monitor or censor, leaving Weibo to decide which keywords and accounts to block. 

Even if regulators have their eyes on a specific message or account, they still need the service provider to actually delete the content, according to Fu King-wa, a journalism professor at The University of Hong Kong. State censorship began to intensify in 2011, when social media debates on controversial environmental, social, and cultural issues started to spill over to offline grassroots protests and campaigns, Fu says. This included dozens of ordinary people challenging China’s election system by campaigning as independent candidates on Weibo, and users addressing the controversy around the Red Cross Society of China, which erupted after a young senior official at the government-run charity posted photos on Weibo of her lavish lifestyle. 

Fu says it’s not clear if censorship has stepped up again in recent years, as he doesn’t have figures to compare early censorship to what’s happening now, but he suggests that years of censorship have intimidated users into silence. 

According to the Weiboscope tracker, which Fu runs at Hong Kong University, nearly 2% of 54,490 random user accounts tracked in 2015 no longer existed by 2020. Fu believes most of the lost accounts were deleted by Weibo. This is a rough estimate, as some accounts may have been reactivated since they were deleted, or deleted by users.

“By the end of 2019, the discussion on Weibo was really dominated by discourse and narratives created by state media,” Fu says. “Finding alternative discussion on issues like the Hong Kong protest was very difficult, unless you followed the less popular accounts.”

A more alarming trend, Fu says, is that nationalistic users are now mobilizing hundreds or thousands of people to report on people with political views they oppose and thus pressure Weibo to “kill” their accounts. According to Chow, this tactic is reminiscent of Cultural Revolution–style purging of political rivals. When enough people report on the same account, there is little doubt that censors will delete it. 

Shutting down accounts intimidates users into self-censorship. Weibo still serves as a critical venue for public discussion: 2020 has brought an increasing usage of the site, Fu notes, because more Chinese took to Weibo to voice their grievances, frustration, and discontent amid the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. But when users fear they will lose their accounts, they no longer speak as freely.

Weibo users who spoke to Rest of World all noticed a trend of increasing censorship over the past few years. Accounts have been removed after mentioning politically sensitive topics, such as the protests in Hong Kong, China’s human rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang, Covid-19, and top political leaders. 

When she became active on Weibo in early 2018, Lao Yang, whose nickname is roughly translated as “Old Yang,” fiercely advocated for gender equality and human rights to her 50,000 followers. “I enjoyed just shifting the conversation a little bit more toward the uncomfortable. I enjoyed being the asshole in the room,” Yang says.

Her account was deleted last summer after she signaled support for the Hong Kong protests. When she started a new account, a self-proclaimed Weibo staff member reached out and advised her to lay low for a while as she’d already popped onto the radar of the Cyberspace Administration, China’s central internet censor. They told her that whenever she posted sensitive words, primarily in relation to Hong Kong, authorities at the Cyberspace Administration received an algorithmic notice. 

“As long as you keep your account,” reads a message from the Weibo worker that was reviewed by Rest of World, “you can keep your advocacy going.”

Yang followed the advice. She went back to advocacy after a few months, but her account was finally “bombed” on New Year’s Day. Whenever she tries to start a new one, it is deleted within 24 hours. And mainland Weibo users can face severe consequences beyond censorship. If their real identity is revealed, nationalist Weibo users may report them to their employers. 

In 2013, China instituted a law stating that, if one user’s post is considered defamatory and is viewed 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times, the original poster can face a jail sentence.

Zhahao attacks can also be very disturbing for their victims. “The first bombing dealt a big blow to me,” Chow says. “This was an attack on your life, your memory, your social network, and your identity as a whole.”

Weibo has required real-name verification upon registration since 2017, linking accounts to people’s official ID or phone number. But users who have been kicked off have been able to get back on using burner accounts from underground online shops.

It’s unclear how such shops set up bot accounts — none of those contacted would talk with a journalist. The cost of a burner account ranges from 0.5 yuan (7 cents) to 240 yuan ($35). The account sellers operate in a legal gray zone, catering mainly to accounts looking to boost their profiles. Authorities have been cracking down on such shops in recent years. In 2018, China’s central internet regulator launched a campaign to remove users who obtained burner accounts after being banned on social media platforms.

Wu Xianwei turned to buying burners after her first two accounts were removed. Wu, who grew up in Shanghai but is a Canadian citizen, recently completed her Ph.D. in communications at the University of Iowa. Her first account was censored in March 2018, after China scrapped presidential term limits, allowing current president Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely. Wu reposted a statement that read: “I disagree.” The following day, all the accounts that she knew reposted it had disappeared.

Her spare account, also listed under a pseudonym, was active for only two months until she shared a satirical picture mocking Xi and Kim Jong Un. 

Wu bought 20 burner accounts for 10 yuan ($1.50) in 2018 and went through every single one of them within a year. Since then, getting ahold of burners has become more difficult. When Wu went back to the same shop for more last year, she found that it no longer existed. Many others have also shut down. 

In 2019, Wu says, about 100 of her Weibo friends also lost their accounts. Most of them were highly educated liberals, and they formed a WeChat group to stay in touch. That group, too, has been deleted and re-created. 

Still, Wu has been galvanized by the experience. She keeps reappearing on Weibo just to “piss off” ultranationalistic users. 

Living overseas, Wu is protected from the worst of the consequences of zhahao. For those based in China, or with family in the country, the stakes are much higher than just losing their accounts. One of Wu’s friends was summoned to a police station after posting an image of the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, which is commonly used to mock Xi Jinping due to a perceived likeness between the two.

Some censored Weibo users have switched platforms. Chow and Yang have both moved onto Twitter, but there, their impact and audience are smaller. Around 10,000 of Chow’s followers have come with him to the U.S. platform, which is blocked in China. He says that he’s not given up on trying to get back to Weibo, because he believes he has a responsibility to educate and motivate China’s youth.

“Many young Chinese I have encountered are independent thinkers,” Chow says. “You have to provide as many opportunities as possible to let them engage ideas or help them think, because the qualities and ideas of the next generation will have a direct impact on future political changes in China.”