China's Social Media Censors Are Working Overtime To Block Panama Papers Discussion

The president's brother-in-law was named in the massive leak.

It's been a really tough day for China's internet censors. The "sensitive word" they have been trying to block since midnight Sunday is "Panama," or "巴拿马," the Chinese characters of the central American country's name.


The Panama Papers, a massive cache of documents that reportedly detail the offshore wealth of the global elite — including family members of eight current or former members of China's Politburo — was dropped Sunday, at a bad time for China's government. Monday is Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, a national holiday in China when most people take a day off. That includes many, if not all, of the internet censors.

BuzzFeed News was able to capture some of the early discussions on the Panama Papers that were posted to the web before the censors got to work. Take this post that has already been deleted:

People knew that mentioning certain Chinese names in the report would alert censors, one user vaguely addressed it as "former and current country heads, including Putin, are involved in money-laundry overseas." The user, a freelance writer based in the U.S., urged others to "look for the highlights yourself" and attached links to report Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German paper, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Other users quickly caught on and posted relevant phrases from the report to help people follow along. "Shhhh, you guys feel this," one wrote.

"I think I saw (the name of) the current emperor, why I'm not surprised at all," user "Sad Blue" wrote, referring satirically to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, is reported to have offshore assets.

Deng reportedly, according to ICIJ, set up two British Virgin Islands companies in 2009, when Xi was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee but was not yet president. Also, a 2012 Bloomberg report found Deng and his wife Qi Qiaoqiao, elder sister of Xi, owned hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate, shares, and other assets.

The initial reaction to the reports in Chinese media and on social media was muted because most people were away from their phones or computers paying tribute to their ancestors. It was, however, making the rounds in Western media.

Just as this early Weibo post — now deleted — pointed out, "#PanamaDocument Today it's everywhere on Reddit, the storm is coming ~ yet there's no Chinese media report on this, oh, maybe (they) dare not to report."

Word spread faster than the censors arrived, and the first hashtag drew hundreds of thousands of views — then millions — just in a few hours. Almost everyone has shared the news in WeChat, but the links to the stories were later broken.


It's a tricky task for the Chinese censors. Wiping out non-Chinese language discussions is easier and attracts less attention. But blocking the name of a country in Chinese characters is very obvious and attracts a lot of attention to the scandal.

"In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for 'Panama' have not been displayed," read the search page on Sina Weibo.

Instead the censors delete posts manually — which means some users are experiencing the censorship firsthand. Countless people typing out the banned word to see if their message is removed. "#Panama I'll see if it'll get deleted," one user wrote.


Others marking their location as Panama when they "checked in" on Weibo — without mentioning the leaked document. "#Panama test to see if it'll be censored," user Samzher wrote.


"Suddenly, so many people have been to #Panama," Weibo user Ding Yihan joked.


Volunteer censors — commonly known as Fifty Cent Party — also help out. "I enjoy watching the way you celebrate this. It's imperialistic Americans' conspiracy — how can they be absent when others all corrupt? Not fair..." one wrote.

Although it's not illegal to have offshore assets, members of the Chinese leadership do not like publicity about their reported wealth, especially amid the massive corruption campaign.

Jason Lee / Reuters

In 2012, the visas of several journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg were denied after the media companies published investigative reports on the wealth of Xi Jinping and former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's family members.

In 2014, a joint investigation by the ICIJ and the Center for Public Integrity also reported on offshore accounts of Deng; Xi's brother-in-law; and Li Xiaolin, the daughter of former Premier Li Peng. A Chinese government spokesperson called the report "hardly convincing" and the government blocked it.