A social media account run by the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai has mysteriously disappeared from the Internet in China, prompting many to wonder if it is the work of government censors.
The Shanghai consulate's account on Sina Weibo
, a popular Twitter-like microblog service owned by SINA Corporation
, was known for its sometimes witty commentary, often on Chinese political and social issues.
But as of Friday, the consulate's account was still inaccessible, replaced by an error message that reads "temporarily unavailable" -- a message similar to those seen when accounts are deleted by government censors.
Consulate officials say they do not know why the account has been removed and that they are working to find out how the service can be restored.
But Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor of Danwei.com
-- a website about Chinese media and Internet -- calls the incident "almost certainly" more than just a technical glitch.
"This is very common. Sina, sometimes at the request of governments, and sometimes on their own initiative to avoid getting in trouble with the government, shuts down accounts and deletes tweets [posts] -- they do all kinds of censorship," he said. "So almost certainly this is what happened."
It would not be the first dispute between American diplomats and the government of China, which employs a massive team of web censors to remove material deemed objectionable.
Last month, a senior Chinese environmental official slammed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing's Twitter account for regularly posting air quality readings that are much worse than the government's official figures.
According to Goldkorn, Beijing is likely even more displeased with posts that appear in the Chinese language on locally hosted services, such as Weibo. But he says he does not know of any instances of government censors completely shutting down a U.S. government-controlled account.
"They have deleted tweets from the U.S. government's Weibo accounts in the past, so in that sense it's not new," he said. "But I think this may be the first time that they have completely removed or disabled an account, on Weibo at least."
Popular Western social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, forcing the country's estimated 500 million Internet users to more easily controlled versions, such as Sina Weibo.
Beijing defends its online censorship, dubbed the Great Firewall of China, by saying it is aimed at maintaining social stability, preventing the spread of false rumors, and blocking inappropriate material.
Analysts say they expect censors to work even harder to filter out controversial content in the coming months in an attempt to enforce calm as a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in the Communist Party draws closer.
Some information for this report was provided by AP.