Have you heard of Cockney rhyming slang? In the mid-1800s, residents of parts of London – often the shadier parts -- would replace words with rhymes. Head, for example, could be replaced by "loaf of bread" -- which would then be shortened to just "loaf."
In China, a similar process is happening now on the Internet, with politically-charged phrases replaced by puns, sound-alike terms, and rhymes in order to circumvent online censorship.
For example, the Chinese shorthand for the party congress, held in November, is "shiba da." When this was censored, bloggers switched to using the English rhyming word "Sparta." That was censored as well.
But a recent Harvard University research paper, which looked at around 3.7 million posts from 1,400 social media outlets in 2011, found thousands of posts about sensitive topics like Tiananmen Square, the one-child policy, and corrupt local officials.
According to the researchers, less than 20 percent of posts about the one-child policy, corruption, or rising food prices were censored.
Some hot-button topics, however, received a lot more attention from government eyes: Around 80 percent of posts about dissident artist Ai Weiwei were censored, around 60 percent of posts about bombings in Fuzhou, and around 90 percent of posts about protests in Inner Mongolia.
According to the authors, China's censors focus their attention on topics that could lead to mass protests, political strife, or anti-government popular movements.
Meanwhile, even at censorship rates of 90 percent, it means that 10 percent of those sensitive posts are getting through -- and with large numbers of people reposting and forwarding these reports, news can spread quickly despite all government attempts to control it.
For example, in October, The New York Times ran a story on how the relatives of the prime minister of China were very rich -- to the tune of $2.7 billion rich.
The prime minister's mother, for example, who was born in abject poverty, had $120 million in the bank. It was a big, embarrassing story -- and was immediately blocked in China. But not before China's social media users and bloggers got wind of it, and went to town. The information spread across the country in minutes, even as censors scurried to keep up.
The thing is, it's really simple to convey information while avoiding key words. "You know that guy who runs everything? Him? His mother is now sooo rich..." Do you censor "guy"? "Mother"? The censors actually have to read everything.
To censor effectively, you'd need a censor per person, reading everything they write, and looking for hidden meanings.
So it makes sense that the censors prioritize, and focus on the stuff that's likely to cause the most turmoil or embarrassment.
But I'm seeing a great deal of progress here. Sure, the government censors posts, slows down connections, shuts down the virtual private networks used to bypass the censors, and blocks websites.
Foreign sites like Twitter and Facebook are regularly taken down, and the local equivalents are forced to hire their own censors and monitor their users in order to stay in business.
But the millions of people who are speaking up aren't suffering any consequences more severe than having their searches redirected or their posts erased.
It's giving rise to a generation of Chinese citizens who are not afraid to speak up.
It's time for Chinese authorities to get in step with other major governments, corporations, and organizations by getting rid of the censors and instead hiring public relations and communications experts. It's time to learn how to guide, inform, and manipulate public opinion the way the rest of the world does it. Trying to directly battle the free flow of information just doesn't work anymore.
— Maria Korolov is president of Trombly International, an editorial services company that provides coverage of emerging technologies and markets. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years.