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Yang questioned the local police force’s conduct after a corpse was found outside a karaoke parlour earlier this month, according to the Jinghua Times, a Beijing newspaper which first reported the case. The police claimed the man died of a head injury after falling from a high place. On 14 September, Yang wrote on his Weibo page that the man had been murdered. Yang suggested a coverup: “The karaoke parlour boss is an employee of the court, and there’s been a conflict between the police and the masses – they beat up the dead man’s family members,” said the post, which briefly went viral and was subsequently deleted. The county court said on its own Weibo page that Yang had “fabricated facts”, and that the parlour boss was actually a court employee’s spouse.

By establishing a methodology for studying soft censorship in China, the researchers say they now have a means for actively monitoring social media censorship as it changes over time. They also may have the means to probe deeper, identifying code words and metaphors used to sidestep censors.