Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun's social media accounts in China were deleted on Wednesday amid growing tension between the two countries over a territorial dispute.
Until Wednesday's move by the censors, Japan's second-largest newspaper had a following of 1.3 million people on Chinese microblogging platforms, making it the most popular foreign media outlet in China. Its posts on Sina Weibo were shared 191 times on average, according to a report by China Newsweek in February.
It is unclear what triggered deletion of the accounts on the Sina, Tencent, Sohu and Netease microblogging platforms. The newspaper said in a statement on Thursday that it had not received a reply from the microblog operating companies about the incident.
A former social media editor for Asahi, who uses the pseudonym Wangzuo Zhongyou, wrote in a microblog post that the accounts were taken down because of "instructions from above".
"Give me back Asahi-kun!" many, among the thousands who commented on the deletions, wrote on Sina Weibo. Some posted icons of candles to commemorate its disappearance.
The Asahi Shimbun has become one of the most popular media outlets on Chinese social media by outsmarting censors with clever wordplays, earning the honorific title Asahi-kun, or Master Asahi, among Chinese netizens.
When thousands of Chinese took to the streets of major cities on a hot Sunday in August last year, the Japanese paper posted the three Chinese characters for "Sunday". Each of the two sun symbols in the word displayed small crosses, making them look like graves.
Since 2012, China's relations with Japan have deteriorated over increasingly bellicose rhetoric in the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The newspaper is known for its conciliatory stance in the dispute.
In another memorable post, the paper posted the character "gu", the Chinese character for lonely, upon news that disgraced Communist Party leader Bo Xilai was expelled from the Politburo broke in September last year.
The character is composed of the symbols for son and melon, the latter part giving the word its pronunciation as "gu". The post was a veiled reference to Bo's son, Bo Guagua. With searches on Bo Xilai blocked and comments mostly censorsed, netizens jumped on the wordplay and shared it hundreds of times.
The Asahi Shimbun started producing Chinese-language content in 2010 with an e-magazine. The paper opened its Sina Weibo account in March 2011, when Japan was hit by the Fukushima earthquake, posting updates from the disaster zone.