Reflections on Ten Years of Covering China from Cyberspace
Ten years ago this month, China Digital Times was born with the publication of this post. Xiao Qiang launched the site, then called China Digital News, as a student project at the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley to track the development of technology in China, back when blogs were brand new and the potential impact of the Internet on Chinese society was just becoming apparent. When CDT was launched, Hu Jintao had just been sworn in as president, Xi Jinping was rising through the ranks of Zhejiang political circles, and Bo Xilai was the up-and-coming governor of Liaoning Province.
In 2003, China had 68 million Internet users, a number that seemed immense at the time but has since grown to 591 million. Weibo did not yet exist but blogs were quickly becoming a game-changing form of communication for China’s growing numbers of netizens, thanks in large part to a young sex blogger named Mu Zimei. Blogs in English about China were few and far between.
Like China, CDT has gone through a number of transformative changes over the past ten years. What started as a small, student blog has gradually expanded into a bilingual news site with contributors around the world. A few key moments in the development of CDT:
- September 12, 2003: CDT launched as China Digital News
- March 2005: CDT relaunches with new name and new design
- 2006: CDT blocked by the Great Firewall
- February 2008: CDT migrated from Movable Type to WordPress, in a massive technological feat by former webmaster Scot Hacker, and launched design 2.0
- 2010: CDT Chinese launched as a platform to aggregate and highlight censored or marginalized content published inside Chinese cyberspace
- December 2011: CDT launched design 3.0
The pace of breaking news in China over the past decade has been dizzying. Many of the stories we covered early on became precursors for larger themes and trends in Chinese society. For example, the first so-called nail house, “China’s most incredible holdout,” raised public awareness of protests against forced relocations as developers took over residential property. In 2005, we published a translation of a list of keywords deemed “sensitive” by Internet companies, as part of what would later become one of our most popular translation series. The fight for rural democracy in Taishi, Guangdong was an early example of similar battles in other villages, notably Wukan. The street protests against a paraxylene plant in Xiamen, enabled by emergent social media, was the first of many such NIMBY movements.
Amid the cacophony of China news, several stories we have covered since 2003 stand out in our memory:
- In 2006, We Hope by China News Weekly editors
- The Monthly Expenses of a Migrant Worker (2006) (which had the distinction of being reprinted, without permission, by China Daily)
- My Experience at this year’s blogger conference (2006) – Yezi (叶子)
- Personal account of a bike journey through China by blogger Tiger Temple (2007)
- Annual commemorations of June 4, in their various forms, including That Year, These Years: Stories of Tiananmen by Li Xuewen and Personal History: A June Deserter
- Baidu’s Internal Monitoring and Censorship Document Leaked
- Charter 08, and in particular the essay by Persian Xiaozhao about her decision to sign the human rights document
- Accounts of people, including Persian Xiaozhao, brought in to “drink tea,” or be interrogated by police
- A video of CCTV employees performing a skit mocking themselves
- The 2008 Beijing Olympics, in particular skepticism over the elaborate opening ceremony.
- The Olympic Dream: A Sci-Fi Short Story
- Riots in Tibet in the lead-up to the Olympics and bloggers’ reactions, including poet Tang Danhong’s powerful essay, “Tibet: Her Pain, My Shame.“
- New Drinking Songs: Satirical political ditties created by netizens
- Han Han: Let the Sun Shine In from April 2010
- Music Video: “My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom”, a parody of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television
- We also covered the National People’s Congress each year: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, the transition of Party leadership in 2012, and, ending our first decade with a bang, the downfall of Bo Xilai and the liveblog of his trial.
In these ten years, CDT has benefited from a diverse and talented group of contributors who have created unique feature stories and series that we have been proud to publish on our site, including:
- China’s Other Billion: Dispatches from a Rural Road Trip, by Rachel Beitarie
- Biganzi (笔杆子) series, by Jonathan Ansfield
- Podcast interview series with foreign journalists
- CDT Bookshelf interviews with authors and experts, including Susan Shirk, James Mann, and John Pomfret, among others.
- 20 Years Ago Today, a series of original news articles from 1989 posted chronologically
- Political cartoons, especially Hexie Farm’s series for CDT and our Drawing the News compilations
- Our Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon and related news quizzes and eBook.
- Voices from the bottom of society, and from the top
We have also been very grateful over the years for the generous contributions of beautiful photographs from some very talented artists, notably Jordan Pouille, Michael Steverson, Vern Fong, Suri Sun, Remko Tanis, Felix Bonomo, Mark Hobbs, and many more.
We here at CDT look forward to seeing what surprises China has in store for us over the next decade. Thanks for reading.