Based in Washington, D.C., Liz Carter translates Chinese-language textbooks and writes at A Big Enough Forest. Carter is the former Managing Editor of Tea Leaf Nation and also writes for The Atlantic Monthly and Foreign Policy. She studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Carter’s book “Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet Is Transforming China and Changing Everything” is now available on Amazon. Her book brings to life the stories of millions of people who have navigated an evolving social media landscape to express themselves, speak out, and affect real life change—often in the face of censorship and risk. I spoke with Carter about her book.
China Digital Times: Why did you call your book “Let 100 Voices Speak”?
Liz Carter: The title is a reference to the Hundred Flowers Movement (百花运动) that took place in 1956. At the time, Mao Zedong urged, “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” There was a brief period of freedom of expression, in which people offered up their own ideas about what was best for China’s future and their critiques of its current policies. The movement was then followed by the Anti-Rightist Movement, during which Mao and other authorities persecuted many of those who had stepped up to share their views.
To me, the few years in which Weibo flourished seemed to be a period of unusual freedom of expression and debate in China, just like the Hundred Flowers Movement – but like that movement, it was also in part due to the relaxation of some controls by the central government. The crackdown on social media began just before I started writing the book, and continued throughout the writing and editing process. I didn’t forsee it so clearly at the time, but there are many parallels between the crackdown on dissent that has been carried out under Xi Jinping and the Anti-Rightist Movement, for instance, the persecution of lawyers as well as the targeting of influential intellectuals.
CDT: What inspired you to write this book?
LC: At the time, I was covering whatever people were talking about online in China for Tea Leaf Nation, and my editor at IB Tauris, Tomasz Hoskins, saw some of what I’d written. He asked me to submit a proposal and I did. Probably due to the fast pace at which things were taking place, no one had yet written a book about Weibo or the recent bout of debate on Chinese social media, so there was a need for a book to explain a bit about it.
CDT: In telling the stories of Weibo’s impact on people in China, you cover an expansive amount of Chinese Internet history and pop culture. How did you research this book, especially when sensitive information may have been deleted by censors in the process? What challenges, if any, did you face?
LC: I’m sure there are mountains of information I could have included and didn’t, whether because of my own limitations or Chinese censorship. But I did have some help in the many people online who’ve resisted censorship in their own ways, by reposting essays on sites safe from censorship, or continuing to share and upload pictures and video even after they had been initially deleted. By the time I finished the book, some of the links I had initially cited had been censored or taken down, but I was largely able to find additional sources or cached versions of the same content. I didn’t use any particularly exciting techniques – China’s censorship system is pretty effective at restricting the overall information ecosystem, but pretty ineffective at erasing any one specific thing completely, and that made my research easier.
CDT: What do you find most intriguing about studying Chinese social media? Are you active on Chinese social media? If so, as an outsider looking in, have you yourself questioned who is a government “fifty center,” who is a nationalist/angry youth or “fenqing”, and who is an ordinary netizen?
LC: It’s hard to pick just one thing, but I love Chinese Internet humor. It’s so complex, and references a lot of shared knowledge, and it can be very, very dark. Humor is under-appreciated as a form of protest and resistance, especially humor in China. Part of this is because humor is so hard to translate.
I’m not very active on Chinese social media. I probably use Twitter the most (although Twitter does have a sizeable Chinese-language user community). I’m an avid lurker of several BBS sites, check Weibo daily, and use WeChat for some day-to-day messaging. Especially when looking at the comments section of articles on Netease or other aggregators, I do comb through to see which are “fifty centers” and which aren’t. I’m not catching everything, certainly, but I would say after years of doing this, it’s not difficult to tell which posts are paid pro-government commentary. Especially when articles are about sensitive issues, the hijacking of discussion by fifty centers is so full-scale that it’s not even the least bit subtle.
CDT: What is the human flesh search? What makes it so powerful?
LC: The human flesh search is kind of an online vigilante hunt for someone or something – usually people crowdsource both online and offline resources to track down someone who’s done something really outrageous and then punish them. It’s powerful in part because there are so many Chinese Internet users, and in part because it happens so fast, compared to the pace at which investigation, prosecution, conviction, and punishment usually happens (or doesn’t).
CDT: Chinese people are often criticized in the American media for not practicing charity. Describing one of the many online factions that exist in China, you write: “The Food-delivery Party is one of the best examples of an Internet-native identity in China bridging the gap between virtual criticism and real action.” What is the Food-delivery Party and what makes it effective? Is it still effective today?
LC: The Food-delivery Party was a loosely organized group of people who found a variety of ways to generate money to support the families of activists who were imprisoned or had lost their livelihoods. It was started by Rou Tangseng (real name Xu Zhirong), and he closed it down earlier this year. Since then Weibo has deleted his account. So I guess you could say, in this instance, the crackdown has shut down online-to-offline activism. One of the main ways authorities have tried to shut down rights defense activism has been to limit funding, whether by accusing organizations of tax evasion or intimidating would-be donors. But there are still many ways people can help – tactics just evolve as necessary.
CDT: You say 90 percent of Weibo users are under 40. What is the role of older Chinese citizens in voicing dissent? Do they have their own ecosystem of political leanings that exists in real life?
LC: Older Chinese citizens play a huge role in dissent, especially by preserving historical memory that the official narrative does not include and that many in power would rather the world forget. Some have come forward to speak about their actions during darker times and apologize for their roles as Red Guards, for example. And older Chinese run the spectrum politically just the same as Chinese in other age ranges. But it is true that the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution, and other purges silenced some who might be in their later years today, either by killing them or convincing them to keep their heads down in order to survive.
CDT: You attribute many cultural changes such as greater acceptance of homosexuality to Internet discourse. Is the Internet the most effective vehicle of communication for reform in China?
LC: I wouldn’t say that the Internet replaces anything, but it does supplement it in a way that allows for faster progress. In my opinion, it helps build consensus, especially across geographically distant areas, much more quickly than lower tech forms of communication. About half of China doesn’t use the Internet at all, and many use it just for logistical purposes like buying food or checking the weather – so the Internet as a vehicle for reform is limited. But the type of person who does use the Internet for many things is also in a better position to influence Chinese society, being on average better educated, wealthier, and living closer to the centers of decision making.
CDT: You describe new social classes in China such as tuhao (nouveau riche) and diaosi (losers). Are the tuhao and diaosi both equally active on Weibo? Are the wealthy more free to express themselves online if they’re well-connected?
LC: I think Weibo is pretty dead these days. As for whether the wealthy can freely express themselves online, I think everyone’s under a similar blanket of repression, although it always helps to have connections.
CDT: Are you concerned that anything you’ve revealed in this book could endanger people?
LC: I did consider this, but almost everything in the book is something that’s already out there – it’s publicly available information anyone could find online. The book itself is about trends and movements, so it doesn’t lionize any one individual or blame a single person. That said, there’s always the chance when writing about China that you could draw unwanted attention to someone or some movement—or yourself—and so you make all sorts of calls on a case-by-case basis. I think self-censorship can be a slippery slope. I’d like to say I haven’t censored myself at all but I’m sure I have – some days I think too much, and some days not enough. I tend to believe that if no one wrote about people involved in sensitive issues in China, those people wouldn’t stop being targets – they’d just become easier targets. It feels like a very difficult terrain for me to navigate, and I’m not even based in China – for those whose jobs and lives are on the line every day, it’s a minefield.
CDT: Do people from Hong Kong and Taiwan use Weibo to engage in political debates with Mainland Chinese? Do Chinese censors censor people from Hong Kong and Taiwan differently?
LC: There was one incident where a politician from Taiwan sued Sina Weibo for deleting his account over 50 times. On the whole, I think people whose accounts are registered outside mainland China are probably censored more, though I don’t have any statistics to back that up.
CDT: You’ve given many examples of how Weibo played a positive role in people’s lives. For example, Tang Hui’s story of finding justice after her 11-year-old daughter was abducted and gang-raped in a brothel spread widely on Weibo which helped her cause. Did you find any stories where a viral Weibo post ended up obstructing justice for the person it intended to help?
LC: Many people have experienced negative consequences after participating in or being the subject of online scrutiny. In the case of Xia Junfeng, he was ultimately executed despite an online campaign that attempted to sway public opinion away from giving him the death penalty. But it’s not clear that keeping things under the radar would have helped at all. It’s hard to say whether something going viral ever hurts or helps someone. There’s a saying in Chinese about a man who lost his horse (塞翁失马焉知非福) – everyone comforted him, but the old man said it was hard to say whether the incident had been good or bad. The horse then came back, bringing another horse with it. The villagers congratulated him, but the old man said the same thing. Then this son broke a leg riding the new horse. Then all the able-bodied young men in the village left to fight in a war and died, while the old man’s son remained and survived. In a sense, everything is a mixed bag. Certainly many participants in the New Citizens’ Movement don’t feel like the story is over – Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, both currently in jail, have said as much.
CDT: During the rumour crackdown, you say Weibo lost almost 30 million users. Activity declined 40 percent in 2013 and 70 percent in a two year period. Given that so many people have left Weibo, how would, as you conclude, Chinese Internet users grow more “sophisticated” so that “China’s government officials realize” that “they will be forced to change themselves”? Additionally, what role do you see WeChat playing as the popularity of Weibo declines?
LC: More and more people are utilizing encryption and new censorship circumvention techniques. And even when people choose to remain silent in places like Weibo, their dissatisfaction doesn’t disappear – it is simply channeled elsewhere. And there’s also an increasing number of users who cross over into more international online spaces. I’m just as interested as everyone else to see what happens, but I think part of it will be that in this climate, people are learning how to do things without being noticed – which of course means it will be harder to see what goes on under the surface.
WeChat is more limited than Weibo in terms of group networking – so activism does take place there, but not the same kind of public-square debate as occured on Weibo in its heyday. Like Weibo, though, it exists first as a commercial venture by a Chinese media company, so it’s subject to the same sort of governmental pressure and control as Weibo is.
CDT: What’s next for you?
LC: My day job is in translation, and I expect I will continue to do that. I’m also starting a bilingual website, called Maogazine, about cats (cat is pronounced “māo” in Chinese). I’m going to keep writing about the China, the Internet, and how things are changing as well. Other than that, I’m really not sure, but I hope good things!