In August, Matters News published an interview with CDT founder and Editor-in-Chief Xiao Qiang. The interview, by freelance writer Xiran, examines the events and motivations that led Xiao to become a human rights activist and later found CDT, and relays Xiao’s opinions on the development and future of both Chinese internet control and resistance. The translated intro to the interview is provided below. Read the entire translation on the China Digital Space wiki.
Matters: The “Coral Reef” Below the Ship of China’s Internet Censorship
by Xiran, freelance writer traveling in the U.S., August 8, 2019
Since the late 1990s, internet censorship in China seems to have moved in lock-step with the popularization of the internet. As the world’s first “great internet nation,” the Chinese people’s craze for online trade, finance, and invention and their pursuit of an open, free digital space have been inextricable from each other; at the same time, the Chinese internet is an increasingly restrictive place where big data, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and speech recognition are harnessed to control society.
To confront this enormous “ship” of internet censorship, Xiao Qiang, adjunct professor at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Information and head of the Counter-Power Lab, built China Digital Times (CDT), launching the English website in 2004 and the Chinese site in 2011. Over the past 15 years, Xiao and his team have been monitoring and archiving censored material (especially “self-media” platforms), relying on human editors and automated aggregation to select and organize digital content. Xiao believes that CDT is more than just a battlefront for an alternative record of history. It is also a place of connection, where he and his compatriots can create a collective experience. “CDT is like a growing coral reef of resistance to internet censorship. One day, the reef will be so big that it will tear into the hull of the dictators’ legitimizing language.”
In the summer of 1986, Xiao Qiang, then 24 years old, graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, then came to the United States for a doctoral program in astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame. In June 1989, he saw “June Fourth” unravel on TV. He felt awakened by these tremendous events and made up his mind to go back to China; he resolved to “stand on the side of justice” and to “become a part of this historic moment” through action. Two months later, he returned to the U.S. and started on the path of a professional human rights activist. In 2001, Xiao received a MacArthur fellowship in recognition of his leadership in human rights. In September 2003, Xiao joined the UC Berkeley School of Journalism (later moving to the School of Information), where he launched the CDT website, embarking on an intensive 15-year study of China’s internet censorship and digital ecology.
Xiao points out that CDT’s most important source of both content and readers is the growing number among China’s 800 million netizens who disavow dictatorship and censorship. He quotes Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Freedom,” from The Prophet: “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. /For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their won pride?” “I hope that our [heartfelt, genuine] readers and authors are all ‘free and proud,'” Xiao said. “CDT exists for them.”
On one hand, Xiao Qiang firmly believes in the internet’s power to liberate, that the connections forged by information circulation and self-expression have the power to turn collective experience into affirmation of the rights of citizenship, promoting civil society by protecting the rights and interests of citizens. On the other hand, faced with the development of the digital space on authoritarian soil and the global rise of digital authoritarianism, Xiao speaks frankly about information technology’s power to control, in particular his own underestimation of the role of large corporations and governments. As the “empire strikes back” by co-opting internet technology, Xiao foresees an ongoing tug-of-war among different powers in the coming years, a challenge that the whole world, including China, will have to face.
In January 2019, I interviewed Xiao Qiang in California. He talked about how CDT got its start, introduced the projects he and his team are working on, and reflected on the present and future of internet censorship and internet technology in China, and the influence of these developments on the global internet. Below is a condensed version of our conversation (edited and abridged): […] [Source]
Translation by Anne Henochowicz.
Read the translated interview in full at the China Digital Space wiki. See also CDT’s translation of a 2018 RFA interview with Xiao Qiang, or a 2015 McClatchy profile of CDT.