Last month, as authorities were scrambling to contain any shred of unauthorized information or public backlash to the official response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, a new round of “account bombing” (炸号) swept the popular social media app WeChat, closing accounts who had shared unsanctioned news or messages about the public health situation. Despite censors’ increased efforts, the severity and spread of the viral situation–and especially the death of doctor Li Wenliang, who had attempted to share information about the first recorded cases of the disease and was punished–spurred some netizens to continue voicing their critique of relevant information controls and authorities’ slow response to the outbreak, and inspired creative new means of censorship circumvention.
Mimiyana (米米亚娜) is an overseas Chinese feminist writer and longtime proponent of women’s rights in China who has been paying close attention to issues related to China’s model of “digital totalitarianism.” Based currently in the U.S., her WeChat account has long been her crucial connection to her home country, and a major source of her study of Chinese information control. Her account, from which she shared COVID-19 information deemed sensitive, was one of many accounts to be bombed. In an essay published on Matters News, Mimiyana recalls the course of her long “struggle with WeChat” to get back on the platform with anonymity, and the solidarity she found online with others forced through the same fight:
Mimiyana: Mimi’s Record of Account Bombing
This article will document the recent tide of account bombings, and the course of events in my struggle with WeChat. After my account was bombed, I went searching for other users’ bombing stories, which raised my awareness. Even if I didn’t find a solution or a way to settle this issue, just seeing the words of people who’d gone through a similar experience was a kind of comfort.
My other motivation stems from reading, during the past two days, Yan Lianke’s article “Enduring This Epic Calamity, Let Us Become People Who Remember.” The writer admonishes writers not to abandon recording their own individual recollections and experiences, leaving the public opinion stage to those who always preach grand narratives in pure lyrical tones. This strongly affected me, leaving me in shock. I earnestly recalled my laziness and timidity, which has led to me writing far less than I could. I also reestablished a foundation for writing and publishing as I understand it: history by means of individual witness. Standing on this foundation, I see my own responsibility, not my inflated (or withered) ego, thus enabling me to persevere in a public space. This means I no longer rely solely on my own interest to work, and when my ego becomes weak, I will have a transcendental strength to drive me onward and upward.
So, I should write down my experience getting my account banned for being vocal during the current epidemic. We are all essentially Li Wenliang’s comrades. He was forced onto the frontlines of the struggle, but there are many others we lack statistical data on, who have not been researched or documented. Few know who they are or what they’ve experienced. Stories of forbidden speech are as strictly censored as forbidden speech themselves, so these recollections are hard to present and disseminate.
For context regarding this account bombing, please refer to my article “Our Loss Is Irrevocable: Remembering Li Wenliang,” not duplicated here. Here I will narrate what I did, encountered, and learned in the wake of my account bombing.
I’d been using my WeChat account for over eight years, and I’d accumulated almost 5,000 contacts, so the sudden, permanent ban was a huge loss. Seeing WeChat users deploy frigid irony and scorching satire, people say things like, “You know this thing sucks but continue to use it, so doesn’t it serve you well?” But I want to say the biggest problem is obviously the [Great Fire]wall. Why criticize its victims? My mortal body is outside the Wall, and getting on WeChat feels like “visiting a prison,” and realizing that for the many people in the “prison,” it is not so easy to escape, physically or psychologically. When people decide which social media to use, it’s not just a question of software, but where people’s social connections will occur. The Wall, getting higher and higher, together with WeChat’s colossal composite of functions (assembling news, social life, payments, recreation, content production), already monopolizes the vast majority of Chinese life. (Other domestic social media platforms also abide by censorship mechanisms, villains colluding together to form this LAN ecology.) “Controlling a majority of the people” has always been the purpose of censorship and social stability maintenance. In the short term, it is very difficult for an individual to influence this.
Recall that after Iranian authorities admitted to shooting down that airliner, female superstar Taraneh Alidoosti said: “We are not citizens. We are hostages, millions of hostages.”
And right then, the Wall and WeChat kidnapped the Chinese people. Are we also not just millions of hostages?
It was around the evening of February 4 when I discovered I’d been forcibly logged off by WeChat. After logging back on, I saw the notice saying I’d been permanently banned. The reason given was: “Content violation, propagating malicious rumors.” At this point, WeChat had provided me temporary login privileges, so I could transfer the money out of my WeChat Wallet.
After logging in, I found I couldn’t transmit or receive information, and WeChat Moments was restricted. I couldn’t communicate with anyone, but I could still see group information updates and Moments updates from close friends. It was just like the bombed say: I felt like I’d died, like I was a spirit watching this world. I tried sending a few messages, but they weren’t delivered. Feeling a bit worried, I hastily transferred out my Wallet balance, over 1000 kuai. (I later discovered it’s best to leave a few yuan in Wallet to make follow-up logins more convenient.) Then I opened up WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal one by one. I spoke with friends about the bombing as I began to register a new account.
The main reason I’d been bombed was I’d been republishing sensitive articles to my own group. My group had also been bombed, along with another admin’s account. Fortunately, when we established the group we’d synchronized with friends on Tele and established a group there, so most group members were backed up outside the Wall. This allowed me to contact them immediately. Then everyone in the bombed group launched location sharing, warning each other that the group had been bombed.
(After the group was bombed, many members couldn’t easily find out because people could make statements as usual, but they couldn’t see each other’s statements. They also couldn’t receive replies. WeChat deals with overseas users differently than domestic ones, so it often emerged that overseas users could communicate with each other in a bombed group, but domestic users couldn’t see their messages appear. But everyone can see “location sharing,” so if you find someone in a group has launched location sharing for no reason, it is very likely the group has been bombed, or that person’s account has been bombed.)
I used the American mobile number bound to my bombed account to apply for a new account. WeChat noted that it was already bound to another account and asked if I wished to continue. My brain growing feverish, I chose to continue. The mobile number was automatically unbound from the bombed account.
For the application process, I needed a third party to help me with verification, another WeChat user friend had to scan the QR code for me to open the account. (And not just anyone qualified to scan. If a mainland user, they’d need to have been registered six months or more. If a local user, they’d need a month or more.) I sent the QR code to a friend, and very quickly succeeded in opening an account.
I then distributed the new account name, adding more than 300 friends in one night, one after another. Later, people were warning me unceasingly that my account was abnormal. The next morning, this new account was permanently banned. The reason given: “There were actions that violated regulations, such as harassment, malicious marketing, and fraud.”
I judged the cause to be the mobile number that had been bound to the first bombed account. I changed to the domestic number I’d used when returning to my home country, and once more applied (at that time, all I had on hand was this mobile number). Once more I sought out a friend to assist with the authentication process, and again I distributed the new WeChat account. Everyone’s reaction was: “How were you bombed again?” Unfortunately, not even 20 minutes passed before WeChat forced me to log off. I was notified I’d been banned again for the same reasons as before.
After the WTFs had cleared from my mind, I fought my impulse to quickly restore the account. Sober and calm, I thought about why this was happening. My strongest feeling was I’d been fixed—WeChat censors (or net police) could keep bombing my accounts as they arose because they definitely knew my identity. Moreover, they could bomb me faster each time.
But friends who’d been bombed many times said that it was easier to get bombed if you moved too urgently to register after a previous bombing. It was better to wait a while. Also, you shouldn’t add people too fast to the new account, or you could easily trigger an abnormal rating.
In any case, those several days WeChat prohibited speech with near-demented intensity—far beyond the normal, everyday level.
I again consulted a tech specialist, and their suggestion was to get a new mobile number and use a new cellphone. A SIM card that didn’t need my identity was best (and still regarded as easy to get in the U.S.). As much as possible I was to avoid doing things that could identify me.
I was feeling a bit discouraged due to my series of account bans, so I bought an anonymous SIM card online. I didn’t use WeChat as I waited for the SIM to arrive. Instead, I did some self-work and meditation in this idle time. I found I was still alive and well without posting on WeChat, and noticed that my life no longer revolved around WeChat Moments.
I was moved to learn that, immediately after finding out my account had been serially bombed, a friend formed a “support group” on WeChat. It took a lot of time to dredge up and return all my friends from the bombed group, greatly decreasing my follow-up workload of adding people.
Another friend lent me, for temporary use, a WeChat account he’d registered in Hong Kong. The account was bound to his bank card. We’d never even met. This really was an act of supreme trust.
Luckily, I already had a new cellphone I hadn’t even opened, so I used it to register the borrowed account (after he obliged me by sending the verification code). Finally, I could use WeChat normally.
Sort of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I just wanted some everyday exchanges. Why did that require operating like a secret agent? But since I had trained as a secret agent, it would be a waste not to charge the tower, right?
After I saw some online accounts of bombing experiences, I also tried to appeal. First, I looked up Tencent’s WeChat customer service number and called. This was completely automated and recorded, there was no way to contact a real customer service representative. Then I followed a “consult customer service” link provided at the bottom of the banned account page, and from the limited options I chose an account ban review. To do this I also needed a third party’s WeChat account to scan a QR code for verification. I went ahead and used my borrowed WeChat account to scan. After that I just had to use this account to fill in the application. Word count was limited, giving me little scope for my writing skills.
Unexpectedly, I saw that Tencent customer service warned review applicants: “If customer service discovers relatively serious violations, the account may receive more serious penalties. Please be aware!”
Fuck your ancestors to the 18th generation, how about that?
About two days later, the review findings were sent to my borrowed account. It was just a few short words, a casual refusal to lift the permanent ban.
We’ve been treated in this arrogant way for a long time now, and we’re powerless. I recall that during the Huawei 251 incident, I criticized this land’s companies, saying they’d learned their foul behavior from the authorities, that all of them had become the mafia.
I didn’t dare add people to the borrowed account. I had to give it back, after all. During the long wait for the new SIM card, I tried several times to log in to my three bombed accounts. I found that the last account could be unbanned. All I had to do was go through real-name authentication. That is, bind a domestic bank card.
So, for the life of me I tried: The bound debit card had to be owner-verified at the bank’s reserved mobile number. I hadn’t been in the country for several years, and the reserved mobile number had changed. I called the bank to ask about it, and they said I had to go to a counter. So, then I tried using another card, a domestic bank credit card. I called the domestic credit card center and succeeded in changing the reserved phone. They said it would take effect in 24 hours. I waited 24 hours and again tried, wondering if this time I would achieve my aim.
The result was WeChat said since it was a foreign currency credit card, it couldn’t be tied to the account.
I tried asking my mom if she could help me in-country by purchasing a new SIM and using her identity to register on WeChat, then hand me the account to use. She replied saying that amid the current epidemic, people aren’t leaving their doors. Businesses wouldn’t be open anyway. There’d be nowhere to buy.
She added: “Keeping your mouth shut might be good for you.” My own mother???
By the time slow American delivery at last handed me the SIM, I was itching to get on with things. Because I wanted anonymity and didn’t want to pay for a monthly service package, the card I bought was from a not-widely-used service dealer. I had to register online to activate, and didn’t expect the post-registration request to bind a bank card. I thought that it wouldn’t be a problem using an American card over here. How could WeChat investigate this information? It turned out that after trying several times, the bank card was unsuccessful. I didn’t know why.
At this point, my tribulations were caused not only by Wall Country’s censorship machine, but also the whole of modern society. Indeed, it was hard to believe. In this convenient, fast, lauded Brave New World we’d established, how could I come to a dead end on so small a matter? Or, if the dead end was real, was all the convenience and speed just a mirage imprisoning us? The internet had died. It was dead in this endless cycle of binding, verification, real-name verification, and manifold censorship.
On the verge of collapse, I attempted to dig deeper into this problem, to fight desperately on. I went to a nearby mobile shop and bought a pay-as-you-go card. I installed it in my new cellphone, and once again registered a new WeChat account.
Of course, I again came up against the red-tape need for third-party verification. I sent the authenticating QR code to at least four friends. They tried repeatedly. They had plenty of mainland registered WeChat accounts, plenty of Canadian and American accounts. Moreover, they were all in accordance with WeChat’s clearly stipulated authenticator qualifications. But after requesting they fill in their real-names and ID card numbers, WeChat still told them they were unqualified to help me authenticate.
My friends weren’t having it: “How am I unqualified? You’re really telling me I’m unqualified after I gave you my real-name and ID?”
So, even using a new cellphone and new SIM, I failed on verification. There was still no way to register a new account.
I was starting to think I’d never be able to use WeChat again, when I discovered there was still one method I hadn’t tried. That was, to simply find and buy from a WeChat account scalper.
I felt then that I was being forced into something unseemly, straying off of the honest path.
Taobao had been cleaned up by then. Keyword searches turned up nothing. I tried Googling and sure enough found some account sellers. The biggest problem was that there was no way to be certain they were legit.
I was trying everything in a desperate situation, like giving medicine to a dead horse. Even if I got scammed, it was only a few dozen RMB, so I contacted a webpage’s QQ number and chose a WeChat account registered overseas. After paying several dozen RMB via Alipay, my fair-trading dealer sent me a number. The scalper even aided me in conducting cellphone authentication. I came smoothly ashore, changed the password and the bound cellphone number.
After several days of use, I dared to begin slowly adding people. Moreover, I spread my new account far and wide. One friend said: “I have many of you here.” I replied: “I can already gather together enough for a mahjong table.”
But in the wake of adding more and more people, again I had friends warning me my account was abnormal. I looked into it a bit and found this account I’d purchased was registered in Malaysia. Malaysian accounts unexpectedly had an option to bind bank cards (American accounts did not). Also, you could only bind local Malaysian cards. This meant I had no way to carry out real-name authentication via bank card binding. So, if WeChat were to enforce real-name verification on Malaysian users, my new account could still be banned at some point.
The question is, why should WeChat want to force Malaysian users to use real-name verification? Is it an indicator that China’s penetration of Southeast Asia has reached a certain level?
After my account was bombed, many people took the initiative to find me and convey their sympathies. Thank you, everyone. There are fellow sufferers out there. Misery loves company, and these friends have shared their experiences. Some went through unremitting appeals for as long as three months. Some at last recovered their accounts, but others, despite persistence in appealing, nevertheless had their accounts canceled. Another widely-shared case involved a WeChat WeBank loan of several hundred RMB. Paying such a loan back in installments could apparently forestall an account bombing. Many people forwarded this story to me, but soon a friend said he still had 40,000 yuan to pay back, and was permanently banned regardless. Fundamentally, I feel there are no fixed standards. It seems entirely down to individual luck.
Someone online said this is called: “If punishment is unfathomable, then power is limitless.” Someone else said censorship is effective because it has boundaries. When it loses its limits, it means everything we say is wrong, and the fear of censorship also vanishes.
I again submitted an appeal. I declared that if I couldn’t get my account back, I would submit evidence to an American lawyer and relevant organizations, resolving to find Tencent’s legally liable. I didn’t know if these threats would be effective. Yesterday I logged into the bombed account again. Although the ban was still not lifted, I found I had new privileges. I could export all data from the account, including the address book and Moments. I just had to submit an export application, then wait for WeChat’s email response.
I chose to wait until I had my data to continue my appeal.
Later, a recently-bombed friend told me a trick. If I changed my bound cellphone number to a European number (or used one to register), I could obtain the “export data” option, in the “Settings-Account and Security-More Security Settings” page. This is because in order to operate in Europe, WeChat must comply with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) bill, permitting users to export their data.
I spent a few U.S. dollars and used Dingdong to register a Belgian cellphone number, then bound my new WeChat account to this number. After several minutes, sure enough there appeared the export data option. At the time I finished this article, this method was still effective, so this should still be able to reduce losses during an account bombing.
For the past few years, domestic internet companies have followed the “different internal and foreign” policy that is now the norm. Internal national authorities cooperate and display the most immoral behavior. And yet, they will obey other country’s laws, controls, and restrictions. This gives us some space to move in, indirectly, although it is not at all a cause for celebration.
Half a month has passed between my first bombing and my current—and temporary—ability to use WeChat. It is incredible to me that this has caused so much friction. I’ve lost contact with people. I’ve lost so many records of my life, and that’s just the beginning. Then comes time and energy consumption, physical and mental exhaustion. More traumatic for me personally was the arrogant power of these people generally. They can do whatever they like and not pay any price, to the extent that more people have no choice but to throw their precious life energy at this absurd process of humiliation.
I can’t tolerate letting this kind of meaningless experience exist in my life. I won’t allow its unceasing corrosion of my strength. So, I must write it down, as a way of striking back.
Throughout this whole process, I saw many people unceasingly striking back. From the “WeChat account ban” super topic, to the “I want freedom of speech” and “I demand freedom of speech” social media campaigns. There was reportedly a Shanghai girl on the streets holding up a signboard, and many scholars and citizens groups striving for free speech have launched jointly-signed declarations. All of this has led to reaction overseas. I’ve seen foreign news journalists covering and investigating the WeChat account bans during the epidemic. Citizen Power Initiatives for China has also launched a collective lawsuit targeting Tencent.
Striking back may attract more suppression. Wasn’t I bombed for my long-term and repeated challenging of the boundaries of public expression? But suppression can ferment the next counterattack. The hangman’s noose is not tightened all at once. If there is no way to broaden the boundaries of public discourse, we can at least resist a bit when they tighten the rope. And then, resist a bit more. [Chinese]
Translation by Alicia.