In 2020, CDT Chinese editors launched the CDT Censorship Digest series. The series will collect and quote from news and online speech that was censored by Chinese authorities during the previous month, as well as summarize efforts to preserve and strengthen freedom of speech in Chinese society. When relevant to CDT English readers, we will translate the Chinese series in part or in full.
CDT CHINESE | CHINESE Censorship Digest, April 2020: Top-Down Hooliganization, from Propaganda to Diplomacy
In 1974, Jiang Qing accused a U.S. glass company of intending to insult China by presenting glass snail as gifts to a Chinese technical fact-finding delegation. Her comments sparked mass anti-American rallies, and an eventual investigation by Premier Zhou Enlai into the true meaning of the snail in American culture, which eventually tamed the nationalistic movement. In the April article “Is the ‘Snail Incident’ that Shook the Nation in the 70s a Mirror of Today’s Public Opinion Scene?,” author Gong Zhou said:
What exactly is the breeding ground for a conspiracy theory?
The first requisites are human nature, the fear of the unknown, and the delusion of persecution. This dictates that the more ignorant one is, the more one lacks scientific thinking and knowledge reserves, the more likely they are to fall into conspiracy theory and be unable to get out. […]
What about the people who create conspiracy theories? They have intelligent minds and know what the truth is, so why do they casually opine? Why do they make deers out of horses by acting with trickery and inconsistency? Why make far-fetched claims and spread lies as truth, terrorizing the poor fools?
Two words: [personal] interest. [Chinese]
At the end of the article, Gong Zhou concludes that “all of this ugliness was not unique” to the 70s. “It was just indulged in and amplified to an extreme at that time.” We saw this type of ugliness happen again in April. April brimmed with conspiracy theory, with propaganda posters, and with criticism. From dissidents and human rights lawyers to everyday internet users. From the criticism of Fang Fang’s diary and theories accusing the U.S. of seeding the pandemic, to the Sino-Thai internet insult war, and arguments over real versus fake news; from the official direction of public opinion, to the organized “little pink” cybernationalists, this has all constituted a serious challenge to the freedom of speech of everyone–including dissidents, intellectuals, authors, and everyday people. In this sense, it’s as if we never left the China of the 1970s.
In times of great darkness, every single person must act to protect their personal freedoms. We must defend the whistleblowing of the Li Wenliangs and Ai Fens of the world. We must defend the freedom of Fang Fang and her supporters. Because their freedoms are also our freedoms.
1) A Constant Challenge to Basic Personal Freedoms
On April 21, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an NGO that advocates for global press freedom, released its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, ranking China fourth from last place (ahead of Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea). The organization said that China’s rapid development of information surveillance and censorship, and the continued persecution of and imprisonment of journalists and bloggers over the previous year, have led to an unprecedented threat to press freedom in the country and region. They note that at least three citizen journalists were arrested by authorities in February to conceal the novel coronavirus crisis, which highlights China’s continued consolidation of power through surveillance and censorship. According to RSF, China currently has the world’s highest number of jailed journalists, with approximately 100 Chinese journalists imprisoned, the vast majority of whom are Uyghur. Reporters Without Borders’s East Asia office noted that China’s information surveillance has not only affected the Chinese people, but has begun to pose a threat to everyone around the globe.
According to statistics gathered by netizens, from January 1 to April 4, the national mourning period, there were 484 cases of individuals charged with crimes related to speaking out about the coronavirus. For example, a female lawyer in Henan was punished by the Lawyers Association for reposting an article entitled “Long Lines Outside Wuhan Funeral Home,” and retired Beijing University of Science and Technology lecturer Chen Zhaozhi was arrested.
Ren Zhiqiang, who last month described Xi Jinping as a “clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor,” is presently undergoing review and investigation by the Beijing Xicheng District Disciplinary Commission for serious violations of the law and disciplinary code.
Following in the footsteps of Li Wenliang, another Hubei doctor was punished for “inappropriate speech.” Renowned science writer Dr. Yu Xiangdong received an official, red letter-headed written admonishment that mentioned him by name:
Dr. Yu Xiangdong, the admonishment notice purports, published some inappropriate cold and sarcastic humor, which resulted in serious negative consequences.
He was penalized and dismissed from his post as director of the Edong Medical Group Management Quality Department. He also lost his position as deputy director of Central Hospital. Dr. Yu Xiangdong’s weibo page (棒棒医生) is now gone, all content has been wiped away. [Chinese]
The Chinese government’s control of freedom of expression and the press has had a negative impact on the epidemic situation in China, and also on the global situation. Deutsche-Welle interviewed RSF East Asia head Cedric Alvini, who noted that as the WHO declared a global pandemic, China censored a long list of keywords related to the virus to limit online discussion of the outbreak.
The pandemic has already become a means through which to suppress dissidents. Citizen reporter Li Zehua disappeared on February 26, and after he resurfaced we learned he had been held incommunicado under forced isolation the whole time.
On April 5, “Black Friday”/”709” human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from prison and transferred by force to a residence in Jinan. There, he was placed under forced quarantine because of coronavirus–how difficult it was for him to attain freedom. On April 27, after 21 days of forced quarantine, Wang Quanzhang was finally reunited with his wife and son.
Documentary filmmaker and poet Chen Jiaping (former name Chen Yong), has been subject to more than one month in “residential surveillance.” His crime? Merely filming a documentary on activist and scholar Xu Zhiyong.
In Hong Kong, local authorities detained 15 prominent pro-democracy politicians, citizens and members of the media. The headline of a New York Times article covering the story read “Under Cover of Coronavirus, Hong Kong Cracks Down on Protest Movement.”
Surveillance has only become even more a natural part of life for Uyghurs. In a deleted post, a Uyghur Weibo user claiming to live in Shenzhen said that police were going to install surveillance equipment in his house.
For ordinary people, the constant oppression of personal freedoms has unconsciously become a part of everyday life. Even entertainment shows that have nothing to do with politics are being rigorously scrutinized and censored for political content.
In her article “How Sensitive Words Have Affected Us,” Lin Xiaogu boils the seriously adverse effects down to four points: 1) Some articles are never published; 2) The content of some articles is obscure. Points are made only superficially with no elaboration; 3) There’s more joking and mockery online, causing an increase in cynicism; 4) Self-censorship is extremely severe. In a separate article, Lin Xiaogu points out that the Chinese internet is an increasingly tiny, lonely island:
The state of the global Chinese-language internet is deteriorating, step by step. It’s become an extraordinarily narrow space, and as a result, the thinking on these Chinese networks has become very stupid. The people influenced by it, in turn, also become stupid. This environment of stupidity is a deceptive one. People become acclimated to it slowly, become stupid without realizing it. It’s a vicious cycle, with the conditions getting ever worse. [Chinese]
2) Without Deep Reflection, Mourning Is Meaningless
On April 3, the State Council announced that nationwide mourning events would be held April 4 to express deep mourning over the martyrs who died fighting the novel coronavirus epidemic, and those other compatriots who passed away, on behalf of the people of all ethnicities throughout China. During this time, flags around the country and at all Chinese embassies and consulates around the world would be lowered to half mast. Public entertainment activities would also halt throughout the country. Starting at 10 AM on April 4, all people throughout the country would observe three minutes of silence. Cars, trains, and ships would all blow their horns and whistles. Air defense alarms would sound. However, internet users discovered:
In their social media feeds, people saw messages filled with lighted candle emojis. In their words, people were expressing their mourning plaintively.
I want to find a complete list of the dead, upon which to place my sorrow. But I can’t find one.
I can’t even find a list of 100 names.
According to numbers published by the People’s Daily, as of April 2, globally, 45,526 had died. Excluding China, the dead numbered 42,197. That put China’s death toll at 3,329.
Do we know who these 3,329 people are?
Each one had a name. Each one left a broken family behind.
I want to send my sorrow to these 3,329 people, but I don’t even know who they are.
I want to kneel and cry in front of their graves. But first, I need to know who is buried within.
I have a few friends in Wuhan who have disappeared. We haven’t heard anything from them to this day. I want to know if they are among these 3,329 people. [Chinese]
April 4, designated as a day of mourning—nothing could be more ironic. If people needed special permission, special designation just to feel sorrowful, then why not even stipulate what posture people should be in when mourning? It wouldn’t be weird anymore. On April 4, a large number of internet users called for a “tracing of responsibility” for the novel coronavirus epidemic, and to “never forget.” These and other similarly-themed expressions of mourning were strictly deleted from domestic internet platforms. As one internet user said, “deletion of mourning that does not meet official mourning posture requirements is also an important part of mourning control.”
Starting midnight on April 4, 2020, virtually all major domestic Chinese commercial and governmental websites turned black and white, in tandem with the Internet Information Department and the State Council’s day of national mourning. However, as internet users discovered, although China’s foreign ministry and other government websites went black and white, they still displayed color images of Xi Jinping and other important leaders.
But the best kind of mourning is tracing responsibility, a point made by one censored WeChat post:
As we see with our own eyes, people aren’t dying one-by-one all over the world—they’re dying family by family… This plague is devouring entire happy families one after another! What could be more tragic than this! Even scarier than the virus itself is apathy, rumor, gagged mouths, a screen full of 404s! If we don’t trace responsibility, don’t go uncover the truth behind the explosion of the epidemic, don’t go earnestly listen to the wailing of the people of Wuhan, don’t reflect on this disaster, then when the next disaster strikes, it may very well land on the heads of us all. [Chinese]
On Weibo, people have continued leaving messages on COVID-19 truth-telling martyr Li Wenliang’s Weibo, which has become known as the “Wailing Wall.” One netizen wrote, “while they give you the so-called honor, they become more aggressive and choke our throats.” CDT Chinese editors, not expecting the propaganda to stand by idly forever, will continue preserving from this fortress of expression by curating a selection of netizens’ daily messages to Dr. Li Wenliang until the account is closed.
3) “Fang Fang’s right to be heard is our right to be heard”
In April, nothing got uglier than the criticism of Wuhan-based writer Fang Fang’s diary. Wuhan sealed the city for quarantine on January 23, and opened it back up on April 8. In this time, Fang Fang wrote a total of 60 diary entries. After Fang’s diary was finished, an overseas publisher wanted to publish a collection of her diary. This caused an uproar at home: on the internet, Fang Fang received vicious personal attacks and criticism that she was a “traitor.” On the streets of Wuhan someone even displayed a “big-character poster” denouncing Fang. Attacks have also extended to Michael Berry, the English translator of the Wuhan Diary, whose Weibo has been “occupied.”
Facing widespread criticism online and from state media, Fang Fang responded in an interview with the Caijing Eleven, saying, “If I don’t explain, the rumors will never end”:
Caijing Eleven: Mr. Hu Xijin believes that the international edition of the Wuhan Diary “will not be a normal exchange of documentary literature. It will be captured by international politics. It is quite possible that in the coming storm, the Chinese people, including those who have supported Fang Fang, will pay for her fame in the West.” What are your thoughts on this?
Fang: By saying these things, Editor Hu has incited countless people to hate me by telling the public I am sacrificing their interests for my own fame in the west. This is a sinister and vicious accusation, that I’ve betrayed China and the Chinese people! The consequences of his comments can be seen by everyone. […] [Chinese]
At the same time, Fang has been supported by many scholars, writers, and netizens in the country, among them legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong, who writes:
Not only do I support Ms. Fang, but I also admire her. I support her based on the principle of freedom of speech, the belief that as a writer, she should have the freedom to write and publish (which is a manifestation of freedom of speech for all citizens). To admire her for holding up her record of the epidemic, and for pressuring certain powers. But supporting and admiring someone doesn’t mean agreeing with everything she thinks. In fact, our support and admiration for others can only be solid and stable if we have our own independent view.
I am certainly on her side in this organized public opinion campaign against her. But I don’t quite agree with her and some of her supporters, who justify her statements as “moderate,” or her book as “not in tension with the state.” Such justification is essentially an abandonment of the principle of free speech. It seems to me that there is only one real question worth asking in this craze of public opinion: who is the government to censor a writer’s words and works? [Chinese]
Many others have defended Fang Fang, and some of those have found themselves in trouble for expressing their support. Lü Xiaoping, the vice dean of Nanjing University’s College of Arts and Letters, issued a statement on Weibo condemning an article that attacked Fang Fang. Lü’s personal account came under frantic attack.
Hubei University announced on April 26 week that literature professor Liang Yanping was under investigation for “inappropriate speech” online. Last month, she praised Fang Fang on WeChat, writing “it’s terrible if a normal society doesn’t have criticism.”
On April 30, Hainan University announced a similar investigation into retired teacher Wang Xiaoni after Fang reposted one of her comments about Liang. This led netizens to wonder if a Cultural Revolution was on the way. One insightful WeChat user asked “who do we allow to identify this so-called inappropriate speech?” The post was censored.
An essay from public WeChat account @看理想 titled “I Denounce This, Not Only for Fang Fang’s Reputation, But Also for Our Rights” contained the line: “Fang Fang’s right to be heard is also our right to be heard. If we don’t defend it, no one can.”
4) Top Down Hooliganization, from Propaganda to Diplomacy
In another internet spectacle this April, the “little pink” army of cybernationalists deployed to Thailand. The LGBTQ-themed Thai television drama “2gether: The Series” is currently very popular in China. The real-life girlfriend of one of the male leads, Bright, reposted and commented on a report about how the coronavirus possibly originated in a Wuhan laboratory. Bright also liked a seemingly innocent post from a photographer of four cityscapes, including Hong Kong, which said in Thai “these pictures are from four countries.” Chinese netizens dug through the actor’s account to find a 2017 comment where the actor called his girlfriend beautiful, saying she resembled “a Chinese girl.” She responded that she resembled “a Taiwanese girl.” The little pinks regarded this as an “insult to China” and a major geopolitical matter. From one censored WeChat account of the online standoff:
As for the way they go about doing things, the majority of it is not normal discussion, but rather some kind of screaming battle or internet mortal combat. Great numbers of little pinks used these tactics during their Thai internet expedition, and as a result, they just shot themselves in the foot.
When Thai internet users created images critical of them, the little pinks often found it difficult to come up with a complete argument, or to rationally explain their own opinions. They were helpless to refute their claims. In the end, all they could do was “trash-talk the country.” Trash-talking the other country itself, on the one hand, is an attempt to cover up their own lack of knowledge, critical thinking, and reason. It also demonstrates their unwillingness to accept the opinions of others, or to accept the things that others point out as wrong. “Trash-talking the country” became their last resort. It also acted as a blindfold to shield them from their shame. I just never would have thought, in the end, that Thai internet users would not only get the better of them, but also, would come up with the expression “NMSL” trending on Twitter yesterday and a whole series of other derivative expressions: NMSLese, NMSLand, NMSLism, etc.
[…] As a result, the little pinks deployed to Twitter, Instagram, and other foreign websites. But I never would have guess what happened next. This time, they encountered the most Buddhist, passive and big-hearted people on the internet—Thai people. But when they did, not only did their insults of the Thai people fail to land, but rather, they ended up being the ones ridiculed. In the end, even as they suffered this double loss, Thai internet users created an entire series of new words, which became trending topics on Twitter, letting the world know about just how these Chinese little pinks will go. [Chinese]
NMSL is an abbreviation of a Chinese insult wishing death to someone’s mother (nǐ mā sǐle 你妈死了). At Foreign Policy, Lauren Teixeira reports further on the term’s emergence and other effective Thai deflections in the battle.
The little pinks carried the flag “protecting the country’s image,” but what did that really accomplish? From WeChat user @黑羊公社:
Once the little pinks were done with their expeditions, it was the “mainlanders” that suffered obvious harm. In this “Sino-Thai War,” Thai internet users (in reality, it wasn’t only Thai people) created tons of emoji packages to demonstrate the image they had in their hearts of mainland Chinese: a bunch of people who only knew how to scream and threaten but had no way to take part in normal discussion. The little pinks’ highly emotional demeanor and calcified way of speaking are too destructive. With all of the “NMSL” flying around, no one would believe you have a “passion for peace,” no matter how many times you repeat it.
Although each of these “expeditions” left behind so much fun material, in the end, there’s a price to be paid by every mainlander. [Chinese]
On April 10, a Weibo friend published some very sarcastic “thoughts” on “Beijing’s hot weather.” The post prompted many to sarcastically reply in the voice of “little pinks bickering.” Their words demonstrated a masterful grasp of “fifty-cent verbal tactics,” suggesting it is no longer even worthy of ridicule because it’s become so enmeshed in our every day lives. As WeChat user @圣谛 said: “As for that ‘Beijing’s A Little Hot’ matter, I run into this virtually every day.”
This sort of magic happens everyday on the Chinese internet. The second you don’t conform, you’ll be cursed until you close your comments section. From WeChat user @蝉创意:
This vulgarity and simplification is squeezing our online space for thought and discussion.
It’s not a communication of ideas and an analysis of the facts online. It’s intolerance, a rush to get in line, to divide, to label others. [Chinese]
In Henan, four young lives were tragically lost. Hongxing News, Beijing News, Shangyou News, and other media traveled to Yuanyang County, Xinxiang, Henan to cover the story—“Four Children Buried.” There, the reporters encountered several unidentified persons who shoved and even beat them. Their cell phones were taken. The incident aroused public attention. As the incident developed accompanied by a suspicious public, a large amount of cursing and personal attacks were directed at the reporters online.
During the viral epidemic, Caixin dispatched reporters to the frontlines. These reporters produced many great stories, but even these Caixin journalists were mobbed, a WeChat user recalls:.
The fuse that sent off the mob on Caixin was the cover of an issue of Caixin Weekly. The cover featured: 1) a red coronavirus; 2) an American flag; 3) an image of the globe. Any vaguely literate person could tell this was conveying that the virus was setting its sights on the U.S. But, bafflingly, this was interpreted as anti-Chinese. As has now become habit for so many, the cover was attributed to some global “conspiracy theory.” That’s right—that conspiracy theory, about the west, about the United States being behind everything. [Chinese]
Last year, one college drop-out described the current environment on the internet as follows:
Right now, bad coins are driving out good coins. Every few days, some “How to View Anti-China So-and-So” incident occupies the headlines. You know what they’re about even without clicking on them. The answer is always some type of “now that China is powerful, some people don’t know how to stand up after kneeling for so long”; “the future of the planet is a red flag world”; “American freedom and democracy is a lie—look at the treatment of black people.” The rest is a bunch of brainless, low-level, pro-red nonsense. If you click on their profiles, to put it unkindly, it’s all stinky fish and rotten shrimp. It’s a completely different group of people on [Q&A platform] Zhihu now. Later, analyzing why there were so many little pinks on Zhihu, I realized it’s probably the same reason I’ve talked about before. These people aren’t great talents. There’s some inferiority complex held deep in their bones. They think, “you all on Zhihu, bullshitting everyday, promoting how great foreign countries are everyday. Well, I’m purposely going to trash you. I’m going to turn you into a dirtbag.” State a differing opinion, and you’ll get scorned until you close yourself down. Then you’ll get reported and your account will be suspended. Douban is no different. [Chinese]
This patriotic hooliganization hasn’t only appeared online and among the masses, it’s now showing up among government officials. It’s a hooliganization from the top all the way to the bottom, from propaganda to diplomacy.
This is especially evident in the speaking style of foreign ministry spokespeople. During the Hu-Wen era, even though they didn’t say much, its rhetoric was always civil and diplomatic. Now, during these years with China on a high, projecting brutal toughness, even being shrew, to the outside world has become the style most appreciated and encouraged within the diplomatic apparatus. Those shouting the fiercest rise through the ranks the fastest. Throughout speeches touted by the Party media and the little pinks, hooliganism is the second most prevalent element. At the very least, one could describe it as unprofessional. This type of language—“not holding it in any longer,” “stirring the crap stick”—used openly. They call it things like a “furious rebuke” and “calling [people] out.” Not to mention what this all means from an ideological propaganda standpoint. Putting shrews and rogue scam artists up as role models is an ordinary occurrence. Open up any Chinese web portal. The first line will be something like “Daddy Xi Cares Deeply about the Hardship-struck Masses.” And then, articles from the scrolling image: “Hong Kong Punk Youths Obstruct Tourists from Returning Home,” “America Pees Itself with Fear, Begs for Mercy in the Trade War,” etc., etc. I’m too tired to screenshot anymore. Just go take a look at those sites for yourself, like hao123, NetEase, etc. [Chinese]
As Hegel said, the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. A moment of darkness is also a moment of change. This change requires rationality and action from each and every one of us.