CDT Censorship Digest, May 2020: Say “No” to Totalitarian Absurdity

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 has translated an excerpt from the full CDT Chinese digest for May, adapted to include links to English coverage when available:

CDT Chinese | Chinese Censorship Digest, May 2020: Say “No” to Totalitarian Absurdity

May was filled with absurdity.

First came an absurd corporate/state media collaboration on May 4 Youth Day, the holiday commemorating the nationalistic political movement that grew out of student protests in 1919. In a commercial for video-sharing site Bilibili, middle-aged television star He Bing addressed the next generation of Chinese adults. Addressing them as “the next wave” over a montage of images of affluence and promise, he told a youth whose screens have long been flooded by 404s that they were blessed with freedom of choice, passionately wishing them to “rush on, next wave, we’re in the same rushing river.” One netizen completed that sentiment: “We’re stranded in the same rushing river.” Many other web users spoke out against the blatant show of propaganda, reminding Beijing how many in the country are still not enjoying a promising life of affluence.

Another absurd event that happened in May was the fight between 68-year-old Tai Chi master Ma Baoguo and 50-year-old amateur MMA fighter Wang Qingmin. The former was KO’d after being knocked to the floor twice—all this within 30 seconds. Afterwards, Ma was reluctant to own his defeat, insisting that he could have broken his opponent’s nose with his superior traditional martial arts. To this, netizens offered a brilliant reply: that this spin wizard should be transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Three days later, on May 21, the Two Sessions began in Beijing. The National People’s Congress deliberated on Hong Kong’s “maintenance of national security.” As if the “one country, two systems” principle had become a joke, Beijing announced it would impose sweeping national security legislation. Netizens were aghast at the absurdity of the overreach, mocking that the 50 years since the 1997 handover had felt a lot more like 20. The meetings of the NPC and CPPCC, by constitutional provision the highest state power organs in the PRC, have by now almost been reduced to mere exhibitions of ridiculousness, and this year was no exception. The integration of Chinese medicine into basic elementary  secondary education, the “milk-for-life” program, the promotion of a real-name system for transit cards, and many other NPC proposals all became topics of netizen scorn.

How do you fight against absurdity? How do you resist the “perfect sin” of totalitarianism? In “The Rebel,” French writer Camus pointed out that the only way out for people trapped in absurdity is to rise up, to resist. Only in this way can we survive amid absurdity and despair. This is what the Chinese people are trying to do. From the tens of thousands of people marching on the streets of Hong Kong and the open letters of opposition circulated online in China; to every act of political satire, each deleted article or censored public account; to every sentence of truth and every burst of laughter—this can all be seen as a fight against the absurdity of totalitarianism.

Regarding Ma Baoguo’s martial arts match, scholar Zhao Shilin believes that the significance of those “fighting madmen” was not only to expose a few conmen, but also to fight against hypocrisy and fraud, and to fight the spread of a long-lasting and toxic culture of scammers. In the same way, every fight against the absurdity of totalitarianism has great and far-reaching significance.

“The Non-resistant Become Resistant”

Just as last month, we continued to see many people charged with speech crimes in May. According to numbers gathered online, there have been 922 cases of “literary inquisition” speech crimes from 2013 through May of this year. Novel coronavirus-related cases account for more than half of those.

In an interview several years ago, journalist Jiang Xue said: “After a person experiences freedom for a period of time, they’ll hope for even more freedom of expression.” Obviously, Jiang Xue’s hopes have now all fallen away. One day in May, Jiang Xue was suddenly taken away by the police for questioning, over an essay published April 5 by Initium Media, “On This National Day of Mourning, I Refuse to Join the Arranged Choir.” She returned home safely four hours later. She said this wasn’t the first time this kind of thing happened. This also happened to scholar Zhang Xuezhong. He was taken away by Shanghai police on May 11 for publishing a nearly ten-thousand character long open letter to China’s National People’s Congress calling for national constitutionalism and a peaceful transformation of the government. He was released and returned home about 24 hours later.

As for former media personality Zhang Jialong and Shandong poet Lu Yang, they weren’t so lucky. Both were charged and detained, the former for “provoking unrest,” the latter for “subversion of state power.” In actuality, these are typical cases of “speech crimes.” Even more conspicuous was the case of former lawyer Zhang Zhan, who has been detained three times. She had been living in the Hankou Train Station Hanguang Hotel for the last two months, reporting daily on the situation of the Wuhan people during the epidemic.  She was criminally detained for provoking unrest on May 15.

During the epidemic period, the crowd-sourced Terminus-2049 project has been archiving news that’s been deleted by authorities. Contact was lost with three of their young volunteers at the end of April. A week later, two of them confirmed they had been under “residential surveillance in a designated location” by the regime. In May, the outlet NGOCN also disappeared. “The world is silent; we have things to say”—independent media NGOCN persevered for 15 years under that motto, like a faint light, illuminating the path for so many. Though no record remains, its light of idealism shines on.

A May 23 Xinhua report stated that official national standards for “Personal Health Information QR Codes” had recently been released, and that efforts would be taken to institute unified “National Guobiao Standards” on the various health QR codes currently in use. In the future, “health QR codes” will be integrated into a national government service platform, and might even be expanded to wider applications in other sectors. These health QR codes are going to be made long-term or permanent. In Hangzhou, they’ve already prepared a color-graded health QR code system and put it to use during the coronavirus fight. Commenting on the trend, WeChat user @人间思想笔记 described the aggregate health QR code and warned of its long lasting potential implications on privacy:

[This] stopped being mostly related to the novel coronavirus. It compiles your health record, exercise record, and rest time all together, and then gives you a comprehensive score, to tell you if you’re green enough. Then, it forces you to keep increasing your green score through ranking and evaluating these external variables.

[…] “To combat the epidemic, we’ve given up a lot of privacy, but this is temporary, not permanent. We must be wary of those in power gaining an inch but taking a foot, turning temporary expediency into permanent advantage.” [Chinese]

The absurdity and fear of totalitarianism permeates everyone’s daily life. For example, the swift “disappearance” of the news that 500,000 people had been infected in Wuhan. Or, singer Liu Keqing’s “image violation” and account shutdown for looking too much like Xi Jinping. Another example was discovered by netizens who noticed that a Baidu search for “Wuhan pneumonia” yields the“friendly reminder”: “Viruses are not related to region or race. ‘Novel Coronavirus’ is referred to in English as ‘COVID-19,’ its Chinese name is ‘novel coronavirus pneumonia.’” This disclaimer didn’t appear on searches for “African Swine Fever,” “Spanish Flu,” etc.

This absurdity and fear has also radiated into Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau. In Hong Kong, a 13-year-old student journalist was detained while conducting an interview. In Taiwan, a professor was forced to apologize after a Chinese student reported him for mentioning the Republic of China, sparking a debate over Taiwan’s academic freedom. In Macau, commemoration of June 4 was banned for the first time in 30 years.

Rising up and resisting amidst this absurdity, the non-sensitive have become sensitive, the non-resistant have become rebels. The treatment of Terminus-2049 caused Blockflote, another collector of epidemic-related news and recordings, to temporarily panic and close down the project. After the anger and reflection that followed, they decided to resist through writing:

Closing down the project also had another, more interesting meaning. Like previously mentioned, the project I was involved in wasn’t as “sensitive” as Terminus, but because of the chilling effect, we began to lose confidence. We closed down because we had labelled ourselves as sensitive. Closing down forced me to second-guess and self-censor. But, in the end, I decided I couldn’t be this way. I had to resist through writing. In a way, closing down and writing amounted to a confirmation of my “sensitive”-ness. Writing confirmed my “resisting” nature. Ironically, I established such an identity only after I learned about what happened to Terminus. In other words, the chilling effect of censorship, and the desire to resist it, forced me to reevaluate the preservation work I was doing, reestablish my identity. The non-sensitive have become sensitive; the non-resistant have become resistant. [Chinese]


Say “No” to Absurdity

In 1946, Albert Camus gave a speech “The Human Crisis.” In this speech, Camus once again emphasized the significance of resistance in the face of totalitarian absurdity:

In this world stripped of values, in this desert of the heart in which we dwelled, what in fact could revolt signify? It made us into people who said no, but at the same time, we were people who said yes. We said no to the world, to its essential absurdity, to the abstractions that threatened us, to the civilization of death that was being prepared for us. By saying no we declared that things had lasted long enough, and there was a line that could not be crossed, but at the same time we affirmed everything that felt short of that line. We affirmed that there was something within us that rejected the scandal of human suffering and could not be humiliated for too long. [Source]

Translation by Little Bluegill and Josh Rudolph. The full May CDT Chinese censorship digest is available in Chinese. 


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