Zhang Jieping: When Fear Comes, the First Thing to Retreat is Speech

Zhang Jieping is the founder and CEO of Matters Lab, a decentralized content platform. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Initium Media and Executive Editor-in-Chief for iSun Affairs. Following the implementation of the new national security law in Hong Kong, she posted the following message on her Facebook account.

When fear comes, the first thing to retreat is speech.

I saw a similar retreat in 2019. It happened on the social media feeds of countless Chinese people who were sympathetic to Hong Kong. Perhaps they had done something as minor as posting a photo of a peaceful protest on Facebook. Or perhaps they said “Let’s go, Hong Kong.” Or perhaps they liked Joshua Wong’s Instagram post. Then someone (more often than not an acquaintance) would take a screenshot of their online activity and report them publicly. Their Weibo would get targeted. The police would pay them a visit. Their family would be threatened. Once someone got dragged into this black hole, it was as if they disappeared into a real black hole. They would shut down their social media, change their handles, block some friends, stop talking, stop speaking their minds. In the world of the internet, a person disappears when their speech is silenced.

Less than a year later, friends in Hong Kong are doing the same things. Familiar names have become unfamiliar. The messages from like-minded people that used to fill our Facebook pages are hard to see now. People begin deleting their earlier posts, even the meaningless ones. The National Security Law has cast a shadow. It took about 40 days for it to go from rumor to reality, and then more than ten hours after its passage for its content to be made public. This is a comprehensive law that carries the possible penalty of life imprisonment. But until last night, no one knew what was in it. In the past few days, people have swallowed what they wanted to say at the mere thought of how horrible the law could be. And after the law became public, people generally thought it was actually worse than they could have imagined. Their hesitant fear was finally realized. Whatever words were swallowed can never be spoken.

A subjugation in politics starts with a subjugation in speech. When you cannot speak your mind honestly, truthfully, and publicly, the basis for civic discussion is gone. The basis for dialogue, debate, thinking, and organization is lost. A community cannot exist without a voice.

To counter fear, the first thing we need to do is to take our speech back.

We have to take it back from the overbearing, state-sanctioned force; we have to take it back from the sense of guilt over the imprisonment of our peers. This is very difficult. But I firmly believe that this isn’t all-or-nothing. It is a process that can be studied and practiced, with each step having more support than the last one. When we say courage, standing, and self-pursuit, we can’t expect them to be handed to us. Maybe we should take this opportunity to learn and cultivate them one step at a time.

Amid this silence, I want to say special thanks to the Initium Media for putting together this Lennon Wall Collection.

The collection consists of more than 400 stickers and posters from last year. At the time, we took them for granted. The photos and the footage filled our hearts. We were touched, we called for action, we worried about the conflicts and the injuries. But now when I look back at these Post-It Notes and posters with detailed captions, I can only feel a sweeping sense of freedom in my heart.

And I’ve always believed that as long as we have this strong urge in our heart — just like these murmuring Post-It Notes, freedom will stay alive. It can’t be taken away from us. [Chinese]

Translation by Yakexi.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.