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 August, adapted to include links to English coverage when available:
CDT Chinese Censorship Digest, August 2020: “Xi Jinping’s China is the Greatest Threat to the Way of Life We Enjoy in the Free World”
In August, while the CCP lavishly exercised its totalitarian power over China, signs emerged of global opposition to its increasing ambition to export that power to the world. At home, new crackdowns hit social media accounts on Weibo, WeChat, Douyin, and other platforms; various forms of censorship cleared distinct voices one by one; and a “health code” that emerged during the COVID-19 outbreak turned into a substantial weapon for surveillance. On the frontiers of the CCP’s formal power, the newly implemented National Security Law allowed the CCP to make unbridled arrests of the once free people in Hong Kong; in Xinjiang, an extreme COVID-19 lockdown continued after cases subsided further terrorizing the people there; mass anger followed the government’s requirement of schools in Inner Mongolia to use Chinese under the banner of “Type Two Bilingual Education.”
Meanwhile, on the international stage, the low profile that Beijing has long maintained began to crumble, and the values the CCP has attempted to export through economic, cultural, academic, and other avenues have been identified as a threat to the free world.
Two or three years ago, historian Yu Yingshi noted in an interview that under the status quo, it was impossible to talk about where China was headed. With the amount of resources currently devoted to its operation, and a regime willing to back it with violence, “Party capitalism” would be around for a while, there would be no possibility of immediate change to the status quo. However, he also noted that this in no way means he believes that the dictatorship of “Party capitalism” would dominate the world, as the world has noticed its tendency to sacrifice the weak and poor in society to allow elite groups to “get rich first.”
As Yu pointed out, while the CCP has poured effort into expanding its territory and global influence in recent years, it has exposed to the world its “Achilles’ heel.” Whether it be on the mainland, in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, or on the international stage, the CCP’s totalitarian violence is constant. But, there is also a growing consensus that a regime maintained on violence can’t last.
1. Totalitarianism’s Achilles’ Heel: Those Brave Enough to Challenge It
On August 17, the website of the Central Party School announced that retired professor Cai Xia “made statements that are very politically problematic and damaging to the reputation of the country. Her character is vile, the situation grave. She has seriously violated the Party’s political discipline and the behavioral norms of employees of state institutions […]” and that Cai’s CCP membership and retirement benefits had been cancelled. Cai, who reported being safe and well in the United States, replied on Twitter:
I’ve been totally cut out of this mafia party! They’ve always been afraid to see the light. When they expelled me, all they said was that I had made very politically problematic statements, but they didn’t say what the problems were, or what exactly I had said. That’s why I have extracted the relevant parts of their official pronouncement of my expulsion. My friends, here it is: (1) I wrote a short piece about the National Security Law in Hong Kong; (2) I talked about “replacing Xi” in a speech I gave that was recorded; (3) I signed a petition for freedom of speech to my compatriots. [Source]
Days later, on August 19 Tsinghua University issued an unemployment notice for Professor Xu Zhangrun, who has in recent years attracted attention for publishing articles criticizing the government. Xu had been detained in July, and has pledged to challenge the “wholly nonexistent” charges of solicitation of prostitution that authorities have alleged. Shortly after, Xu was appointed as a research associate at Harvard, but has been barred from leaving China. China Heritage has translated Xu’s letter of thanks, and his reiterated critique of Beijing.
On August 4, the founder of the “Not News” protest tracking site Lu Yuyu was once again summoned by the police. He had recently been released after serving a four-year sentence for his work, and began publishing his experiences on Twitter (before switching to Matters; CDT has translated his account). What did police warn Lu about this time when they visited? “Scaling the wall” to access Twitter.
[…] 2. Mainland Surveillance Becomes Increasingly Comprehensive, Increasingly Unsettling
The Cyberspace Administration of China took action once again in August, this time taking aim at commercial website platforms and “self-media.” Chinese social media sustained yet another great purge, amid which many Weibo and WeChat accounts were shut down—virtually all accounts discussing news or current affairs were taken down.
Commenting on this, the founder of Southern Metropolis Daily and former general editor of Beijing News Cheng Yizhong stated that he believed the current situation for Chinese internet platforms began taking shape back in 2003. This most recent action was nothing new—just authorities playing their old tune over again. This time, they moved self-media into their managerial purview, but they’re just beating a dead horse. It’s a crackdown just for higher-ups to see, he said:
When the internet first appeared, the authorities hesitated. They thought they wouldn’t be able to control it. They thought controlling traditional media would be good enough. But in 2003, a series of events, including the Sun Zhigang incident, SARS, the Southern Metropolis Daily case, etc., made the authorities realize that the influence of the internet had increased. They realized they had to actively manage it. And so they had to change the situation. And so, the situation began to change at this time. [Chinese]
Around that time, Chen recalled, the CCP changed its political approach and began “imitating North Korea,” and its control of the internet became greater and greater.
CDT Chinese editors have been taking note. In August, CDT Chinese published a review of WeChat censorship and its harm. A short excerpt is translated here:
Oh how WeChat has suffered in this world! WeChat has over 1.1 billion active accounts worldwide and over 20 million public accounts. Everyone knows, its enormous Chinese-language user base and the information monopoly it enjoys (maintained by the Great Firewall) are key tools for China’s autocratic rule. For many years, WeChat has subjected users to increasingly strict censorship. During any important event society (the commemoration of June 4th, the death of Liu Xiaobo, the Sino-U.S. trade war, the #MeToo movement, the “709” human rights lawyer roundup, the Hong Kong anti-China extradition movement, the coronavirus epidemic, and other various public crises, civic movements, human rights movements, the arrest and persecution of citizen journalists and dissidents, etc.), WeChat will always cooperate with the authorities, conducting large-scale silencing campaigns, blocking and filtering information to deceive and control the public. On top of that, during so-called “sensitives periods” like the COVID-19 pandemic, WeChat censors speech, shuts down groups and individual accounts left and right, proverbially “helping the tyrant carry out oppression,” “playing the jackal to the tiger.” Xu Zhangrun called this “WeChat terrorism.” The people have long made their discontent over this heard. [Chinese]
On August 12, CCTV criticized renowned Hong Kong lyricist Albert Leung for “associating with” Hong Kong independence activists, because he interacted with Nathan Law on social media. The commentary also mentioned a 2015 lecture Leung gave at Hong Kong University, during which he delivered lyrics from the point of view of an official mouthpiece, in parody of the song “Beijing Welcomes You.” The article called this a “stain on his life.” CCTV’s article incited widespread anger towards Leung on Weibo, where it became a trending topic. While comments called for Albert Leung’s works to be banned, there were also voices opposing this.
In recent years, in China’s high-pressure political atmosphere, numerous artists and celebrities have been boycotted after publicly doing or saying something involving Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, or other sensitive topics—or perhaps just because some unexpected “incriminating evidence” happened to surface. In these instances, they are frequently reported by nosy people, named and criticized by official media, then their stories explode online, thanks to the work of all the “little pinks.” In less serious cases, they apologize and delete their posts. In serious cases their work gets banned and they are blacklisted in Mainland China. The regime has silenced and caused artists to self-censor for a very long time, relying on the powerful deterrent of scaring artists into compliance. Other talented people who don’t comply get shut out. This also impairs the quality of life for the ordinary people of the mainland by restricting their access to artistic works.
For this reason, CDT Chinese editors have compiled a list of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Western celebrities that have faced backlash in China for political reasons. Whether innocent victims actively resisting oppression or protesters fighting for their ideals, they all deserve attention.
On August 17 The New Yorker published famed former China correspondent Peter Hessler’s article titled “How China Controlled the Coronavirus.” The article was translated into at least two separate simplified Chinese versions that were circulated in Chinese social media. Observant internet users discovered that, compared to the original English, the translated versions happened to leave out mention of “the initial Chinese coverup of the virus” and a brief mention of policy on Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Additionally, global propaganda outlet CGTN couldn’t resist using Hessler’s article to exalt China and disparage the U.S.
On August 15, internet users discovered that the film “V for Vendetta” had completely disappeared from the web. The film, based on a cartoon of the same name, tells the story of a parallel time and space, where the Nazis won World War II and the United Kingdom became its colony. A strange masked hero, who called himself “V,” fought against the totalitarian government. Since the movie’s 2005 release, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by “V” has come to symbolize resistance to totalitarian rule.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, more and more movies, books, songs, videos, variety shows, and even animation have become subject to increased scrutiny. Some of this censorship originated from relevant authorities, such as the National Radio and Television Administration, but there’s also a lot of self-censorship carried out within major media platforms. Intended to minimize the risk of drawing the ire of national authorities, this completely eliminates space for political dissent. Beyond that, tolerance is also dropping sharply even for content deemed “unsuitable for children,” “negative energy,” or “non-mainstream.” While this censorship is an infringement on people’s rights, it’s also a serious blow to content creators, to market freedom, and to economic vitality. For public reference, CDT Chinese editors are keeping track of recent instances of creators, works, and programs being censored.
Censorship isn’t the only way the CCP exercises its totalitarian control. It’s also increasingly interested in ordinary people’s daily lives. On August 5, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley shared a video in which a Chinese man gave a detailed explanation of all of the various functions of the surveillance cameras on a monitoring pole. Some of the functions included car license plate monitoring, facial recognition, and cell phone positioning. The video demonstrated what personal privacy looks like in the “collecting it all at a glance” big data era in China.
If birdwatching is a hobby, what do you call people who specialize in spotting the marvelous subtleties of surveillance cameras? Chinese man gives an expert introduction. pic.twitter.com/JiFM86MODx
— Chris Buckley 储百亮 (@ChuBailiang) August 4, 2020
In August, Xi Jinping issued orders aimed at stopping food waste, and the vague central orders along with the food industry’s ham-fisted attempts to comply was met with a consumer backlash. Commenting on this situation on WeChat Moments, Zhao Chu said:
These days, the anti-food waste movement has been become the the proverbial “deer” who is “called a horse”: a deliberate misrepresentation, a nationwide stress test, to show complete loyalty and surrender. Living frugally and not wasting—this is simple common sense. Its meaning is limited. Because, first, the economic development of modern society is based on consumption. Second, one’s personal consumption habits are not something that can be publicly controlled. In modern countries, money for public expenditure comes from the people. It is to be spent with the public’s permission. Therefore, powerful and effective means should be available to the people to supervise and control the expenditure of public funds—rather than those in power having control over how people order food or eat, watch what movies, read what books. From Albania, the Khmer Rouge, Tanzania-Zambia Railway, to the Great Leap Forward, it doesn’t take long to see—what else in the world is more wasteful than power not controlled by the people? What could produce worse consequences? [Chinese]
In another worrying occurrence this August, electronic currency appears to be moving in to replace paper money with increasing speed. Electronic food stamps are even a possibility, further increasing public anxiety. On WeChat, Fang Haixin wondered how long it might take for this trend to be weaponized and used in efforts to control the public:
As it is with all things, where there’s a positive, there’s also a negative. You could easily imagine, for example, you’re a victim of injustice, and you want to buy a car to go to Beijing to file a complaint. So, can the person in charge of the roads shut down your e-wallet with a simple phone call to the bank? You’d be instantly rendered penniless. Forget about buying a train ticket—you wouldn’t even have money to pay for daily living expenses. Would you still dare go petition for your rights? If you’re a lawyer, not only would the government be able to revoke your lawyer’s license, they’d also be able to shut down your e-wallet. What would you do then? [Chinese]
[…] 5. “Xi Jinping’s China is the Greatest Threat to Life in the Free World”
On August 29, a young American named Kevin posted an article in Chinese and English arguing that “Xi Jinping’s China is the greatest threat to the way of life we enjoy in the free world”:
CPC influence is already widespread in American academia, business, think tanks, pop culture, and politics. Given what the CPC has done to suppress freedom within China’s borders and the steps it is taking to buy influence and silence criticism globally, this should concern all Americans — liberal, conservative, or otherwise. [Source]
It is increasingly clear that this is the understanding the world is coming to, the action the world has taken.
During an August 5 press conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced five new measures to establish a U.S. “Clean Network,” naming seven Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, China Mobile, and Baidu. The measures would ban more Chinese apps and put another set of restrictions on Chinese companies entering U.S. cloud networks. Pompeo, speaking to the media, went so far as to say that “it’s possible companies like TikTok and WeChat that operate in the United States, all directly submit their data to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Why is the U.S., who has always led the charge against China’s internet censorship, taking moves to clean up the internet? There are a lot of reasons: security concerns, to protect their own economy… But at the end of the day, it’s all about a conflict between two different value systems. From Voice of America:
[Scholar] Hu Ping said: “The principle of reciprocity is a fair principle. This is reasonable to everyone. Whether or not the Chinese accept it, the U.S. has a moral advantage. This is more powerful than economic interest or security. If the Chinese side refuses, then the U.S. will have even more just cause to take any action against Chinese social media and self media. This is the CCP’s weakness. I don’t expect China to accept these restrictions, but this is a moral victory the U.S. can only win by emphasizing this [moral superiority]. They must put into stark relief that this is a battle between freedom and autocracy. It is a battle between two systems, two sets of values. [Chinese]
On August 13, the U.S. government announced they had labelled Confucius Institutes a “foreign mission,” forcing the organization to accept stricter administrative restrictions. This meant that the agency coordinating Confucius Institutes in the U.S. would join the ranks of the nine Chinese state media, targeted for review by the U.S. government.
On August 1, media began covering a report from Stanford University, “Telling China’s Story: The Chinese Communist Party’s Campaign to Shape Global Narratives.” The report analyzed two core institutions through which the Chinese government controls political messaging: the CPC Central Committee Propaganda Department and the United Front Work Department, and also warned of the threat that China’s increasing propaganda power has to global freedom and democracy.
On August 11, multiple international non-governmental organizations, including Safeguard Defenders, issued a joint call to the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive review of China’s use of forced television confessions. They urged action against the Chinese government to reduce forced television confessions and other human rights violations.
6. A Police State Will Eventually Fracture
As the CCP attempted to show the world its upgraded dystopian grand plan this August, its Achilles’ heel was simultaneously exposed by growing opposition at home, on the periphery, and worldwide. A viral article by Guo Jianlong, shared on WeChat, made a prediction of where this might lead:
In the end, no matter how large a superpower, once it embarks down the path of “security maintenance,” no matter how long they can stretch it out, it will inevitably fracture to pieces. And after the fracture, the result will be even more chaotic.
In actuality, many countries in the world have already embarked down the road to fracture. It’s just that some of them are close to the end, and others have a long way to go. These uncertain times are making many in power to have a fluke mentality: After I’m dead, who cares about floods or crops? Or: I’m not going to become Chongzhen Emperor. [Chinese]
Translation by Little Bluegill and Josh Rudolph.