CDT Editors’ Picks 2020: The Best from CDT and Around the Internet

The year just past has been one unlike any other in recent memory, in China and around the globe. As the year began, residents of Wuhan were just learning about a new virus that had emerged in their city. By the end of January, the city of 11 million was under a strict lockdown, and the novel coronavirus had begun to spread around the world. Eleven months later, 1.76 million people have died globally, 80 million have been infected, and much of the world is still reeling from the disease’s impact—socially, economically, and politically. Throughout this time, the Chinese government has strengthened its censorship regime while escalating propaganda in an effort to shape the global narrative about COVID’s origins and spread. Medical workers and citizen journalists who shared information in the early stages of the disease have been admonished and jailed. Yet Chinese citizens online have continued to speak up for transparency, freedom of speech, and accountability—both around COVID and other issues, notably sexual assault and other forms of violence against women. The death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang sparked an outpouring of grief and calls for free speech. In Hong Kong, defenders of democracy have continued to stand up as their rights and freedoms have received blow after blow, and the city ended the year with several activists, journalists, lawmakers, and others in jail following implementation of the National Security Law in July. CDT editors have been closely following all these developments and more on a daily basis throughout the year, and here they offer their personal recommendations, from CDT and elsewhere, about China in 2020.

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Sophie Beach, CDT English Executive Editor

  • “In the end, this is how you describe us:
    Banshee, shrew, whore, and hooker
    Fishwife, bitch, slutty man-eater.
    Look, this is how you belittle us”

    These lyrics from Mandopop star Tan Weiwei (Sitar Tan) are powerful in their own right, but they take on a new urgency in a year when China saw several especially brutal cases of violence against women in the national spotlight. Soon before Tan’s song hit the internet, screenwriter and activist Xianzi appeared at a court in Beijing to hold a powerful CCTV host, Zhu Jun, accountable for sexual harassment. Hundreds of Xianzi’s fans gathered in the cold outside the courthouse in solidarity. 
  • In Pretty Lady Cadres, at ChinaFile, journalist Shen Lu shows that the personal remains political for women in China. She analyzes data on China’s leadership to show that positions held by women are sparser the higher up the ladder of political power in China they go. She further examines the institutional, cultural, and political barriers that create a glass ceiling for women in politics, writing: “With so few women in leadership positions, it’s little wonder the government has failed to prioritize policies that would improve the options and opportunities for women.” The balance of power and justice in China is still heavily weighted against the country’s women, but Tan Weiwei and Xianzi are two powerful examples of strong women fighting back.
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Joseph Brouwer, CDT English Editor:

  • Translation: “I Want People to View my Case as a Drill” – An Interview with Xianzi
    I have chosen this translation of an interview with Xianzi because she is hope. Xianzi appeared in court not as the defendant but as the petitioner, a seeming rarity for Chinese activists in 2020, and demanded that the state prosecute violence against women. I believe this interview shows Xianzi’s steely clarity of purpose. On December 2, the day of her trial, hundreds of her supporters ignored the cold to gather outside Beijing’s Haidian District Court. As the afternoon became the evening, a delivery driver with a large order of bubble tea and hand warmers arrived at the scene and yelled out, “Who are Xianzi and her friends?” In unison, the crowd said, “We all are!” We all are.
  • Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System, from Chuang.
    Delivery workers across the globe have risked their lives to provide groceries, food, daily essentials, and medicine throughout the pandemic. This report exposes how algorithms designed by China’s billion-dollar delivery companies, Meituan and Elema, abuse delivery workers by forcing them to take dangerous risks, or face steep financial penalties.

John Chan, CDT English Editor

  • Translation: Pop Singer Tan Weiwei’s New Album Spotlights Violence Against Women: Despite the introduction of a law to combat abuse in 2016, China has failed to stem a crisis of domestic violence. After a series of widely publicized, horrifying cases this year, Tan Weiwei’s song, “Xiao Juan,” broke taboos and firmly focused the spotlight on the endemic violence. CDT has translated its lyrics.
  • Leaving Hong Kong, a Reuters Special Report: The stories about everyday Hong Kong people planning to immigrate abroad have stayed with me throughout this year. There is no punchline to Pak Yiu and Marius Zaharia’s piece for Reuters, about a family leaving everything behind to move to Glasgow in search of a better life for their children, only the methodical, heartbreaking documentation of their departure. Then there is Leo Ball’s animated video about his family’s plans to move: “I will miss the street stall fishballs and siu mai. I will miss the days when we could speak our minds. Some days, seven hours behind you, I will light a candle, sing a song.”

Dongge, CDT Chinese Executive Editor

  • Minitrue Diary 2020 in English and Chinese: People used to know how these propaganda directives shaped China; this year they show vividly how they affect the world—one of the important differences between a new coronavirus outbreak in China and an Ebola outbreak in an African country is the huge propaganda machine that blocks coverage and distorts information until today. After 1.7 million people worldwide died as a result, people still have no idea about what happened in Wuhan a year ago now.
  • 审查员交班日志 (A Censor’s Diary)
    These censorship logs give us an inside look at how Chinese internet censorship works in a meticulous and systematic way. They also include the kinds of news events and social phenomena that have kept Chinese authorities on their toes over the years.

Anne Henochowicz, Translation Coordinator

  • I’m really into the CDT Chinese Guides (导览) series, both for synthesizing the big news stories and digging deeper to find underlying trends, in particular the October 29 guide to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) propaganda in the party-state’s response to Covid-19. Somehow, the inflated promises of TCM cure-alls and the manufacturers who benefitted have not made headlines in either the English or Chinese press, as far as I can tell. Public health is politicized–and monetized–everywhere.
  • Jiayang Fan’s personal essay in The New Yorker about how she and her mother were trolled by Chinese nationalists and state media in the midst of New York’s pandemic lockdown, is a tour-de-force. It is a story of living between identities, of being loved and hated, of face and social media and survival and love. And it is an ode to her mother.
  • For a fictional tale of liminality, this time between Chinese and Tibetan cultures, I recommend Tsering Döndrup’s short story “Baba Baoma,” translated by Christopher Peacock for High Peaks Pure Earth. Also, check out Paradise System’s compilation of comics from the early days of the pandemic in China, “First Wave.”

Tony H, CDT Assistant Manager
I have selected two Wailing Wall posts, netizens’ comments posted on Dr Li Wenliang’s Weibo after China held a “Fighting the Epidemic” Award Ceremony, which did not honor or even mention Dr Li’s name. The netizens were not happy about it and took their feelings online.

Joshua Rudolph, CDT English Editor and Special Projects Manager:

  • CDT Chinese Censorship Digests (Chinese originals, and our English adaptations): In January—at the dawn of what would by December seem a watershed year for geopolitics and China’s place in the global order—CDT Chinese launched a regular monthly survey of developments in the censorship of expression, propaganda, and human rights defense in China. During an incredibly trying year for global human rights and for Beijing’s conduct at home and abroad, this series has taken a far more nuanced look at the overall situation of deteriorating civil liberties in China at a time when Beijing’s model of control is vying for international credibility.
  • Human Rights Watch: World Report 2020: In the same vein, the 2020 World Report emphasized that the “deepening and increasingly sophisticated domestic repression show that China’s leaders view human rights at home as an existential threat,” and highlighted Beijing’s increasingly spirited efforts to influence global norms with that approach. With the world and current regime of norms—however flawed—seeming closer to a breaking point than ever before, understanding the CCP’s method of governance—and the ability it has to spread—is as essential as ever.
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Ryan, CDT Chinese Editor:

  • CDT’s Special Project: China’s “Wailing Wall”中国哭墙Dr Li Wenliang, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, was reprimanded by officials after warning about the “SARS-like virus” in December 2019. One month later, Li contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and died of the disease on February 7 2020. Li accepted interviews while in the hospital, where he shared the opinion that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” and stressed a desire for “more openness and transparency.” After his passing, Chinese people began to gather at his last post on Weibo. In the comments section, they grieve, seek solace and share their everyday life with Li. Some people call it China’s “Wailing Wall,” and it now has more than 3.7 million likes and 1 million comments. CDT is gathering people’s comments in this project; from these comments, we can see an “internet wonder” where people rest their feelings and consciences.
  • Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls: The Heartbeat of “Our Times” by The Initium: Twenty-three years after the handover of sovereignty, the Hong Kong National Security Law was directly set up by the National People’s Congress (NPC), bypassing the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and implemented directly in Hong Kong. It symbolizes the end of “One Country, Two Systems” in some ways.

    Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” is one of the most important slogans of the protests, but what is “Our Times”? And how do the Hong Kong people think of the “Liberation”? You may find the answers  through the posters and sticky notes on Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls, these Lennon Walls have been all over the streets of Hong Kong in 2019, people from different ages and classes have written their imaginations of Hong Kong on these walls.

    Hong Kong Baptist University’s Assistant Professor Li Yiu-tai’s team has been researching the Lennon Walls since 2019, collecting and analyzing textual materials (10,000 strokes in total) and images (2,076 images in total). In this project, Li’s team worked with The Initium, selected 412 of the materials for this online exhibition. I think this project reminds us that even though they can tear down the Lennon Walls in the real world, they cannot eliminate the memories from the internet.

Tiger, CDT Chinese Editor:

  • CDS档案|武汉肺炎:“谣言”中的真相 (Wuhan Pneumonia: The Truth within the “Rumors”)
    How serious was the new coronavirus when it broke out in Wuhan? Officials blocked news, and “rumors” became the only way for the world to know the truth. CDT collected rumors initially circulated online during the new coronavirus outbreak.
  • 【CDT导览】删、隐、止、私、封,审查员是如何审查网民言论的 (Deleting, Hiding, Prohibiting, Shadow Banning, Sealing: How Internet Comments are Censored)
    How does China’s internet censorship work? This article is based on the work logs and research conducted by one censor working at Sina Weibo from 2011 to 2014, and analyzes some basic censorship operations and strategies.

Samuel Wade, CDT English Deputy Editor:

  • Our three-month Minitrue Diary series included one to 11 leaked media directives for most days in the first 10 weeks of 2020. The orders span a period from the calm before the COVID storm, through the desperate early weeks of the outbreak, to Xi’s triumphant visit to Wuhan on the eve of the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic. These directives represent only a small fraction of the total issued, but reading so many over an extended period offers insights rarely available from earlier, isolated leaks, from the emergence and development of themes to suggestions of pushback and impatience in the frequent “reminders” and repetitions.
  • Even when we reject specific claims by the CCP, it is increasingly easy to unwittingly accept and reinforce its broader framing, which may be equally dubious. Gina Anne Tam and Catherine Chou brilliantly highlighted this danger at Radical History Review on June 4, arguing that “rather than streamlining Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the PRC into a ‘Greater China’ with ‘one country, several systems’ as its natural zenith, […] they are better understood as possessing divergent, independent histories that have only recently and unexpectedly been brought together by the force of Beijing’s ambitions.”

Wukefenggao, CDT Chinese Editor:

  • 【CDT导览】从无到有的“翻墙罪”:为中国网民量身定做的“网络枷锁” (The Birth of Crime of “Scaling the Wall”: “Internet Shackles Customized for Chinese Netizens): The Chinese government first made public this year its decision to impose administrative penalties on internet users who circumvent the Great Firewall (翻墙), which was later cancelled under pressure. We’ve looked at the changes in the way the Chinese government has punished “scaling the Wall” over the past six years. Two important trends are: 1. a more clear definition of “The Crime of Scaling the Wall” will gradually take shape in the future; 2. a “scaling the Wall domain whitelist” or “scaling the Wall method whitelist” is likely to emerge and all Chinese internet users will face network regulations for their circumvention behavior.
  • 乳透社·小反旗 This Youtube account was created by Chinese netizens to tease, insult, and spoof Chinese leader Xi Jinping. While such actions are normal in countries with free speech, it is a very high-risk action in China. The “乳 (辱) 包” (humiliating the “steamed bun,” or humiliating Xi Jinping) is a concept that started to gain popularity this year, where people get some kind of joy and emotional release in the stifling speech environment by criticizing the person who absolutely should not be criticized in the domestic public opinion environment. This account was hacked by the Chinese state in an attempt to seize access this year.

Xiao Qiang, Editor-in-Chief and Founder
I choose these three stories which together are what I found to be the most moving contents on Chinese social media (despite government censorship) in 2020.

Yakexi, Liaison Editor:

  • Lu Yuyu’s “Incorrect Memory”: These essays provided rare insight into China’s criminal justice system and the author’s experience as a journalist and activist living under a police state. Lu Yuyu, a citizen journalist who was released in June 2020 after spending four years in prison, has taken to the internet to release a detailed account of his arrest, trial, and imprisonment. Lu is co-founder of “Not News,” a blog that documents protests and civic engagement in China. In 2016, he and his partner Li Tingyu were arrested and sentenced to prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vaguely defined offense that has increasingly been used to punish activism.
  • Top 10 Ministry of Truth Directives of 2020 in Chinese and in English: How (not) to report on the coronavirus outbreak, how to control online discussions regarding the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, how to properly guide public opinion during the US elections… CDT has published leaked directives from the Chinese government to show what Big Brother thinks.

Yuri (雨里), CDT Chinese Editor:

  • CDT导览】云极权主力——微信审查的证词、调查与反抗 (The Main Force of Digital Totalitarianism – Testimonies, Investigations, and Resistance to WeChat Censorship)
    This guide collects testimonies, investigations, and resistance to censorship on WeChat in order to present abundant views of the mechanisms and effects of WeChat censorship. WeChat has been the main force of China’s “big data totalitarianism” in recent years. During the pandemic, censorship of speech has not been contained or corrected, but has increased and caused more damage to civil society. Many citizens resist in different forms,but they were suppressed by the violent state apparatus. China’s big data totalitarianism needs more attention to be addressed by the international community.
  • 武汉· 人间(Wuhan People)
    During the pandemic in China, users on Weibo spontaneously created the “Covid-19 Patients Seeking Help” super-topic channel, and thousands of requests for help from patients in the pandemic area were posted on the channel. Then their messages were censored. According to a user’s feedback, “The channel was successfully created on January 29, but on February 3, officials discovered it, and on February 4, the number of posts fell from more than 3,000 to 142.” The founder of Wuhan-People collected the messages of the patients that were not deleted on this website, hoping that more people would pay attention to and understand each of the sick compatriots, as a living human being like us, through their first-person voice, to understand the difficulties, pain, despair, and life and death they were facing at that time.
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