CDT Censorship Digest, December 2020: The Rumble in the CCP’s Narrative Machine

The CDT Censorship Digest is a monthly round-up of censored speech, propaganda developments, and rights defense in China, compiled and written by CDT Chinese editors. We have selected, translated, and adapted relevant and interesting portions of the digest for our English readers, and encourage you to read the full December 2020 digest as originally posted at CDT Chinese.

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On December 20, 2020, renowned East Asia scholar and Harvard University professor Ezra Vogel died at age 90. In a review of Vogel’s 2011 tome on Deng Xiaoping for The New York Review of Books, the late Fang Lizhi included a comment on the scholar’s take on the “Tiananmen tragedy”:

With these words [on the rapid increase in economic livelihood, education. and longevity since 1989] Vogel indicates that he basically accepts an argument that the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has been making for the past twenty years: that “stability” and economic growth show that the repression at Tiananmen was justified in the long run. When foreign dignitaries or journalists have asked about the massacre, the response of Party leaders has been consistent: if Deng Xiaoping had not taken “resolute” (i.e., murderous) measures, China could not have had the stable society or flourishing economy that it enjoyed in the ensuing years. [Source]

The Chinese text of the review has been archived at CDT Chinese. In a sense, what one of the world’s most respected scholars of East Asia conveys in his book is precisely the narrative long peddled by the Chinese Communist Party, a clever obfuscation of historical truth. And the CCP’s narrative, just like its history, is a work in progress.

On December 19, The New York Times and ProPublica jointly published the in-depth report “No ‘Negative’ News: How China Censored the Coronavirus.” Drawing from over 32,000 directives and 1,800 memorandums leaked from Hangzhou’s Cyberspace Administration Office, as well as internal documents and code from internet monitoring software firm Urun Big Data Services, the report analyzes how the CCP manipulated public opinion concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. The report notes “The Times and ProPublica independently verified the authenticity of many of the documents, some of which had been obtained separately by China Digital Times, a website that tracks Chinese internet controls.” CDT founder Xiao Qiang is quoted in the report commenting on the scale, sophistication, and ambition of China’s public opinion machine: “‘China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated and supported by the state’s resources. […] It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale.’ […] ‘This is a huge thing,’ he added. ‘No other country has that.’”

How can you confront something as powerful as this? Simple: make your own voice heard, and use it to challenge the official narrative and steer towards truth. Throughout December, this is exactly what CDT Chinese editors saw happening, from Chinese feminists, to people in Hong Kong, and others across China.

Feminist Voices: Responsibility and Power

Mandopop singer Tan Weiwei in December released her new album “3811,” consisting of 11 songs each telling how the life of a different Chinese woman from a different social background had been affected by domestic violence. The album came as public anger was high over a series of brutal cases representing endemic violence against women in the country. Many netizens applauded her bravery in speaking out. Responding to the praise, Tan said, “This isn’t bravery, this is just responsibility.” In December, many other Chinese women also took that responsibility, and showed their power to the world.

Over two years after accusing prominent CCTV anchor Zhu Jun of sexual harassment while she was an intern in 2014, screenwriter Xianzi finally went to court on December 2. Just ahead of the trial, in an interview with a popular WeChat blogger, Xianzi explained the significance of the case from her point of view:

“I think what we are doing here—whether to demand that Zhu Jun shows up in court, or to demand a public proceeding—is trying to offer some help to other women who might have had similar experiences. We are asking ourselves what we can do for them, what discussions we should have. We demanded that Zhu Jun show up in court. Our most direct impact might not be actually seeing Zhu Jun tomorrow. But at least we can tell people what should be afforded under due process. This is meaningful in its own way. “ [Source] [Chinese]“

See also CDT’s English translation of a longer excerpt from that interview. After the trial, which Zhu Jun did not attend, Xianzi and her lawyers announced a list of demands: recusal of the current judges on the case; the appearance of Zhu Jun at the next hearing; a public hearing; and a public jury to hear the case. It has not yet been announced when or if a second hearing will take place.

On WeChat, articles and comments in support of Xianzi came steadily, and constantly faced deletion. CDT Chinese has collected several articles in support of Xianzi, selections of which have been translated.

In December, other incidents of  women being humiliated is worth our attention. For example, after Ms. Zhao, a 20-year-old woman from Chengdu, was diagnosed with COVID-19, she found her privacy violated. What began as a physical disease slowly transformed into moral criticism, then to oppression when her personal details and information about her movements were published online and a doxxing campaign ensued.

China passed the Anti-domestic Violence Law in 2016. However, victims often still face hardship when seeking protection and police intervention. Early in the month, Feminist activist Xiao Meili hosted a podcast with social workers involved in domestic violence cases. One of them, nicknamed Huahua, is an anti-domestic violence hotline operator for the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-sponsored organization for women’s rights. She advises callers on how to report abuses to the police. Huahua shared the frustrations she often encountered with the police:

Every day, I advise people on how to report to the police. On one hand, the public authorities need to get involved. On the other, we need to leave a paper trail during the process.

As of now, I’ve advised no less than 30 people, but none of them were able to get an admonishment notice for their abusers. I’ve taught at least 10 people how to draft a “restraining order for personal protection.” I’ve even drafted some myself, but none of my clients were successful in obtaining one.

My job is to go through the process, and then to accept the failure that results from the process. […] [Chinese]


The “Rumble” in the Engine of the CCP’s Narrative Machine

The power of the CCP’s narrative machine can be seen in the way it records its history or describes the novel coronavirus outbreak. The power of this mechanism can also be seen when looking at how drastically it affects every aspect of life for the Chinese people.

December 30 marks one year since Dr. Li Wenliang warned in a private WeChat group of a severe SARS-like virus. Less than a year later, with Dr. Li Wenliang a martyr and the coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc across the globe, a WeChat essay by @呦呦鹿鸣 described and rounded-up prominent social media accounts spreading the narrative that the doctor had died due to media harassment while on his deathbed.

In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists named China the world’s leading jailor of journalists for a second year in a row, with 47 in prison. Earlier in the year, Reporters Without Borders listed China 177 out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index. Nonetheless, the “rumble” of civil protest never stops banging beneath the CCP’s carefully calibrated narrative machine. CDT Chinese editors archived some of these voices in December.

[…] On December 7, Haze Fan, a Chinese news assistant employed by Bloomberg, was taken away by plainclothes police, and four days later was charged with national security crimesXu Zhangrun, meanwhile, reported that nine new surveillance cameras had been installed within a 50 meter radius of his home, and dozens of new cameras had been installed in his district providing authorities a “holistic, all-weather, and finely detailed view” of his life.

December 10 was International Human Rights Day. This year on that day, a number of prominent rights lawyers, some detained in the “Black Friday” or 709 crackdown on rights advocates, suddenly found themselves under house arrest along with family members. This was believed to be in an effort to prevent them from attending any Rights Day events at foreign embassies.

Lawyer Zhou Ze published evidence of clients being tortured to extract confessions. He was punished with a one year suspension, stoking outrage in the legal community.

On December 21, the National Office for the Fight Against Pornography and Illegal Publications announced in a press release that popular video site Bilibili had been ordered to rectify vulgar content, including illegal overseas cartoons and illegal advertisements. In 2020, the office received over 500 reports from the masses about issues with Bilibili, which relevant departments in Shanghai have interviewed the company for more than 10 times and penalized them six times.

[…] Documentary filmmaker and former New York Times photojournalist Du Bin went missing on the morning of December 16. That night, his sister received a phone call from the police that he was detained at the Beijing Daxing District Detention Center on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Human rights activist Ou Biaofeng was officially charged for the same offense towards the end of the month, the day before his administrative detention was set to expire. He had been detained early in the month for sharing a video of an activist known as “ink girl” who filmed herself throwing ink on a poster of Xi Jinping. His detention was about to expire on December 19. On December 18 his wife was informed by police of his detention when they searched their home and announced the charges.

On December 28, the closed-door trial against citizen journalist Zhang Zhan began in Shanghai. Zhang was the fourth citizen journalist to be arrested in relation to the documentation of the lockdown and early outbreak in Wuhan at the start of the COVID-19 epidemic. The 37-year-old was sentenced to four years in prison.

Amid the continued rumblings against the CCP’s otherwise flawless narrative machine in December, Matters user JOKASEN wrote about their two experiences being invited to “drink tea” by authorities, concluding:

I don’t know when or where the next time I’ll be drinking tea is, nor what unexpected word will touch on their fear and sensitivities to get me there. But as long as my conscience survives there are many things I won’t be able turn a deaf ear to, let alone remain silent about […]. [Chinese]

And so, even a narrative machine as powerful as the CCPs will often fail.


2020: From Li Wenliang’s Admonishment to Zhang Zhan’s Trial

December 30, 2020 is the first anniversary of Dr. Li Wenliang’s fateful whistleblowing, a day commemorating the “false rumors” about the novel coronavirus that he shared on a WeChat group on December 30, 2019 and was officially reprimanded for. On December 28, 2020, Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for filing citizen reports on COVID-19 in Wuhan; her lawyer announced that on December 30, she was in a courtroom.

Li Wenliang:  “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” February 2020 [Source]

Zhang Zhan: [Addressing judge] “Doesn’t your conscience tell you that what you are doing is wrong, in putting me in the dock? […] It’s not I who is on trial here today, it’s you.”   [Source]


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