CDT Weekly, February 5-11: Clubhouse, Li Wenliang, BBC Xinjiang Report Reactions, COVID’s Origins

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first edition of CDT’s new weekly roundup, also available as an email newsletter through Substack. With these updates, we aim to provide an overview of new content across CDT’s English and Chinese sites, as well as the bilingual China Digital Space wiki, and related content elsewhere.

Our focal points this week included a pair of upwellings of public expression, one long-running and the other short-lived. Since the death of whistleblowing Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang a year ago this week, the comment section beneath his final Weibo post has become a “wailing wall” on which countless users have left over a million comments confiding their hopes and anxieties about the ongoing pandemic, and their lives in general. CDT has revisited these messages several times over the past year, particularly on the Chinese site, and posted another update to mark the anniversary of Li’s death. One poster promised to buy fried chicken and drink a toast in tribute. Another, a fellow healthcare worker, lamented intense pressure on the profession amid ongoing COVID flare-ups and recent attacks on doctors, complaining that “we’re all just like the walking dead, trying to get through this …. We are just ordinary , not heroes.”

Meanwhile, a sudden explosion of Chinese-language discussion appeared on the invite-only, iPhone-only audio chat service Clubhouse. Users including mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, and Taiwanese discussed topics as sensitive as independence and the ongoing mass detentions campaign in Xinjiang. The live exchanges of spoken voice, shared awareness of the forum’s inevitable transience, and weight of the topics under discussion helped lend even rooms at their 5,000-user maximum capacity emotional intimacy and a mostly respectful tone. While rooms may be run as, effectively, “live podcasts” with hosts on one hand and an audience on the other, many discussions involved broader participation, with dozens of contributors in succession receiving protected speaking time. This, together with the absence of otherwise ubiquitous social features such as likes, comments, and algorithmic amplification, helped keep speakers on an even footing.

CDT translated several accounts of experiences on Clubhouse, and reactions to its widely anticipated blocking on Monday. In addition to disruption of connections to the app’s servers, discussion of the service was curtailed on Weibo, phone networks blocked the text messages necessary for registration, and online marketplaces removed grey market listings for coveted invitations. “I don’t know how long this environment can last, or whether it will reappear,” one Weibo user had written before the ban. “But I will definitely remember this epic moment on the internet.” An account posted on Facebook described one conversation focused on Xinjiang:

The deepest discussions happened between four and eight in the morning. In the beginning, I wasn’t able to fall asleep. Later, I dared not sleep. At some point, Xinjiang people living overseas were crying because they didn’t know where their family was. Then some Han people were crying because it was their first time hearing all this and they were struck by guilt. And a participant who still lives in Xinjiang begged others not to release her information: “I am really scared … really, really scared ….” I can say no more.

[…] Towards the end, the room felt like a church. People were weeping while encouraging each other to stay hopeful, despite the grim future in sight. Those eavesdroppers were there already, and this small window could be shut down at any point. But before then, this was how the night went.

Elsewhere, Melissa Chan at Foreign Policy and Li Yuan at The New York Times reflected on the swift rise and fall of “China Clubhouse”; Brendan O’Kane, also at Foreign Policy, focused on the barbed outpouring of supposedly “positive energy” for Global Times editor and provocateur Hu Xijin in the wake of the ban; and PingWest’s Rebecca Ren examined the Shanghai-based company, Agora, behind Clubhouse’s audio streaming technology.

Discussion of Xinjiang also broke out on Weibo following the Chinese-language publication of a BBC report on atrocities including systematic rape in the detention camps. CDT translated an anonymized sample of comments expressing sympathy and regret. One described its author’s realization about the truth behind the “special circumstances” in the region after seeing a leaked official notice in an earlier BBC report: “The language was just too familiar. No one outside of the system could have made it up. Once you had this realization, you’d notice that many seemingly irrelevant news stories actually indirectly confirmed the reporting by foreign media.” 

On Thursday, China’s National Radio and Television Administration announced a ban on BBC World News broadcasts in China, which were already mainly limited to venues such as hotels. reported that the BBC had “seriously violated regulations […] in its China-related reports, which went against the requirements that news reporting must be true and impartial, and undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity.” Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK will also reportedly stop relaying BBC content. The revocation last week of Chinese state broadcaster CGTN’s UK license is another likely factor behind the ban; the Alliance for Securing Democracy noted on Twitter on Thursday that it had recently observed sharp official rhetoric on both topics.

Meanwhile, the end of a 12-day research trip to China by WHO investigators brought widespread skepticism about the independence of their conclusions about the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together with a roundup of related coverage, CDT translated a commentary posted to Twitter by former Southern Metropolis News and Beijing News editor-in-chief Cheng Yizhong, who argued against continued squabbling over the virus’ origins by those seeking either to direct or deflect blame. No matter where the virus first emerged, Cheng argued, the fact of its disastrous early mishandling would remain unchanged. “The painstaking efforts of the authorities to conceal the virus from the very beginning are already beyond redemption,” he wrote. “To then assiduously deny the origin of the virus, and even to muddy the waters by spreading conspiracy theories, makes them doubly guilty.” (Similar arguments are, of course, applicable to mishandling of the pandemic elsewhere.)

One of Li Wenliang’s recent “wailing wall” correspondents had also highlighted the WHO investigation, telling the late doctor that “the whole world is watching [….] Who could have guessed that our nightmare would become the world’s nightmare. Dr. Li, even after you left us the world is still in stifling, suffocating darkness.”

Elsewhere, CDT English rounded up news coverage of:

CDT Chinese’s weekly roundup, published on Monday, looked at Clubhouse and the Li Wenliang anniversary, among other topics including recent pressure on volunteer subtitlers of foreign film and TV shows. Chinese-language wiki pages were added or updated for:

Besides brief key information on each topic, these pages offer useful navigational aids for CDT’s broader Chinese-language archives.

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