CDT Editors’ Picks: The Best of 2021

CDT’s editors have made their annual selections of favorite content, from CDT and elsewhere, over the past year.

Sophie Beach, Operations and Communications Manager

Oliver Young’s insightful interview with Emeka Umejei, a lecturer at the University of Ghana’s Department of Communication Studies, provides an African perspective on the role of Chinese media in the region—a voice that is too often ignored in media reports on this topic. Umejei says. “Chinese media organizations frame African events to suit Chinese perspectives even when such narratives do not represent an African narrative.” Western writing on China in Africa often does the same, so hearing from more experts like Umejei would benefit us all.

… None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players … [Source]

This seemingly simple statement from a global sporting association in support of one of its members was in fact revolutionary. The WTA offered immediate and unbending support for tennis star Peng Shuai in the wake of her disappearance after making sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, former Vice Premier and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and announced they were pulling out of China. Simon’s statement was the most direct, clear-eyed, and ethical stance on China to come from a global corporation or organization in recent memory. He showed the way for other groups, individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments who feel the pressure of the Chinese market to take a stand for what is right and good. Now to see if anyone follows in his footsteps.

Bobby, CDT Chinese Editor

We’ve added many podcast and video updates to our 404 Archives series over the past year, but our conversation with Vicky Xu was the first time we’d done an original video interview. This followed CDT’s and serialization of the Chinese edition of the Xinjiang report “The Architecture of Repression,” for which Xu was the lead author. Through the interview, you can gain a better understanding of Xu’s real life and background, beyond her various roles and titles. The video edition includes about 20 minutes of highlights, and is accompanied by a full transcript. [An English version of the transcript will be available in the new year.]

On July 14, the various social media accounts of self-published media outlet Elephant Magazine and its founder Huang Zhangjin were completely blocked within the Great Firewall. The cause of the ban was related to the controversy over “colluding with foreign forces” by staff at the science video platform PaperClip in June. After Elephant Magazine’s accounts were blocked, all of its posts from this year also disappeared. CDT Chinese has compiled a total of 66 pieces (all dating from 2015-2021 and republished elsewhere) from Elephant Magazine’s WeChat public account, as a way of commemorating the account’s existence. Of course, this represents only a small part of their total output, but the fact that these articles were chosen for republication by editors elsewhere is an indicator of their outstanding quality. Elephant Magazine’s disappearance shows that in China’s current public opinion climate, politics still rules over literary or artistic expression and scientific debate, and those with dissenting views are stifled and silenced en masse in the name of “patriotism.”

Joseph Brouwer, CDT English Editor 

The trauma of the one-child policy was an all-too terrible theme of this year’s coverage. Then, the government mandated that women have but one child, or in the case of Guan County — no children. Now, in the government’s equally autocratic campaign against demography, women are to have two or, better yet, three children. The government has mandated that divorces, those notorious obstacles to procreation, undergo a “cooling-off” period — to already fatal effect. “Non-medically necessary” abortions are to be reduced, as are vasectomies. The push for births has been accompanied by cynically employed feminist rhetoric from government news agencies, which netizens see through: “​​As soon as they want access to your uterus, they start sweet-talking you.” Yet not all women are to give birth. Chinese officials targeted Uyghur women with coerced, and even forced, sterilizations as part of a “population optimization” drive. In an interview with CDT, historian Jeremy Brown explained that the one-child policy contributed to the anger that in part fueled the 1989 Beijing democracy movement. How will the three-child policy reverberate? 

This article traces China’s political trajectory from “Maoist self-sufficiency” through “Dengist pragmatism” to the “new moral age” of Xi’s Party-state through the unlikeliest of protagonists: ketamine, a party drug née battlefield anesthetic. Drugs are inextricably linked to the story of modern China. The “century of humiliation,” a nationalist narrative embraced by the CCP, purportedly began with the Qing dynasty’s defeat in the First Opium War. The Party aimed to end narcotic addiction during the early years of the P.R.C., although compelling historical evidence points to the CCP funding itself through opium sales while in the revolutionary base of Yan’an. Ketamine’s popularity rose amidst the chaos of Deng’s economic liberalization — its fall comes amidst Xi’s push for economic “stability.” The party is over, King argues. The Party is here to stay. 

Cindy Carter, CDT English Editor 

As censorship of cultural content and public discussion becomes more pervasive, automated, and sophisticated, it is important to understand not just the motivations driving that censorship, but also the specific mechanisms by which it is carried out. This makes CDT’s “process guides” to platform-based censorship essential reading. Some of this content is original, based on our team’s deep knowledge of censorship methods, past and present; some of the content is drawn from other authoritative sources, and translated or contextualized for CDT’s diverse community of readers. Combined with our translations of long-form essays, “404 Archives” deleted content, and “Netizen Voices” features, CDT readers can gain a full picture of how censorship threatens robust, inclusive public discourse, and how Chinese netizens use resourceful means to evade, outpace and subvert that censorship.

This October 2021 report by Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, James Leibold and Daria Impiombato shines a spotlight on the mechanisms of oppression that lie behind bland euphemisms such as “stability maintenance,” “de-extremification,’’ “becoming family,” and “optimizing population resources.” By detailing the organizations and processes involved in mass internment and surveillance, coercive labor assignments, obligatory home visits, and  draconian birth-reduction regulations, the report contributes greatly to a growing body of evidence (including Buzzfeed’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning four-part series on Xinjiang internment camps, The Xinjiang Papers, witness testimony at the Uyghur Tribunal and the tribunal’s summary judgment) pointing to the genocidal nature of Chinese government policy in Xinjiang. In November 2021, CDT published a Chinese translation of the report (full text).

Dong Ge, CDT Chinese Executive Editor

The phrase “propaganda train wreck” refers to official propaganda or other attempts to sway public opinion that backfire due to rudimentary mistakes or content that is out of touch with reality, triggering netizens to post angry, mocking, fact-checking or propaganda-debunking responses in social media comment sections. (This response is sometimes referred to as “being punched in the face.”) Each instance of a “propaganda train wreck” is a record of how members of the public join forces to voice resistance to official propaganda tactics, thus reflecting true public opinion on the Chinese internet.

The Safeguard Defenders website has published a series of articles on #WhereIsPengShuai, each of which is worth reading. I would like to recommend this paragraph from this article in particular:

Finally, about your actions putting her in greater, not lesser, danger? During my ten years or so in Beijing I would, among many other things, conduct what you might call exit interviews. That is: we would talk to people released from detention, arrest, or imprisonment, and we would ask about how their treatment changed with media- or diplomatic attention. Guess what? Every single person we have ever spoken to said the same thing; it improves, often significantly, with more attention. [Source]

Anne Henochowicz, Translations Coordinator

Of our in-house work, I was really moved by Lockdown Voices, the three-part series on the human toll of China’s “zero-COVID” policy. People have been forced to quarantine in shipping containers and stockpile for rolling lockdowns; one man’s health code turned yellow because Big Data decided he had been to the Philippines, when he had in fact only spent the night in a town just outside Xi’an. I also loved translating Liu Su’s heartfelt and fascinating lament on politics overwhelming science, from which I learned that tumbleweed, that icon of the American West, actually comes from Eurasia.

Beyond CDT, I have gotten a lot out of Rui Zhong’s incisive analysis of the censorship regime, especially in her recent piece on the silencing of Peng Shuai and Xianzi, where she argues that the ultimate goal behind keyword blocking and account take-downs is nothing less than the “destruction of online spaces and communities.” And I must sneak in a book recommendation, because the best fiction tells the truth: when I read about an entire busload of passengers who weren’t allowed to get off because one person’s health code turned red, it was as if one of Te-Ping Chen’s stories in “Land of Big Numbers” had come to life.

Kris, CDT Chinese Podcast Editor

For a long time, many battered women have turned to the police for help but have not received it; many of the victims have died tragically at the hands of their abusers, yet none of the responsible authorities have been held accountable for their inaction or dereliction of duty. The research report cited in this podcast once again highlights the failure of law-making as well as law enforcement in fighting against domestic violence in China.

With the city’s Tiananmen vigils already effectively banned by authorities since last year, the move came as little surprise to many.

Which is why dissident Chinese author Chang Ping, a former student leader back in 1989, spent the past year leading a group of anonymous activists to create an online version of the museum.

“We hope to save the spirit of 30 years’ candlelight commemoration in Hong Kong, which was an unparalleled act of resistance in human history,” Chang told AFP by phone from his home in Germany. [Source]

Eric Liu, CDT Chinese Editor

Transcribing this letter into text impacted me emotionally. I could clearly feel the pain, sorrow, and unwillingness in my heart. But what angered me most was that the article was immediately censored and no media outlet wrote about the story—even from the official point of view, telling people not to kill themselves. This reminds me of the line in “Das Leben der Anderen”: “The statistics office on Hans Beimler Street counts everything, knows everything: how many shoes I buy a year: 2.3; How many books I read a year: 3.2; And how many pupils graduate with straight A’s every year: 6347. But there’s one thing they don’t count, maybe because even bureaucrats find it painful, and that’s the suicides.”

[Editor’s note: reporting guidelines warn against detailed coverage of suicide notes, let alone full publication. In view of the attention and discussion this one had already attracted on Chinese social media, and especially given its subsequent censorship, we chose to include it in our Chinese-language archive of censored material with a content warning, and refrain from publishing it in English. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 in the United States or find local resources in the International Suicide Prevention Wiki.]

The starting point for this remarkable research was a CDT Chinese language  article: [Sensitive Words Archive] Apple AirTags, China Version: Do Not Engrave with Sensitive Words. Following our article, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto found clues and dug up a trove of facts about the censorship deployed by Apple, the largest company on Earth by market capitalization, in six regions. By comparing the Chinese version of 1045 sensitive words with other regions, we can understand not only the differences in regulations, but also how Apple has exported censorship from China to the world. The research also provides factual evidence to support our corporate ethics monitoring of multinational big techs.

Yakexi, CDT Chinese Editor

In February, audio social chat app Clubhouse gave platform to some unexpected discussions among Mandarin speakers. In a room named “新疆有个集中营?”(“Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?”), hundreds of people took turns sharing their thoughts and experiences on the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The discussion, which went on for hours, was marked by poignant moments: ordinary Uyghur and Kazakh people recounted their personal stories about being persecuted or discriminated against in their homeland; some Han audience members broke down in tears and apologized for what minority people had experienced and for their own inability to help. One young man in his 20s said that when he was lining up to speak, he believed in Beijing’s rhetoric and wanted to refute “rumors” about Xinjiang, but the stories shared by other participants changed his mind. He was among dozens of self-identified Han audience members who apologized. It was a rare dialogue among Mandarin speakers from all over the world because those living in Mainland China are often isolated by the Great Firewall. It was also a rare public exchange between ordinary Han people and Uyghur people, as Beijing seeks to use grand narratives to justify abuse. CDT Chinese documented the discussion before censors moved in to shut down the app. (More: Clubhouse discussions on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xi Jinping.)

A team of journalists traced oil deliveries to North Korea by an oil tanker in violation of UN sanctions. It exposed the roles of several Chinese companies and businesspeople involved in the illicit deal. The journalists nailed down the culprits using court documents, news reports and other public records, and delivered the story with superb visual techniques. It shows new possibilities of doing investigative stories about China as Beijing restricts on-the-ground access for reporters.

Oliver Young, CDT English Editor

Perhaps the most comprehensive account of Peng Shuai’s initial accusation on Weibo, this CDT post captures with superb detail the cat-and-mouse game of online censorship and resistance around the most explosive #MeToo case in modern Chinese history. The post showcases netizens’ creativity, and reminds us that the CCP is as powerful as it is fragile. While the government sidesteps international pressure and whitewashes Peng Shuai, this remains an important record of her voice and netizens’ efforts to hear her.

Blinded by the illusion of moral righteousness, too many Western (and Chinese) observers of the great-power competition between China and the U.S. reduce their object of study to a security threat whose existence is inherently incompatible with their own country. They “collapse everything into a false binary and project fears on to a faceless other” while ignoring the ways in which their own societies wrestle with similar challenges, such as political oppression and technological abuse. Yangyang Cheng eloquently reminds us to center the humanity of the subjects we often overlook. This is a timely and timeless article. Every sentence is quotable. 

Samuel Wade, CDT English Executive Editor

Tea-drinking” accounts are consistently interesting for their glimpses into the human dynamics between “guests” and the security officials questioning them. Most are less amusing than the one we translated in October, in which author “clickchicken” feigns innocence about their political posts on Twitter, receives incongruous mansplanation of Great Firewall scaling techniques, and endures “the greatest torture to which any modern person can be subjected: one by one, he read all of my tweets aloud.” The post concluded:

Compared to what I had imagined, they were more disorganized, simple, and crude. They were also more “real” than I had imagined. Once I discovered that those who work behind the tall walls are real human beings and not cold automatons, I instantly felt much more courageous, because of my belief in human fallibility. [Source]

However farcical, the incident was an effective deterrent: clickchicken adds that “I’m much more circumspect about what I do online. I don’t use Twitter anymore, and it’s gotten to the point that I care less and less about current events.” Chinese users of Twitter, other overseas services, and the VPNs used to access them have faced mounting pressure in recent years, including arrests and forced post or account deletions

One particularly extreme case appears in Darren Byler’s concise and vivid description of the surveillance apparatus behind Xinjiang’s camps, and the Western firms and technologies that have contributed. The book’s introduction, excerpted at MIT Technology Review, explains how Vera Zhou, a Hui student at the University of Washington, was detained for two years after visiting her boyfriend in Urumqi in 2017. Zhou was placed in a camp and later confined to her neighborhood under electronic monitoring for using a VPN to access foreign sites and services such as her university Gmail account—a sign, she was told, of “religious extremism.” Zhou’s experience reminded me of clickchicken’s. Each account is informative in its own right, but together, they illustrate how cruelly arbitrary enforcement of China’s information controls can be.

Xiao Qiang, CDT Editor in Chief

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