2022 was an extraordinary year in China, and our editors’ “best of” picks from CDT and other media outlets reflect the many dramatic events that shaped people’s lives. It was the third and apparently final year of China’s stringent “zero-COVID” policy, marked by lengthy and painful lockdowns in Shanghai, Urumqi, Ruili, and many other cities and towns. The lockdowns tested the patience of residents, raised questions about excessive pandemic prevention measures, led to an outpouring of viral audiovisual content such as the “Voices of April,” and ushered in a new wave of draconian online censorship.
Autumn saw a series of events that revealed the true scale of public displeasure with central government policy—Beijing’s “Sitong Bridge” protest on the eve of the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, a deadly fire in Urumqi exacerbated by that city’s interminable lockdown, and a nationwide wave of protests to mourn the human toll of heavy-handed COVID controls and denounce repressive government policies in Xinjiang and elsewhere. As iconic images emerged of crowds singing protest songs, shouting slogans, and holding blank sheets of A4 paper, police began to crack down on the protesters, resulting in a number of arrests and detentions.
As 2022 came to an end, so too did China’s “zero-COVID” policy. With an already-rising number of Omicron cases nationwide, the government announced that it would lift most COVID controls. Public response was mostly positive, although some experts and ordinary citizens worried that the policy change was too abrupt. The recent “tsunami” of new infections—combined with shortages of medicines and home test kits, lack of access to imported vaccines and treatments, and reports of hospitals and crematoriums being overwhelmed—seems to bear this out.
Alexander Boyd, CDT English Senior Editor
China’s feminists—a diverse bunch that defy easy categorization—all seem to share three characteristics: endurance, creativity, and bravery. This compilation of protest art made in honor of International Women’s Day is a monument to feminists’ unflinching advocacy for the causes that animate them in the face of unrelenting censorship, harassment, and persecution. Read a clarion call for women’s rights, now.
- He Had a Dark Secret. It Changed His Best Friend’s Life, by Sam Dolnick at The New York Times
A story of corrupt officials, unhoused men, violence, deadening bureaucracy, dim sum, dumplings and McDonald’s fish sandwiches that is quintessentially American and Chinese. How can a disgraced immigration officer experiencing homelessness redeem himself? Friendship with the very sort of man he may have once extorted or swindled—an undocumented Fujianese man drifting through New York City after fleeing China when authorities labeled him a “troublemaker” in the aftermath of the 1989 democracy movement. This story offers little in the way of comfort, but readers may take this consolation with them: friendship may yet heal all wounds.
Cindy Carter, CDT English Deputy Editor and Translation Coordinator
The spontaneous nationwide protests and candlelight memorials for the Uyghur victims of a deadly fire in Urumqi in late November may have marked a turning point in Han Chinese awareness of the repression of the Uyghur people—an ongoing repression that includes mass incarceration, genocidally assimilationist “stability maintenance” policies, and draconian COVID lockdowns disproportionally applied to Uyghur-majority areas of Xinjiang. Despite the challenges, many protesters in mainland China and around the globe explored ways to center Uyghur voices and to express greater inter-ethnic solidarity for all groups victimized by CPP policies.
- How a Chinese Doctor Who Warned of Covid-19 Spent His Final Days, by Muyi Xiao, Isabelle Qian, Tracy Wen Liu and Chris Buckley at The New York Times
Nearly three years after his untimely death from COVID-19, Dr. Li Wenliang—the young Wuhan ophthalmologist who was admonished for attempting to alert the medical community to the emergence of a dangerous new coronavirus—has not been forgotten. The comments section below Dr. Li’s final Weibo post, which has become known as China’s “Wailing Wall,” continues to attract visitors who thank him for his service as a whistleblower, post updates on the pandemic, vent about current events, and confide their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams. This October 6 New York Times video investigation revealed new details about Dr. Li’s final days, and inspired many Chinese netizens to breach the Great Firewall to read about the man who has become a national hero and a symbol of principled resistance.
Dong Ge, CDT Chinese Executive Editor
- [CDT Chinese Year-end Feature] Those Who Have Been Deleted or Blocked Are All Witnesses to History: An Archive of Deleted Content from 2022
Between January 1 and December 20, 2022, the China Digital Times “404” Deleted Content Archive added 594 new articles, social media posts, and videos that were subject to deletion. (The vast majority of these were deleted due to content censorship, although in a small number of cases, the authors may have been pressured into deleting the content “voluntarily.”) CDT Chinese editors have archived and preserved all of these on our website. At present, the “404” Deleted Content Archive contains a total of 1206 articles, posts, and videos. Every day, China’s massive censorship apparatus deletes countless posts and articles that supposedly “violate content rules.” And while the pieces painstakingly compiled and preserved in CDT’s “404” Deleted Content Archive represent only a small portion of the total, they offer us valuable insight into speech censorship trends in China.
Collection.news is a website dedicated to preserving Hong Kong’s memory, in opposition to the censorship system that has now seeped from mainland China into Hong Kong. Founded by “a group of Hongkongers who hope to preserve Hong Kong’s history,” the website contains an archive of content from two large (and formerly outspoken) Hong Kong media outlets, the Apple Daily and Stand News, that were forced to close by Hong Kong officials.
Eric Liu, CDT Chinese Analyst
The “whack-a-mole” game of censorship may have completely changed this year, or perhaps Chinese has changed for me. We are becoming used to using social networks in the least social way, without hashtags, times, places, or names—often using just “he” or “she” to stand in for a name. Who is the “brave man” at that moment? Maybe only you can understand it at that given moment.
During the Peng Shuai incident last year, many users on Weibo posted, “She is so brave!” I regret not being able to record those comments, but this year, during the Sitong Bridge and A4 “blank paper” protests, I didn’t miss out again. Weibo then banned the word “brave,” but unblocked it a few days later, because you can’t fight against “brave,” and you can’t fight against “blank paper.” As long as there is censorship, these words will convey unlimited possibilities.
- The Prince, by Sue-Lin Wong at The Economist
I was lucky to be part of this podcast that took months to produce, but what’s most impressive about this podcast series is the very personal perspective of discussing this dictator we talk about every day, whether you’re a China supporter or opponent. And the producer’s nuanced insight into China is rare in English-language mainstream media, with the choice to include content such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, rocker Cui Jian’s anthem “A Strip of Red Cloth” (一块红布), and the chorus of Shanghainese singing “Tomorrow Will Be Better” (明天会更好) in the streets after Shanghai’s lockdown was lifted. I felt that last song was particularly touching.
Ryan, CDT Chinese Editor
There is no doubt that the A4 Protests and the banners on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge were the most extraordinary events in China this year. They brought some hope to the Chinese people, in the midst of despair, and showed the world the power of courage. This CDT Chinese post featured Peng Lifa, who hung two protest banners from Beijing’s busy Sitong Bridge just three days before the CCP’s 20th Party Congress. It contained more extensive public information and details about this brave man, and described the ripple effects of his courageous act. After nearly three months, we still don’t know his status, his whereabouts, or even whether he is alive or dead.
However, his solitary action truly became “the first note of the storm”: in November, more and more Chinese people stood up against China’s “zero-COVID” policy, and this eventually led to the largest wave of protests in mainland China since 1989. The post also gives a full account of the A4 Protest Movement, in which young protesters held up sheets of blank white A4 paper. It is a valuable addition to the historical record.
In March, the Omicron variant broke out in China, and the government imposed its strictest “zero-COVID” policies thus far. Many people were locked in their homes, and this led to numerous secondary disasters: food and medicine shortages, severe psychological problems, and many patients being refused medical care. In a show of frustration at these conditions, some Shanghai residents recorded phone calls with pandemic-control officials and posted them online. The “Voices of April” video featured about two dozen such audio recordings reflecting the plight of the population during the lockdown. The video went viral and was swiftly deleted by censors, but Chinese netizens continued to keep sharing and reposting the video on their own accounts, leading to a grassroots “anti-censorship marathon.”
Samuel Wade, CDT English Executive Editor
This account from a Wuhan schoolteacher describes the stage management behind Xi Jinping’s visit to a local residential compound in late June. Security and other arrangements are to be expected for any public appearance by a head of state, but the measures detailed here suggest exceptional caution, with participants left to guess what occasion they’re facilitating as they monitor residents inside homes to ensure that they close all windows and then stay well away from them. These precautions are all the more striking because they seem to be aimed less at protecting Xi’s physical safety than preventing cries of “Fake! Fake! Everything is fake!” like those suffered by Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan on her similar inspection visit two years earlier.
- Biopolitical Binaries (or How Not to Read the Chinese Protests), by Christian Sorace And Nicholas Loubere at Made In China Journal
Written during the protests of late November, and still relevant amid the chaos of China’s crash reopening, this piece argued for an escape from the “binary quagmire” between “‘the competing nihilisms of the US and Chinese governments’” and their defenders. While scathing of American acceptance of mass death, Sorace and Loubere stressed that under zero-COVID, “the statistics of cases and containment—that is, the perceived performance of the state—matter more than the lives that are being saved.” The point has since been underlined by Chinese authorities’ increasingly clear failure to craft a coherent exit strategy during all the time bought by zero-COVID policies. As one censored Zhihu comment archived by CDT put it, “[T]hey were so busy locking things down, it’s like they never thought there’d come a day when things would open back up.”
Xiao Qiang, CDT Founder and Editor-in-Chief
- [CDT People] [404 Archive] Issue 205: Who is the “Sitongqiao Bridge Protest Warrior”? Searching Online for Clues about Peng Lifa
- CDT monthly video feature: “Voices of…”
Oliver Young, CDT English Editor
This iconic moment during the 2022 Beijing Olympics demonstrated the impotence of the international community’s attempts to find justice for the Uyghurs. Under a global spotlight, China placed a Uyghur athlete front and center at the climax of the opening ceremony. Haphazard boycotts by officials from several Western countries failed to spoil this soft-power spectacle that ended with China beating the U.S. in the final medal tally. While American viewers may have tuned out, viewers in China and around the world watched in record-breaking numbers as China propagated its own polished image of inter-ethnic relations. This success story also foreshadowed the West’s failure to rally other countries in the U.N. Human Rights Council to hold a mere discussion about the situation in Xinjiang after the High Commissioner reported possible crimes against humanity in the region. International justice be damned, the CCP is firmly in control of the global narrative around Xinjiang.
- The Censorship Machine Erasing China’s Feminist Movement, by Han Zhang at The New Yorker
The Tangshan attack was captured on crystal-clear video, rendering the brutality of misogyny and violence against women undeniable for even the most skeptical of male viewers. But as a nationwide discussion of the incident swelled up online, the government actively prevented any societal reckoning with these issues: censors took down thousands of social media posts and accounts that allegedly “incited gender opposition”; state-media outlets pushed an official narrative that ignored gender-based violence in favor of gang violence; and police barred journalists from visiting the beaten women in the hospital. Recounting this incident and its aftermath, Han Zhang demonstrates how the CCP is heavily invested in quashing feminist discussions in the digital public sphere, since the power of the party of patriarchy is secretly sustained by violence against women.