These are CDT editors’ selections of their favorite posts from CDT and elsewhere around the web over the course of 2023:
CDT Pick: Translation: The Women of “Salt Town,” by Cindy Carter
I found this translation of interviews with journalist Yi Xiaohe about her book Salt Town powerful because it highlights the voices of two groups who are too often silenced in China: women living in the country’s poor rural regions, and the journalists who take risks to report their stories. For Salt Town, former sports journalist Yi spent a year interviewing women ages 17 to 90 in a small town in Sichuan. As Carter writes, Yi illuminates “the many pressures circumscribing the lives of the townswomen: poverty, limited economic and educational opportunities, marriage and child-rearing responsibilities, grinding physical work, rampant gender discrimination, and the ever-present specter of domestic violence.” Their stories are heartbreaking but Yi treats them with the respect and dignity they deserve.
External Pick: Erasing Tibet: Chinese Boarding Schools and the Indoctrination of a Generation by Tenzin Dorjee and Gyal Lo, Foreign Affairs
This article convincingly and clearly outlines the real damage that is being done to Tibetan children, their families, and their broader community through the use of colonial boarding schools, where children are forcibly separated from their families, their culture, their religion, and their language. This article, together with the groundbreaking Tibet Action Institute report on the schools, and other important work by Dr. Gyal Lo, has helped expose Beijing’s efforts to eradicate Tibetan culture and identity through a policy of forced assimilation and Sinicization that has affected all ethnic minorities in the country.
CDT Pick: CDT Chinese YouTube Channel
In 2023, CDT’s Chinese-language YouTube channel produced 529 videos, garnering a total of 2,214,602 views, and nearly 50,000 regular subscribers. Our channel’s featured content includes “Voices of [the month],” the “404” Deleted Content Archive, the CDT Encyclopedia, and the CDT Weekly Report, as well as many videos featuring text and image content compiled from the CDT Chinese website. We also produce videos about the vast amount of censored content that CDT has archived—content that has been censored or blocked by the CCP and/or platform censors. In late 2023, CDT Chinese produced videos for seven special year-end features (Voices of 2023, 2023 Sensitive Words, 2023 People of the Year, and many more), as well as a series of videos for the Chinese-language version of the China Digital Times Lexicon, 20th Anniversary Edition. In 2024, the CDT Chinese YouTube channel will be experimenting with new video formats to better archive content and information that is being censored on the Chinese internet, and to more thoroughly document the efforts of Chinese netizens to combat such censorship.
External Pick: Toronto Fang Lian’s YouTube channel (@Torontobigface)
Toronto Fang Lian (@Torontobigface), an overseas Chinese YouTuber producing Chinese-language content, saw his popularity surge in 2023. By analyzing news and developments in China’s political, economic, and social spheres in a clear and concise manner, he has created a unique model of current-affairs analysis. Popular with many young readers and viewers, he has been dubbed an “enlightenment rebel.” Toronto Fang Lian is also relatively optimistic about the possibility of democratization in China, which occasionally causes some controversy, but he is skilled at applying various political theories, economic data, and scholarly insights to help explain his position. He is also fond of posing challenging questions to his viewers, such as “What is the fundamental reason why the Chinese dream cannot be realized?” and “Why is this generation of young people said to be ‘the generation of lost opportunities?’” His persuasive and factually well-grounded answers to these hot-button issues are one of the key reasons that his channel is so popular.
CDT Pick: China Mobilizes Brics Media in Praise of Xi, by Arthur Kaufman
Picking a favorite piece of CDT coverage is perhaps the most excruciating end-of-year task; my colleagues are so talented, dedicated, and clever. But this year, Arthur has saved me great pain with his brilliant exposition of embedded Chinese propaganda in African media. With an academic eye and a tongue-in-cheek wit, Arthur tracks a veritable ouroboros of propaganda: Chinese media lauding African media lauding Chinese media’s coverage of African media’s coverage of China, itself a product of syndicated Chinese propaganda. Arthur’s unique international propaganda angle is a necessary complement to CDT’s usual domestic censorship fare; the former drowns out the same truths the latter seeks to conceal. For those unfamiliar with Arthur’s work, this piece offers an excellent introduction.
External Pick: A Spark Extinguished, by Ian Johnson
A book excerpt is a perhaps dubious choice for a favorite article of the year but … for Ian Johnson I make an exception. His latest work Sparks is a deeply sensitive and intimate portrait of all the writers, thinkers, historians, journalists—people—that have maintained their convictions in the most hostile of environments. This excerpt is a stirring and awe-inspiring profile of Zhang Chunyuan, the founder of the underground dissident publication Spark. I’ll leave the story to Johnson. But know this, those “sparks” continue to this day. We at CDT do our best to cover them as they arise, but it takes a community. With Sparks, Johnson has done an invaluable service to us all.
On a less somber note, enjoy my personal most-joyful online moment of 2023: an impromptu underground sing-and-dance-along in the Guiyang subway. It’s tempting to assign an air of subversiveness to these partying youth, but I prefer to simply enjoy it as it is—a sweet reminder of the freeing joy of music:
CDT Pick (single post): Shanghai Halloween Costumes Raise Specter of Censorship, by Alexander Boyd
This post about the exuberant 2023 Halloween celebrations in Shanghai—the first since the lifting of China’s stringent “zero-COVID” policy—is punctuated with photos, videos, and translations of satirical essays and amusing comments from Chinese social media. For the costumed revelers, Shanghai’s Halloween festivities were a chance to let loose and have some fun, while also processing some still-painful memories—Shanghai’s months-long 2022 lockdown (which inspired the “Voices of April” viral video), and the 2022 White Paper Protests, in which thousands took to the streets across China (most famously, on Shanghai’s Urumqi Middle Road) to protest repression, censorship, and heavy-handed pandemic lockdowns.
CDT Pick (interview series): CDT 2023 Interview Series About Tibet, by Sophie Beach
CDT’s 2023 series of interviews with key Tibetan scholars and activists explores current conditions in Tibet, as well as efforts to protect and preserve Tibetan identity and cultural heritage amid policies focused on the Sinicization and securitization of the region. The series includes Lobsang Yangtso on Tibet’s environmental crisis, Lhadon Tethong on Tibet’s colonial boarding schools, Tenzin Norgay on the state of surveillance and propaganda in Tibet today, and many others.
External Pick: Lao Gao and I, by Li Tingting
In this deeply personal essay, published by China Change in both print and audio form, feminist activist Li Tingting (also known as “Maizi”) details her decade-long interaction with a police officer nicknamed Lao Gao, who was tasked with keeping an eye on her and curtailing her activism. By turns moving and humorous, the essay describes the bizarre closeness that evolves between the watcher and the watched. “With the passing of ten years,” muses Maizi, “you might have lost touch with some of your good friends, yet this [police officer] is still in your life.”
From “The Expanding ‘Coral Reef’ of Chinese Digital Resistance,” Xiao Qiang’s introduction to the project (also included in the English-language ebook “China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition”):
For over twenty years, China Digital Times has been at the forefront of tracking and preserving information that faces censorship on the Chinese internet. Utilizing automated technology and the crowd wisdom of Chinese netizens, our editors capture content suppressed by the Party-state as well as the varied ways in which netizens combat censorship and propaganda. Our archive contains narratives and expressions stifled by official media, personal accounts from marginalized voices, and insights revealing the inner workings of China’s censorship and propaganda systems.
In response to netizen activities, censors often resort to deleting posts and ramping up the monitoring of “sensitive words,” which in turn gives rise to various subtle forms of “resistance discourse.” Netizens have developed a repertoire of techniques such as satire, mockery, roasts, provocations, and intentionally contrarian interpretations. A key component of this is the use of parody, in which netizens ingeniously manipulate and reinterpret symbols and slogans from official propaganda. These collective efforts repurpose elements from both official and popular culture, turning them into instruments of subversive expression. This creative defiance generates internet buzzwords that, while subtle, represent a powerful form of digital resistance.
Despite the stringent censorship under Xi Jinping’s dictatorship regime, these discourses continue to thrive, infiltrating every concealed corner of the information network. They serve to preserve the collective experiences and memories of Chinese netizens, countering the regime’s efforts to obliterate them.
On a more profound level, the aggregation of these seemingly minor events and memories constitutes a rich, emotive lexicon, akin to an ever-expanding “coral reef” within the history of resistance on the Chinese internet. My aspiration is that this coral reef of dissent will eventually grow substantial enough to become an integral part of the broader narrative, effectively grounding the colossal vessel of the CCP’s legitimacy, and causing it to crash and sink upon impact.
External Pick: “Spark,” by Jiang Xue
From a New York Times essay by Ian Johnson on Jiang Xue’s story about a 1959 samizdat journal:
In 2019, Jiang Xue’s piece on Spark appeared in the Hong Kong magazine Today. It is by far the longest and most involved article she has written, totaling over 40,000 Chinese characters, or about 28,000 words, and stands as the definitive written account of Spark and the system it challenged.
Written in the first person, the article is only partly about the past. At its heart, it is Jiang Xue’s own discovery of a forgotten chapter of her hometown’s history. In a series of vignettes, she takes us on visits with the survivors whose efforts produced Spark. In their own words, they take us back to the era of the Great Famine, and describe their efforts today to fight against official disremembering. Talking to one of the students, now in his 80s, Jiang Xue asks how often he thinks of his classmates.
“You think of their voice and their smile,” she says.
“The way they were when they were young.”
“Yes, I will never forget them, until the day that I disappear from this earth I won’t forget them. Because these people, they were all extremely kindhearted. They were sublime. So we should remember them. I wish that this country could draw on its historical tragedies and not repeat them. We should draw on these lessons. I hope that young people can develop a sense of justice and carry forward the virtue of having a sense of justice. People should dare to act, but not make unnecessary sacrifices.” [Source]
CDT Pick: “Core Social Values” Counter-graffiti from London’s Brick Lane Censored on Weibo, by Alexander Boyd
This is a classic CDT post at the intersection of domestic and foreign affairs that shows what happens to CCP propaganda when CCP censorship is unable to defend it. In an open information environment allowing for free expression, authorities cannot compel compliance any more than graffiti can achieve permanence. Alexander provides excellent details to document the Chinese diaspora’s rejection of CCP values, along with censors’ attempts to conceal said rejection from the Chinese internet.
External Pick: Under the Mulberry Tree: A Contemporary Uyghur Anthology, Volume 1 (May 2023), by Munawwar Abdulla, Sonya Imin, Maidina Kadeer, and Emily Zinkin
This beautiful anthology combines short stories, personal essays, poetry, painting, photography, and other visual arts to amplify Uyghur voices in the diaspora. It touches on themes of memory and displacement to illustrate the complexities of contemporary Uyghur identity across generations and continents. What is particularly important about this anthology—as well as groups like the Uyghur Collective and the Tarim Network, where it was conceived—is its insistence on sharing experiences of Uyghur life beyond the ongoing genocide and the colonial gaze through which they are too often depicted.
CDT Pick: The contradictions within China’s economy and society are nearing a critical threshold, by Wu Jinglian
For everyone concerned with China affairs, China’s economy may have been the most attention-grabbing topic in 2023. After abandoning the zero-COVID policy, China’s economic recovery did not meet expectations and fell into deflation in the second half of the year. Despite various policies implemented by the authorities to stimulate the economy, the results were minimal. In December, the credit-ratings agency Moody’s stated that it had issued a negative outlook for the financial health of the Chinese government.
An interview with the renowned Chinese economist Wu Jinglian by Caijing Magazine in September 2012 went viral on the Chinese internet in December 2023—but was quickly censored. However, China Digital Times had archived this article as early as 2012, and re-archived the viral version at the end of 2023. In the interview, Wu Jinglian pointed out, “The right path for China to overcome social ills and avoid historical tragedies lies in fully establishing and improving the market economy system. This means eliminating interference from special interests, advancing market-oriented economic reforms, and legal and democratic political reforms, eradicating the foundation of crony capitalism, and ensuring that the exercise of public power is constrained by the constitution and law and subject to public oversight. There is no other way.” Looking back at this article 11 years later, amidst a severe crisis in China’s economy, it is a poignant reminder and also reinforces the significance of our work.
External Pick: Bumingbai Podcast, by Yuan Li and her friends
This was my most listened-to podcast in 2023. The host, Yuan Li, is a veteran journalist and also a columnist for The New York Times. This podcast focuses on current hot topics in China, featuring in-depth interviews with observers, opinion leaders, and people in the news, and is of very high quality.
The most memorable episode of 2023 for me was when Yuan Li interviewed Ms. Bei, the wife of legendary blogger “program-think” (编程随想, biānchéng suíxiǎng, whose real name is 阮晓寰 Ruǎn Xiǎohuán). In the episode, she shared the experience of Ruan’s arrest, his emotional journey, and their love story, bringing to life a vivid and rich portrayal of “program-think.” Ms. Bei has exceptional storytelling skills, making the podcast feel like a movie. The narrative was so engaging and moving that it left a profound impact on the listeners.
China coverage has tended to “zoom out” over time, with the sheer scale and gravity of topics like mass detentions in Xinjiang or globe-spanning political tensions pulling resources and focus away from individual stories. That’s understandable and often appropriate, but the pieces that stuck with me most last year were human-sized accounts linking big macro-themes with individual experience.
CDT Pick: Translation: Sharp Eyes—A Year In Rural Surveillance, by Pang Li (translated by Alex Yu, Little Bluegill, and Cindy Carter)
Much of this lengthy translation is observed through the lens of a free security camera bundled with a home broadband plan in the author’s home village. Pang, sometimes watching the camera’s footage from the family home in the village, and sometimes from Shanghai or Beijing, describes the network of these cameras that has sprung up around the community. The essay explains the cameras’ context as components of nationwide surveillance and securitization initiatives, but focuses more on how the technology fits into villagers’ lives, becoming enmeshed in the fabric of local governance, business, community drama, families scattered by labor migration, and even wildlife. It’s a wonderfully human perspective on a technology often covered in coolly abstract or distant terms.
External Pick: Bad Witness: What I Didn’t Say About Reporting on Chinese Christians in Kenya, by April Zhu
Early in her career, Nairobi-based April Zhu set out to explore human stories underlying the big themes of infrastructure, investment, and influence that tend to dominate views of China’s relationship with Africa. In this essay for Off Assignment, she explains how this went awry: “I ultimately decided to write my piece about Jehovah’s Witnesses who were learning Mandarin to minister to the Chinese diaspora in Kenya … I cannot explain why I am writing this in any other way except that it feels like penance.” Zhu also discusses a more successful article published in Kenyan outlet The Elephant in 2020: her highly personal account of racial suspicion in Nairobi early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Picks from CDT Chinese:
- [For the Record] Xiaomi Patriotic AI Suffers an Attack of “Party-itis” and Repeatedly Claims That “China Is a Democratic Country” (English coverage)
- [Netizen Voices] Far, Far Ahead! This Is Indeed “Whole-Process Virtual Democracy” (English coverage)