Translation: He Jiayan on the “Accelerating Collapse” of the Chinese Internet

Late last month, a WeChat article about the “collapse of the Chinese-language internet” attracted tens of thousands of views and spurred an enthusiastic response before it was eventually censored. Written by He Jiayan, a blogger who frequently writes about notable businesspeople and entrepreneurs, the article explores the massive and accelerating deletion of content from the Chinese-language internet, particularly from the pre-mobile internet era. 

A recent New York Times article by Li Yuan mentioned the popularity of the censored WeChat article, and noted some concerning statistics about the mobile-era Chinese-language internet: “There were 3.9 million websites in China in 2023, down more than a third from 5.3 million in 2017 […and] the number of websites using Chinese language make up only 1.3 percent of the global total, down from 4.3 percent in 2013 — a 70 percent plunge over a decade.” “Link rot” is a global issue—a Pew Research Center analysis published in May found that 38% of webpages that were online in 2013, and a quarter of those from the subsequent decade, are no longer available. In China, the problem is compounded by local factors: He Jiayan highlights the steady tightening of internet regulation, and the accompanying culture of self-censorship as among the key factors driving the disappearance of Chinese online content.

The following is a full translation of He Jiayan’s article, “The Chinese Internet is Rapidly Collapsing,” with some explanatory links added by CDT editors. The essay includes major spoilers for the final book of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body” trilogy, and perhaps for future seasons of its ongoing Netflix adaptation—click the warnings to reveal these passages.

Here’s a question: if you were to search for “Jack Ma” on Baidu, on webpages between 1998 and 2005, how many results do you think you’d find? One hundred million? Ten million? One million?

I asked this question in a few of my friend groups, and everyone guessed in the range of one million to 10 million. After all, the internet is a vast sea of information, and as a celebrated entrepreneur of that period, Jack Ma must have made quite a mark on the internet, right?.

Wrong. Here are the actual search results:

Screenshot of a Baidu search for “马云” (Ma Yun, Jack Ma’s name in Chinese) for the period between May 22, 1998 and May 22, 2005 shows only a single search result.

A Baidu search for “Jack Ma” on webpages published between May 22, 1998 and May 22, 2005 yielded but a single hit (my search was conducted on May 22, 2024.)

And even that lone result was erroneous. Upon clicking the link, I discovered that the page was actually published in 2021, outside the stipulated time frame. I have no idea how it slipped into the results.

A screenshot of the erroneous search result shows a headline from Sina Finance News dated March 10, 2021. The headline reads, “On This Day in History, March 10, 1999, Alibaba Was Founded.”

In other words, if we want to learn more about Jack Ma’s activities during that period by accessing news reports, public discussions, Ma’s speeches, or data about his company, we are able to find precisely zero sources of reliable original information.

Could this be an issue with Baidu? Perhaps if we switched to Bing or Google, we would be able to find something.

I tried that, and the results weren’t much different from Baidu. Bing and Google yielded a slightly larger number of results, but they were still only in the single digits. And most of the results were invalid, published outside of the stipulated time period, and captured by mistake for some unknown technical reason.

Could it be that Mr. Ma is a relatively controversial person, and for reasons that we need not delve into here, it is difficult to find information about him online?

But in fact, Jack Ma isn’t the only person whose name yields such limited search results. We encounter similarly limited results when searching for [Tencent CEO “Pony Ma”] Ma Huateng, [Xiaomi CEO] Lei Jun, [Huawei CEO] Ren Zhengfei, or once-popular internet celebrities such as [entrepreneur] Luo Yonghao or Furong Jiejie [blogger “Sister Hibiscus”]. The same goes for pop-culture household names like [Taiwanese singer] Jay Chou or [Chinese singer/songwriter] Li Yuchun. For example, here are the results when we search for Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun:

A screenshot of a Baidu search for “雷军” (Lei Jun, the CEO of Xiaomi) for the period between May 22, 1998 and May 22, 2005 yields the message, “Sorry, no search results were found.”

After experimenting with a number of different search engines to search for the names of various people during various time periods, I discovered a shocking phenomenon:

The content from nearly all popular Chinese-language websites of that era has completely disappeared. This includes content from NetEase, Sohu, Campus BBS, Xici Hutong, Kaidi Maoyan, Tianya Forum, Xiaonei Network (later Renren Network), Sina Weibo, and Baidu Message Boards, as well as content from a vast number of personal websites. The only exception is, where some information from a decade or so ago can still be found, but 99.9999% of the old content has vanished.

There is a grave problem of which most people are unaware: the Chinese-language internet is rapidly collapsing, and online content from the pre-mobile era has almost entirely disappeared.

We thought that the internet would never forget, but as it turns out, the internet has the memory of a goldfish.

I’ve noticed the problem because I frequently use the web to research biographical information on fascinating people for my He Jiayan public WeChat account.

Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a marked and rapid drop-off in the amount of original, primary-source content on the internet. I used to be able to locate original news articles about the people I write about, but that content has gradually disappeared. I used to be able to find the original versions of speeches made by those individuals, or articles that they wrote, but those, too, have gradually disappeared. Many original videos of interesting interviews or conversations with those individuals have likewise disappeared.

It’s like there’s a webpage-devouring monster, chomping its way through the timeline of our history. It started by taking small bites, then bigger and bigger mouthfuls, until it progressed to devouring five- and ten-year chunks of content from the Chinese internet.

By the time we come to our senses, we will discover that everything on the Chinese internet prior to the mobile-internet era has disappeared, including portal sites, the websites of institutions and organizations, personal web pages, campus BBS, public forums, Sina Weibo, and Baidu Message Boards, as well as all manner of documents, photos, music, and videos.

Over a decade ago, while in the process of setting up a new computer, I compressed a bunch of photos and documents into a ZIP file and saved it on a certain BBS server. But a few years later, I discovered that the entire BBS was gone. I used to have a Hotmail account containing many precious emails, but that has disappeared as well. And all of the content I posted on Renren and MySpace has disappeared.

We used to think the internet would be able to archive everything, but as it turns out, it archives nothing.


It reminds me of the “dual vector foil” in Liu Cixin’s “Three-Body Problem.” When the Singers discover intelligent life in the solar system, because of the tendency of advanced civilizations to eliminate others, they use their “dual vector foil” weapon to collapse the solar system into two dimensions at light speed, transforming the entire solar system into a flat canvas resembling Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and wiping out all vestiges of Earthly life and civilization.

It’s not unlike what the Chinese internet is experiencing, being devoured by a dual vector foil—only in this case, the dimension being devoured is the dimension of time.

At least a beautiful two-dimensional work of art was left behind when the Singer civilization flattened the solar system with their dual vector foil. In the case of the Chinese internet, we are left with only a void.


As for why this is happening, I believe there are likely two main reasons.

The first reason is economic. Maintaining a website requires servers, bandwidth, space for computers, personnel for operation and maintenance, and fees associated with supervision and maintenance, all of which have to be paid for. A company will be motivated to maintain a website only if it holds some strategic value (for example, if the company wishes to display some information to the public), or if it generates some short-term value in terms of web traffic (for example, if the website can attract significant numbers of visitors to the site). In addition, of course, the company also needs to have enough money to maintain the website.

But when a company encounters business difficulties and runs out of money, their website also becomes defunct. [Former Chinese social network] Renren is a classic example.

Even if a company can afford to keep a website online, if the traffic on the site is sparse, it becomes a burden, from an operational standpoint. In that case, the economically rational thing to do is to shut it down. This is why much of the early content from Sohu and NetEase has disappeared, and it’s also why BBS sites (such as Tianya Forum) met their collective demise.

The second reason is regulatory. The process of internet regulation [in China] went from nonexistent to existent, from lenient to strict, and from strict to even stricter. Nowadays, much once-legal online content no longer meets regulatory requirements, and content that used to exist in a “gray area” has become verboten, subject to immediate deletion.

There are other reasons as well. For example, changes in public opinion can mean that previously “acceptable” content may come to be viewed as too sensitive or controversial. Regulators may feel that this sort of content, while not necessarily illegal, could exacerbate social conflict or threaten social stability, in which case, they may request that it be removed.

Regulatory officials aren’t the only ones who call for controversial content to be taken down. Sometimes angry internet users can act as public opinion regulators—for example, by digging up some offhand comment someone made over a decade ago and using it to make them an online pariah.

But more relevant than any direct action taken by officials or angry netizens is the “self-censorship” practiced by companies and individuals.

Because you never know what kind of website content, what random post or comment, might come back to haunt you years later, some feel that the safest course is to eliminate these potential “time bombs” by shutting down their old websites or deleting all of the content.

Of course, there are many more reasons besides the two described above. For example, shortly after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, all web content under the international domain name for Yugoslavia (.yu) disappeared. Another example is content-sharing sites. Many previously popular content-sharing sites for music and movies were taken down as copyright-law enforcement ramped up. And some institutions and individuals, purely for their own reasons, decided to shut down their websites and remove their information from public view.

But these examples all deal with secondary, localized factors. The systematic, large-scale disappearance of content across the entire Chinese internet is mainly due to economic factors and self-censorship.

The internet, like life itself, is essentially governed by evolutionary forces. There is only one rationale for a website’s continued existence: to attract the most traffic at the lowest possible cost.

Among the vast oceans of online content, a given piece of content will only survive if it can capture enough attention to rationalize its costs. (This includes economic cost, regulatory cost, and the cost of dealing with that regulation.) Though the kinds of content and how content is presented have changed, this has and always will be the case. We went from text to pictures to gifs and then to video. In the future, perhaps three-dimensional holographic videos will become the predominant form of online content. The platforms that host the content will also change, as they have from portals to BBS, to personal blogs, then to Weibo and WeChat and Douyin video. Who knows what sort of new and unimagined platforms the future will bring.

When content no longer attracts enough attention, or when the cost of maintaining it outweighs the benefits, it will disappear. The collective demise of the traditional internet, when netizens browsed web pages from personal computers, is nothing but the inevitable result of this “evolutionary contest of information.”

Whereas biological evolution hinges on “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest,” the evolution of the internet is driven by “survival of the fittest based on information quality and the ability to attract attention.” Due to network effects, internet competition is exponentially crueler than biological survival of the fittest, because the demise of the traditional internet is not the extinction of a single species, but the mass extinction of virtually all of its content.

As each new generation of the internet arises, the old internet will inevitably collapse. The “dual vector foil” of time is the inescapable fate of all websites and the content they host.

If the future of human civilization is internet civilization, then we of the original internet generation will one day be left out of history, for all traces of us will have been wiped from the internet.

Does it matter if we are “left out of history”? Of course it does. 

While researching an article I was writing on [early tech entrepreneur and philanthropist] Shao Yibo, I searched everywhere for original online content about him. I tried to track down original video footage of his 2007 appearance on [the business-focused talk show] “Boss Town,” and even tried to find his wife Bao Jiaxin’s years of posts on [parenting platform] Babytree under her username of “Wen Ai Mami,” but unfortunately, I didn’t manage to find a lot of what I was looking for.

The resulting article, “The World Has Forgotten Shao Yibo,” was read by more than 700,000 people and was shared more than 20,000 times in a single week. But despite its popularity, I’m certain that I must have missed some very important information. If I could have included that information, I’m sure it would have been a much better article.

But because I couldn’t find any of that original content, I had no choice but to publish the article in its imperfect form.

You may think that this sort of thing is only relevant to researchers and writers like me. You may think that if you don’t need to do online research for articles, it doesn’t matter if some old information disappears from the internet, because it won’t have any impact on you.

But is that really true?

What if we could no longer read any of Jack Ma’s speeches, or any of Ren Zhengfei’s famous articles (like “My Father and Mother” and “The Spring River Flows East”), or any of Duan Yongping’s posts on Snowball [a Chinese-language social network and information portal for investors]? Don’t you think that would be a shame?

All right, so you say, you wouldn’t really care.

Don’t you think it would be a loss if we no longer had access to [Pinduoduo CEO] Huang Zheng’s public WeChat account, or [Bytedance CEO] Zhang Yiming’s Weibo posts, [Meiyuan CEO and founder of Fanfou, China’s first microblog site] Wang Xing’s Fanfou posts?

All right, so you say you still don’t care.

But wouldn’t you feel a little bit heartbroken if [Q&A site] Zhihu disappeared one day, like Tianya Forum did? Or if [film, literature, and entertainment site] Douban went away, like Renren did? Or if no one cared anymore about [video-sharing site] Bilibili, like no one nowadays cares about Sina Weibo?

What if one day all the Weibo posts from your favorite account were replaced by the message: “This author has chosen to display only six months of content. This Weibo account is no longer visible.” Or if your favorite WeChat public accounts only said: “This account has been blocked. The content cannot be viewed.” Or if one day you were searching for some information on Douyin or Xiaohongshu, and all the results just said: “The author has deleted all content”?

What if one day, every single Weibo, WeChat, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu account disappeared, gone the way of BBS, Tieba, Space, Sina Weibo, and so many others? Wouldn’t you feel even a brief pang of regret?

We—the generation of the traditional internet, those of us born in the 1970s and 80s—can no longer retrieve our history. Because it has all disappeared.

The new generation can still view their friends’ “WeChat Moments,” but more and more of these are going silent, or being set to “display only three days of WeChat Moments.”

The only thing still being enthusiastically posted in WeChat Moments is marketing content.

In the future, these promotional posts will eventually die out, too.

If something important to us is dying out, is there any way of saving it?

Some have tried. In the U.S., there is a website called “The Internet Archive Wayback Machine” that saves a lot of older, original websites. In Chinese, the name has been translated as 互联网档案馆 (hùliánwǎng dàng’ànguǎn). I’ve tried it, but there aren’t many old Chinese web pages in their archives, and it’s difficult to use. The search function is really primitive and inefficient.

From a technical perspective, it shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive to archive all of the Chinese websites from the pre-mobile era, a period spanning just over a decade. After all, compared to all the video content hosted online nowadays, archiving all the old text- and image-based web content of the original internet would require an almost negligible amount of storage space.

The question is: who will undertake this task? What motivation is there?

Businesses won’t do it, because there’s no commercial benefit to be had.

The government might be able to build such an archive, like it builds libraries or museums. But why would the government invest the money and effort to do this? Besides preserving history, there seems to be no other reason to undertake this task. Even if the government were to do so, it wouldn’t be accessible to ordinary internet users, because such an archive would require permission to use, in order to prevent misuse of information.

At any rate, even if there were some organizations willing to do this, it’s too late now. With the rise of the mobile internet, most Chinese-language content from the original internet has already disappeared. According to a rough estimate, more than 99% is already gone.

In a sense, my “Amazing People” series of articles has made a small contribution to preserving some of this history. If I hadn’t written about these individuals, a lot of their online history would now be lost. But it’s all just consolidation of second-hand information. None of it is first-hand, original content.

Currently, when it comes to the online history of all the major events, influential celebrities, etc. of the first decade of this century, all we have is second-hand information, posted by independent commentators. Some of that information has passed through so many hands that it has been altered beyond recognition.

All of that original reporting, video content, speeches, commentary, and first-hand eyewitness information is gone.

In a few years’ time, so too will all the second-hand information (or third- or fourth-hand information) be lost. It will be as if those events never happened, as if those people never existed.

There’s nothing we can do now but accept this reality.

In the future, when we look back through the history of the internet, there will be a twenty-year gap—the first two decades of the twenty-first century will be missing.

We are the internet’s lost generation.

All that remains of the original Chinese internet is a few last rays of the setting sun.

Those who understand the fleeting nature of the situation might sigh, as did Faust before his death, “Beautiful moment, do not pass away!”


But that afterglow shall soon be swallowed up by the dual vector foil of time, subsumed into the void.

In “The Three-Body Problem,” Cheng Xin and AA are fortunate enough to board a curvature propulsion spacecraft to escape from the rapidly degenerating solar system.

But for us, who lack such a vehicle, there is no escape.


Virtually everything you see online right now and all content you create—including this very article and this very platform—will eventually be lost to the void.

P.S. Follow me, He Jiayan, and read all my previous articles. Perhaps you’ll be able to see a lot of information that is already unavailable elsewhere. I will continue to work hard, write good stories about amazing people, and fight to hold on to as much of the dying light as I can. [Chinese]

Translation by Little Bluegill.


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