CDT Weekly, April 2-9

Empathy for power, defending Xi, defaming others; scrambled eggs and South Park

Welcome to CDT’s weekly email newsletter. 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 Sensitive Words Calendar today features the term 洗淨平 xǐ jìng píng, a character sequence which reportedly appeared in an instruction to wash the bottom of the pan in a scrambled egg recipe found to be unpostable on Weibo in 2018. The phrase is roughly homophonous with the name of China’s top leader Xi Jinping, whose dignity Chinese tech companies are expected to zealously defend. Similarly, at least one account deletion has been reported over innocent use of the psychological term 習得性無助 xídéxìng wúzhù, or “learned helplessness.”

Widespread controls on such homophones, which are one of many techniques used to try to elude censors, faintly echo past taboos on the names of emperors. In 1774, Wang Xihou compiled a dictionary which included a warning not to write taboo names of Confucius and the Qing emperors without omitting their final strokes. The warning included the names in full. Wang was executed, his works burned, six of his descendants enslaved, 16 other relatives arrested, and the family’s property confiscated. Comparing Xi with his imperial predecessors, as many of his online nicknames do, is itself sensitive, partly for the potential suggestion that the CCP’s “New China” is just another lap of the historical dynastic cycle, rather than a final liberation from it.

Another of this week’s calendar entries recalls how sensitivities over Xi’s image led to a purge of episodes and discussions of 南方公園 Nánfāng Gōngyuán, or South Park, from Chinese internet platforms. An October 2019 episode, prophetically titled “Band in China,” involved the imprisonment of Winnie the Pooh over his alleged resemblance to Xi Jinping. The show’s main target, as the NBA squirmed under Chinese pressure after an executive expressed support for protests in Hong Kong, was American companies’ acceptance that “you’ve got to lower your ideals of freedom if you want to suck on the warm teat of China.” Concessions by the U.S. film industry, at which the episode directed particular contempt, were examined in greater depth last year in an extensive report by James Tager at PEN America.

Xi’s dignity was the focus of a third entry this week, 辱包 rǔbāo, or “humiliation bun,” a name given to critical or satirical content about him that alludes to his unofficial title of “Steamed Bun Emperor.” Chinese editors highlighted one recent example: a video from 2019’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in which Xi, after extended questioning by a female journalist, paused for some time before wondering out loud if there was an answer in his notes. Online critics are quick to pounce on hesitation or missteps in Xi’s public appearances: in February, for example, he seemed stumped by the idiomatic term “sprinkling pepper” in a major speech on poverty alleviation.

While Xi is vigorously defended at every turn, other CDT content this week has highlighted attacks, carried out with varying degrees of official involvement or backing. Also on the calendar were four targets and one attacker: the BBC’s John Sudworth, or 沙磊 Shā Lěi; journalist and researcher Vicky Xu, or 許秀中 Xǔ Xiùzhōng; feminist activist 肖美麗 Xiào Měilì; citizen journalist 陳秋實 Chén Qiūshí; and Chinese diplomat 李楊 Lǐ Yáng. Sudworth left China for Taiwan last week with his wife, RTÉ’s Yvonne Murray, who said they had “left in a hurry as the pressure and threats from the Chinese government, which have been going on for some time, became too much.” MoFA spokesperson Hua Chunying suggested that his departure implied a guilty conscience.

Hua’s colleague Li Yang, China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, made headlines for contemptuously addressing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “boy” on Twitter, blaming him for having “ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and […] turned Canada into a running dog of the US.” The post was seen as a “disturbing” escalation of Chinese officials’ sometimes boisterous, occasionally cryptic public statements. The tweet remains online, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, himself a prominent “Wolf Warrior diplomat,” somewhat downplayed it by noting that it had come from Li’s personal account. Censorship on Chinese sites, including deletion of Twitter screenshots from Weibo and apparent clean-ups on Zhihu, Bilibili, and Douyin, may also suggest that Li’s approach has less than whole-hearted official support. 

Vicky Xu is one of several women recently targeted with exceptionally vitriolic and personal attacks. As in Sudworth’s case, the pressure on her follows work on abuses in Xinjiang, most recently at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. She was recently labeled a “race traitor” and accused of orchestrating Western companies’ boycotts of Xinjiang cotton in between drug-fueled orgies. CDT Chinese noted censorship of her name on various platforms, both alone and in combination with terms such as “Nike,” “forced labor,” “Uyghur,” “slut-shaming,” and “misogyny.” Many observers wondered whether the recent state-backed “support Xinjiang cotton” movement might risk inadvertently bringing attention to the abuses that foreign companies had responded to. In this case, Xu’s work on these abuses has been carefully suppressed, while the attacks have been tolerated. The lack of results for Weibo searches like “Xu Xiuzhong + Nike” or “Xu Xiuzhong + Uyghur,” while those terms appear frequently in search results for “Xu Xiuzhong” on its own, is one indicator of associated censorship.

Xiao Meili, whose recent account of her political awakening and famous 2013 protest walk was translated at CDT, saw her Weibo account deleted this week after using it to recount an argument in a restaurant with a nearby smoker. The man reportedly bombarded her with abuse and an unknown liquid after she asked him not to smoke, and police did not help. After Xiao’s posts went viral, she became the focus of a storm of nationalist criticism including accusations of collusion with foreign forces. Fellow activists Lü Pin and Wei Tingting were also caught up in the backlash. “A simple matter of second-hand smoke in a hot-pot restaurant rose to the level of treason,” CDT Chinese editors wrote. WeChat public account “EchoEcho” commented on the frequent scrutiny of past posts for potential controversy, as also seen with “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao: “There’s no escaping the microscope of online political trial. Any ‘imperfect’ woman who wants to speak out in public could meet the same fate as Xiao Meili. This is brazen political persecution of women’s speech.”

Zeyi Yang presented an in-depth examination of state-directed “hate campaigns” at Protocol on Friday. “In today's China,” he noted, “a nationalist campaign involves something far more complex than paying people to post scripted messages parroting Beijing's line. The government has mastered the craft of influencing people's genuine emotions and having these ordinary users do the trolling and doxxing — for free. Oftentimes, this means appealing to misogyny or chauvinism, something that virtually guarantees more clicks.”

On WeChat on March 30, Wei Zhou also examined the emotions driving these movements, asking why some people find it easier to feel empathy for those in power than for those without it—a question related to the more explosive matter of why some “support Xinjiang cotton,” but not Xinjiang people. From CDT’s translation: 

I’ve said before that there is a sort of “empathy for authority” that is universal in Chinese society: people easily adopt the perspective of those in power, emphasizing that it’s not easy to “be in charge,” or that various methods of control are just and rational. Thus the existing mechanisms appear to be unproblematic. If you do have a problem, then you best find the source of that problem within yourself.

[…] If you pay even a little attention you will discover that in many situations, the unspoken subtext in China is “why should I care about others’ feelings,” “if worse comes to worst, I’ll do it myself.” This all demonstrates a lack of empathy. The whole of society doesn’t seem to know how to cooperate with others and achieve a win-win scenario. That is because in a closed power structure, others are often seen as potential adversaries. Therefore, people firmly believe that in order to optimize their own personal interest, they must build a power structure with themselves at the center.

Some similar themes appeared in an earlier Wei Zhou translation, on why many in China are optimistic about the country but pessimistic about their own circumstances

Chen Qiushi disappeared in Wuhan last year after traveling there to record the lockdown as a citizen journalist. He has recently re-emerged, and is reportedly staying with his parents in Qingdao, but while his name can be posted online, news of his case appears to have been heavily suppressed. This week, CDT translated a popular essay on the first Tomb Sweeping Festival in Wuhan since the original outbreak. The piece highlights the desperate and now overshadowed human tragedies of the earliest battles against the pandemic, which Chen sought to document. Its author cited an online comment that had moved them: “‘Every year, it rains on Qingming Festival, but this year, Wuhan’s rains fell for longer than ever, because so much love has been divided by forces beyond its control.’ It was not rain that fell during the Qingming Festival, but tears.”

Elsewhere, CDT covered: