CDT Weekly, April 24-30

Doxers of Xi’s daughter sentenced; Wang Qishan speech and Oscars wins censored; Global Times martyr quits; census figures loom

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.

Today’s entry on the CDT Sensitive Words calendar is 李文亮 Lǐ Wénliàng, the whistleblowing Wuhan doctor whose death from COVID-19 was a pivotal moment in the early stage of the pandemic in China, and whose final Weibo post continues to attract comments and confidences more than a year later.  CDT Chinese has built an extensive archive of these posts.

Yesterday’s entry was something of a contrast: 牛騰宇+惡俗維基 Niú Téngyǔ + Èsú Wéijī, or “Niu Tengyu + Esu [Evil] Wiki.” Esu Wiki was part of a group of 4-chan-like online fora devoted to doxing, harassment, and memes, which gained notoriety for exposing personal information of science fiction author Liu Cixin, among others, before their closure in 2019. Niu, now 22, is a former administrator of Esu Wiki who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for picking quarrels and stirring up trouble, privacy violation, and illegal business operations. The sentence, upheld by a court this week, is the longest of 24 imposed in a crackdown involving the publication of private information on Xi Jinping’s daughter, Xi Mingze, as well as Xi himself, and his brother-in-law Deng Jiagui. Niu has claimed that his confession was coerced with sleep deprivation and beatings, while a former colleague has said that the information in question never appeared on the site Niu operated, and that he was scapegoated simply because he was within the authorities’ grasp.

The victims of the crackdown are not Chinese authorities’ most sympathetic targets, as a 2019 profile of the sites by Dylan Levi King at SupChina illustrates. King described the sites’ users as “some of the country’s worst online citizens,” gleefully exploiting two linked phenomena: broad government-mandated data collection and lax data security making China’s internet “a privacy nightmare”—a point recently echoed in an Economist article on the Chinese web’s rich pickings for foreign intelligence agencies—while strict internet control “makes it, paradoxically, easier for truly vile content to exist on the Chinese internet.” “Much of the material on Esu and Zhina,” King wrote, “including direct threats against individuals and groups, and underage nudity, would be unlawful in many jurisdictions, including the United States.” But, he noted elsewhere, “the political content couldn’t have sat well with internet monitors, either.”

The community’s other exploits notwithstanding, the severity of Niu’s punishment has drawn startled notice, with some pointing out that his sentence exceeds that of the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. (Liu’s sentence was ten years, though he did not live to see the end of it.) CDT Chinese editors ranked the topic’s sensitivity as “extremely high” based on censorship surrounding this week’s developments in the case: while most platforms allowed limited discussion of the doxing and harassment, “content related to the case such as arrests, torture, and trials are barred from posting and searches, and cannot even be associated with the word ‘case,’” while “people involved, such as ‘Niu Tengyu’ or other references to Esu site administrators, are all banned, including on Baidu.” (See a previous installment of this newsletter for less extreme measures to protect Xi online.)

Another Xi-related censorship hotspot this week involves the top leader’s right-hand man, Vice President Wang Qishan, and a speech he gave at last week’s Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan ahead of a video address by Xi. Wang issued the self-deprecating disclaimer that he was just an “interim speaker,” and that Xi should be considered the main event, “reflecting our China’s high esteem for our Chairman.” Wang, his homophonic online nickname 王73 Wáng qīsān, and several combinations including “Boao,” “interim speaker,” and “high esteem” became controlled terms soon after, amid widespread mockery of “history’s most awkward speech.” Weibo closed comments on related news items, and Zhihu limited relevant searches to results from 2020 or earlier. “Wang 73,” which first emerged and came to censors’ notice amid Guo Wengui’s claims about Wang in 2017, has been treated with a particularly heavy hand, given its inherently evasive nature.

The award for Most Widely Noted Chinese Censorship this week goes to 趙婷 Zhào Tíng, or Chloé Zhao, to sit next to the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars she won last weekend for her dramatic exploration of U.S. gig economy precarity, “Nomadland.” The awards broke new ground on several fronts, with Zhao becoming only the second woman, first woman of color, and third Asian ever to win the Best Director prize. Instead of celebrating a Beijing-born filmmaker’s achievements at the global pinnacle of her industry, though, Chinese authorities reportedly ordered sweeping censorship because of “previous public opinion.” Earlier trumpeting of Zhao’s success was cut short by a fierce nationalistic backlash over her comment in a 2013 interview that “there are lies everywhere” in China. Intense censorship of references and allusions to “Nomadland” followed earlier censorship of speculation about intensified censorship surrounding the ceremony.  CDT compiled and translated some post-award comments from Chinese social media on the absurdity of the controls:

西极南隅:Is Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” not an anti-American film? It hands a knife to anti-American foreign forces, exposing American’s dark side. And as a result, the Americans congratulated her, but China blocked her????? I can’t understand it.

LiuDasheng1123:What Nomadland captures is the condition of Americans at the margins of society, the unglamorous side of America. The Oscars are awarded to this “humiliating beauty” of a film, reflecting the self-confidence of Americans and their courage to face their own social problems. It isn’t like this ancient nation in the East, where being insulted means retaliating with a ban.

Kuren2021:With its own actions, China has proved that what Chloé Zhao said was true.

This week, CDT English focused on the inhabitants of China’s own “Nomadland,” rounding up recent coverage of the ongoing crackdown on labor activism among China’s “delivery knight” couriers, even as the companies exploiting them come under antitrust pressure from above. Ahead of International Workers’ Day/Labour Day on May 1, the Sensitive Words calendar featured 996, the infamous 9am-till-9pm, six-days-a-week work schedule demanded by many of China’s tech companies. 

This week’s CDT Chinese roundup also highlighted a more specific piece of employment news with the latest twist in the tale of Fu Guohao, the Global Times reporter who was attacked by protesters at Hong Kong’s airport in 2019. The incident made Fu a hero to many on the mainland, and his employer gave him a 100,000 RMB bonus which editor-in-chief and pantomime supervillain Hu Xijin said he hoped would help Fu establish a home and family in the notoriously expensive capital. These hopes appear to have been dashed: Fu has now reportedly left both Global Times and Beijing, with his father explaining that his salary at the paper made staying impractical. Commentary on the episode has included observations on the country’s failure to repay Fu’s patriotism, and mockery of Hu, who recently told another Weibo user that he couldn’t afford a home because he didn’t deserve one.

Fu’s ordeal in Hong Kong provided one example of a widely used flourish in official rhetoric: references to the number and purported unity of China’s 1.4 billion people. A People’s Daily commentary on the incident ended with a declaration that “the 1.4 billion Chinese are united as one barrier, and they can stop any flood that threatens to destroy our country and our people.” The country’s official population figure passed that landmark figure at the end of 2019. This week, The Financial Times reported that it may have passed it again in the opposite direction, having started to decline years earlier than expected. China’s National Bureau of Statistics issued a single-sentence denial on Thursday, maintaining that “according to our understanding, in 2020, our country's population continued to grow.” If the turning point has not yet passed, however, it is fast approaching. CDT English compiled coverage of the delayed official census figures and the political and economic implications of a shrinking, ageing population. A separate post focused on the connected issues of natalist government policy, gender roles, and feminism, the last of which has come under increasing pressure online in recent weeks. The post includes translations of online commentary, including the acerbic observation that “as soon as they want access to your uterus, they start sweet-talking you.”