CDT Weekly, March 20-25

Sexual assault, poetry, and power; vloggers and Oscars; Xinjiang cotton; out-of-touch steamed buns

Welcome to the fifth edition of 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 Chinese Sensitive Words Calendar is 白日一刪盡 bái rì yī shān jǐn, meaning “delete everything within the day.” The phrase is a homophone for “the white sun daily sets,” from the first line of Wang Zhihuan’s “Ascending the Stork Tower.” A Tang-style poetry competition broke out online amid the fallout from the story of a young Jiangsu policewoman, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for extortion after having affairs with several local officials. Much of the online commentary voiced suspicion that she had been preyed upon and then discarded by older, more powerful men; the subsequent censorship of these comments then sparked a second backlash, including the outburst of anti-censorship verse.

In a TED-style talk at the Herstory conference in Chengdu this month, translated at CDT on Wednesday, activist Xiao Meili recalled a similar episode as a pivotal moment in her feminist awakening. In 2013, soon before the 2300-kilometer protest walk that brought Xiao to prominence, six elementary school girls in Hainan went missing overnight. It later emerged that they had been taken to hotel rooms by their school principal and a local housing official. Xiao was enraged by newspaper headlines condemning the girls’ “deviant lifestyles,” as well as by other responses to sexual assault that place the burden of avoiding it on its potential victims. “I do not understand why when our society is sick, we demand that its victims take the medicine,” Xiao declares. “In order to understand and resolve the issue of sexual assault, we have to approach it from the perspective of power [….] Regulating students will always be easy. But what about the teachers? What about the principals? What about those people with even more power? Who regulates them? I truly believe that in this gender-unequal society, to force the weaker party to accept even less freedom and space will only empower the perpetrators, not the opposite. We can’t lock up potential victims if we want to change society.”

The rest of the Sensitive Words Calendar’s catalog of censorship hotspots:

  • 郑国成Zhèng Guóchéng—a nationalistic Chinese livestreamer whose domestic channels were deleted after he drunkenly turned on local officials and the Party on March 11, announcing that he had been “dressing up as a patriotic youth” to earn money, including more than US$7,000 last month. Some social media users asked what kind of alcohol had fueled Zheng’s confession, and suggested that more people in China should drink it.

  • 小豪Xiǎo Háo—pseudonym of a Beijing high school student whose account of homophobic bullying became the focus of a recent wave of censorship.

  • 習得性無助xídéxìng wúzhù—“learned helplessness,” a psychological term which appears to have been targeted by censors as a suspected allusion to Xi Jinping. At least one user reports having had his account deleted after using the term in an unrelated context.

  • 制裁王晨zhìcái Wáng Chén—“sanction Wang Chen,” the ranking vice-chair of the NPC Standing Committee who topped a U.S. State Department list of officials sanctioned over the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy on March 16. 

  • 取消奧斯卡qǔxiāo Àosīkǎ—“cancel Oscars,” which became a censorship hotspot amid reports that live broadcasts of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony are forbidden due to the nominations of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland—recently a target of nationalist backlash—and Hong Kong protest documentary Do Not Split. (CDT will hold a Chinese-language discussion about Nomadland on Clubhouse at 5:30pm Pacific time on Saturday.)

More details on some of these and other topics can be found in Monday’s weekly roundup from CDT Chinese.

Another hotspot this week is the eruption of an apparently state-backed backlash against Western companies that have issued statements about alleged forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry. The U.S. banned cotton imports from the region in January, and the furore follows a salvo of Chinese sanctions against European individuals and institutions in retaliation for E.U. measures against Chinese officials over conditions in Xinjiang. The Communist Youth League led the charge on Weibo on Wednesday, denouncing Swedish brand H&M for “making up lies and boycotting Xinjiang cotton, and it wants to make money in China in the meantime.” A stream of Chinese celebrities have withdrawn endorsements from brands such as H&M and Nike, while some Chinese or Hong Kong companies have avowed their commitment to Xinjiang sourcing.

Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang observed in a blog post on Thursday that the sudden focus on Xinjiang stood in contrast with a years-long taboo on Chinese social media, which left some commenters mystified about why H&M might have concerns. “As someone who grew up in this heavily censored country, learning about prohibited issues was mostly an accident,” she wrote. “I hope this Xinjiang cotton ‘storm’ is such a moment for many people in China, especially the youth.”

The opened floodgates did allow some less orthodox views to get through, however briefly. CDT has compiled and translated a number of comments asking why self-professed patriots are more concerned with Xinjiang cotton than with Xinjiang’s people. There have been several reports of posts deleted and accounts suspended for raising such questions.

One of the posts from CDT’s translation commented:

I hate this phenomenon that started during the pandemic where products stand in for real people, where you show your support for things when in actuality you don’t care about real people. Like those people who were cheering for the excavators, but who didn’t care whether the workers were getting paid on time. Or like when people cheered for Wuhan “hot dry noodles,” they didn’t seem to care how Wuhaners were being treated. Using a thing to represent your love for your compatriots just covers up the fact that you never loved them in the first place.

Another possible example is state-fueled outrage at the “desecration” of national flags and emblems during the 2019 Hong Kong protests, while protesters were being beaten and teargassed.

While the cotton backlash may inadvertently highlight the situation in Xinjiang in some cases, another of the translated comments noted its effectiveness as a distraction:

Now the domestic internet is in a boycotting frenzy. Everyone either supports Chinese products or ridicules them. Whether it’s regular people or normally very perceptive people, nobody is thinking about what’s actually happening in Xinjiang, how the Uyghurs are actually doing, or whether there is actually forced labor etc. Nobody has the slightest doubt at all. I truly have to admire this set of opinion control strategies. These weapons of control are invincible.

The uproar has also produced the perplexing phrase 越级碰瓷 yuèjí pèngcí or “out of your league attention-seeking,” used in Chinese fandom subcultures to heap scorn on celebrity behavior, and now awkwardly appropriated by official social media accounts to denounce foreign companies. It is derived from 碰瓷 pèngcí or “porcelain bumping,” referring to accidents deliberately caused by their supposed victims to gain compensation, for which China Law Translate’s Jeremy Daum has proposed the English translation “eggshell extortion.” The Communist Youth League’s indignant order to foreign firms to stop “STOP YUEJIPENGCI” prompted a mixture of amusement and bemusement, some of which was translated at CDT English. “If you study English with the CYL, a 5/5 on the TOEFL isn’t a dream,” one commenter suggested. “Xi Jinping Thought on English with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” added another.

Other posts at CDT English include compilations on opacity and obstruction at the trial of Canadian Michael Kovrig in Beijing on Monday, and the murky and fragmented news of a suicide bombing at a Guangdong local government building. 

CDT Chinese has expanded its offerings with searchable databases of daily quotes, recommended media, and deleted articles, and compiled a directory of key pages on Linktree. Finally, its editors noted the deletion of a report on the restructuring of famous/infamous upmarket Tianjin-based steamed bun chain Goubuli, whose author took the opportunity to make some thinly veiled political commentary:

Many might already have forgotten that the reason Goubuli Steamed Buns was welcomed by the masses was that it was close to the masses. It understood that the public’s wallets were far from swollen, it understood their tastes, and with sincere intent and authentic ingredients, it met the people’s needs.

But as it developed, Goubuli Steamed Buns forgot its original intention and grew further and further apart from the people, even to the point of abandoning their wishes. It deliberately went upmarket, and wealth changed its colors, pushing the masses far away.

[…] The end of Goubuli Steamed Buns is a warning to us all: everything that divorces itself from the people will fall, and everything that abandons their wishes will be shut down.