CDT Weekly, March 26-April 1
April Fools; Xinjiang cotton and temperature control; Xi the Accelerator-in-chief
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 in the CDT Chinese Sensitive Words Calendar is 愚人節 Yúrén jié, or April Fool’s Day. CDT Chinese editors took the opportunity to commemorate state news agency Xinhua’s 2016 admonition on Weibo that the Western quasi-holiday "does not conform with our nation's cultural traditions, nor does it conform with the core values of socialism [….] Don't believe rumors, don't create rumors and don't spread rumors." The addition of a smiley face made some wonder if the post was itself an April Fool’s joke; the subsequent mass deletion of over two and a half thousand often derisive responses suggested otherwise.
This concludes any and all April Fool-related newsletter content until next year.
Several other recent calendar entries involve the aggressive backlash, noted last week, against Western companies over concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry. H&M, Nike, Burberry, and others faced social media fury stoked by an account belonging to the Communist Youth League, while celebrity brand ambassadors embraced Wolf Warrior diplomacy and loudly cut ties. “H&M” itself, as well as alternatives such as “HM” and “海恩斯莫里斯” Hǎiēnsī Mòlǐsī (for “Hennes & Mauritz”), was excised from major online shopping platforms, with physical store locations also removed from map apps.
It is unclear to what extent the the uproar was engineered or merely exploited by the authorities. Taipei-based Doublethink Lab traced its origins and found “no obvious links to the party or state” until the Communist Youth League boosted its already considerable momentum, according to The Wall Street Journal's Josh Chin. But Eva Xiao reported at the WSJ on Wednesday that the H&M eruption resembled proposed responses to Western pressure discussed at a meeting including Foreign Ministry and propaganda officials in late February.
At China Media Project, David Bandurski observed that “for the Chinese Communist Party, online rage is the conflagration needed to suck the oxygen out of any debate over substance, and distract attention away from criticism. Facts and hard questions on issues like Xinjiang are consumed in the blaze. The trouble is, fires are difficult to contain.” Nevertheless, The New York Times’ Paul Mozur described the precision with which authorities had been able to control the temperature as “remarkable.”
Some disharmonious notes did encroach on the main theme, though often only briefly. These included the question of why many of those angry at H&M were so keen to “support Xinjiang cotton” but less eager to “support Xinjiang people.” Several post and account deletions were reported in that case, while CDT Chinese noted that related search results appeared heavily sanitized.
This week, CDT English translated or summarized other dissenting and often short-lived perspectives from Chinese social media. One essay still on WeChat picked up the theme of prioritizing people over inanimate symbols, arguing that “it is impossible for those with no love for their compatriots to truly be patriotic. If they care not for these specific individuals, then they don’t deserve to use the term ‘comrade.’” Another cited Li Wenliang’s call for “more than one voice in a healthy society.”
Another user who complained that “a country where you can’t protest in the streets has raised a den of internet vigilantes […] always making trouble, making noise” was later reportedly detained by public security officers in Beijing. The Los Angeles Times’ Alice Su reported this week on the chilling of Han voices sympathetic to Uyghurs, highlighting government procurement of online astroturfing systems as a warning against taking the mood online at face value, but acknowledging that the supportive voices heard through channels like pre-block Clubhouse discussions represent a relatively small minority. Meanwhile, the main focus of China’s response to pressure on Xinjiang appears to have shifted back toward sanctions and diplomatic broadsides.
Another pair of sensitive terms highlighted by CDT Chinese editors this week is 加速主义 jiāsùzhǔyì, or “Accelerationism,” and 总加速师 zǒng jiāsù shī, or “Accelerator-in-chief.” The former refers to the theory, notably associated in the West with white supremacist violence, that the best way forward in an irredeemably flawed society is to encourage or allow its internal tensions and contradictions to develop, hastening its inevitable collapse. Accelerationism in the Chinese context tends to be more passive than in the West, characterized by cynical and even nihilistic resignation to trends such as deepening authoritarianism under Xi Jinping, on the basis that their velocity is both sufficiently self-destructive and impossible to meaningfully influence in any case. Accordingly, Xi has earned the unofficial title “Accelerator-in-chief,” a barbed homage to Deng Xiaoping’s role as 总设计师 zǒng shèjì shī or “Architect-in-chief” of reform and opening. Both terms, particularly the latter, were recently found to have become sensitive, with searches on most platforms either blocked or flooded with positive propaganda that obscures any relation to Xi. Even on Twitter, editors noted a surge of more than usually meaningless content from bot accounts in an apparent effort to drown out authentic Chinese-language use of the term.
Find more from CDT Chinese in Monday’s weekly roundup. Elsewhere at CDT English, meanwhile, we covered:
… guilty verdicts against prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures and a sweeping downgrade of the city’s democratic systems: the proportion of its legislature chosen by direct election slashed, the influence of traditionally pro-democracy sectors undercut, and candidate vetting procedures tied in an “infinite loop” of unaccountably conflicted interests.
… the relocation to Taiwan of the BBC’s John Sudworth and his wife, RTÉ News’ Yvonne Murray, after “pressure and threats from the Chinese government, which have been going on for some time, became too much.” (Official Chinese reactions to their departure included a cryptic tweet from the Chinese embassy in Ireland, interpreted on Thursday by Foreign Policy’s James Palmer.)
… continuing controversy over the World Health Organization’s investigation of COVID-19’s origins, following its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ unexpected criticism of its final report this week.