CDT Weekly, May 16-20

Wolf War engulfs Weibo cartoonists; AirTag engraving and other Bad Apple news

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 Sensitive Words calendar entry is 49中+漫畫 49 Zhōng +mànhuà, or “No. 49 Middle School + cartoon.” It refers to an episode that followed the online uproar, described last week, over childrens’ welfare and surveillance after the death of a student at Chengdu’s No. 49 Middle School. Suspicion flared around the case when the boy’s mother complained of being denied access to crucial parts of surveillance footage. This in turn sparked a nationalist backlash against the student’s family and their supporters, who were accused of stirring up trouble. “All I wanted was to know the truth,” wrote one user quoted by The Wall Street Journal, “and now I’ve become an enemy of the state.”

Among those joining the fray was artist Wuheqilin, who has won a following of more than 2.6 million on Weibo for his sharp graphical jabs at China’s perceived opponents abroad. His work came to international notoriety last November, when “Wolf Warrior” diplomat Zhao Lijian tweeted his satirical image of a murderous Australian soldier amid an official investigation into abuses by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. His more recent offerings have included references to American slavery and the Ku Klux Klan in an attack on foreign accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton industry, and a comparison of G7 foreign ministers with leaders of the Eight-Nation Alliance that invaded northern China in response to the Boxer rebellion in 1900:

Wuheqilin announced in January that in response to mounting international criticism of China, he would “no longer draw about domestic topics, but condemn American imperialism full-time.” Nevertheless, amid the outcry over the Chengdu case, many of his followers urged him to address it in his work, suggesting that it would be more admirable to aim his pen at home as well as abroad. He refused, saying that although he was paying close attention to the matter, it would be “rash” for him to produce work about it at that stage. Instead, the most responsible course was to “not spread rumors, keep paying attention, call for an investigation, and wait for the truth.” At the same time, he also indicated in a discussion thread that he was sympathetic to suggestions that foreign interference had played a role in fuelling the outcry.

Soon after, Wuheqilin turned on other artists who had produced work on the incident, compiling some examples and saying he “hopes these little artists can apologize, if only for their own sakes.” Later, the images he had gathered were blocked, and he then removed his own post. Searches for terms including “No. 49 Middle School + cartoon” or “No. 49 Middle School + satirical drawing” appeared to produce heavily filtered results. In their weekly roundup on Monday, CDT Chinese editors commented on the tangled episodes as examples of China’s current online climate, and the increasingly aggressive attacks of nationalist users on perceived enemies and those felt to be too sympathetic or insufficiently hostile toward them. Translation by Joseph Brouwer:

Those gathered at the gates of the No. 49 Middle School were designated “foreign forces,” evidently because “some of them spoke Mandarin [rather than Sichuan dialect] or fluent English,” or “they brought white flowers ‘by chance.’” Even the Sichuan Cyber Police official Weibo account supported that framing. Wolf warrior artist Wuheqilin’s “refusal to draw,” again showed confidence in this conviction. As a result, [the student]’s mother has been on the receiving end of invective and curses from a number of netizens. Some internet users sarcastically noted that Biden was quite busy last week between releasing the Hangzhou leopards, pushing a Chengdu student off a building, wrecking the Wuhan crane suspended man basket, and falsifying China’s census statistics

When Apple’s new AirTag tracking devices launched late last month, meanwhile, attention soon fell on the limits imposed on the free personal engraving service in China. Numerous terms are also blocked in the American online store, including a range of four-letter obscenities and sexual or racial epithets. The restrictions appear to stop there—“Nazi” is permitted, for example—subject to a four-character maximum. Four characters in Chinese, of course, offer considerably more scope for expression, but unsurprisingly, customers within the PRC are unable to take full advantage of this fact. Three calendar entries this week highlight some of the terms found to be blocked: 五大訴求 Wǔdà sùqiú, meaning the Five Core Demands of Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement; 陳光誠 Chén Guāngchéng, the legal activist who famously escaped from house arrest in April 2012, and is now based in the U.S.; and 大法 Dàfǎ, an abbreviation of Falun Dafa, an alternative name for Falun Gong. Other terms identified include “Xi Jinping,” “Dalai Lama,” “Wuhan pneumonia,” “Guo Wengui,” “June 4,” “anti-Communist,” “Communist bandit,” “World Uyghur Council,” “Toad worship” (semi-ironic nostalgia for former leader Jiang Zemin), “Wen Jiabao,” “Wang Qishan,” “Xi Dada,” and “Liu Xiaobo.” CDT Chinese editors noted that more ephemeral sensitive words do not appear to be included alongside these “evergreen” trigger terms.

Despite Apple’s recent emphasis on user privacy—including a widely praised update to online tracking controls—critics have noted that it is “frighteningly easy” to circumvent the firm’s efforts to prevent abuse of AirTags’ tracking capabilities. Apple’s concessions to authorities in China are another widely noted example of a gap between rhetoric and reality on issues like privacy, security, and freedom of expression. That gap looks wider than ever after the publication of a major investigation by The New York Times’ Jack Nicas, Raymond Zhong, and Daisuke Wakabayashi, which shed some new light on the extent of Apple’s compromises. Nicas discussed how their findings went beyond earlier reporting, the tension between Apple’s professed values and its “Faustian bargain,” and the extent to which the company has any choice in the matter, in an interview with the Times’ Shira Ovide:

We knew that the company had moved data from Chinese users of Apple devices inside China’s borders. We knew that Apple had removed apps at the Chinese government’s request. What we didn’t know until now was the degree to which Apple had acquiesced to the Chinese government’s demands in both cases.

[…] Apple agreed to move data that Chinese users save in iCloud to computer centers that are owned and operated by a Chinese state-owned company. Government employees physically manage the computers. The digital keys to unlock the data are saved on those computers. And Apple is using a technology to encrypt this data that it doesn’t use anywhere else in the world because China wouldn’t approve its other technology.

[…] What we found is that Apple built a system that is designed to proactively take down apps — without direct orders from the Chinese government — that Apple has deemed off limits in China, or that Apple believes will upset Chinese officials.

A CDT English post on the NYT report paired it with third-party commentary and another recent investigation, from The Information, implicating Apple and others including Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, in the use of suppliers linked to forced Uyghur labor. A subsequent Washington Post editorial acknowledged that “Apple is undoubtedly in a sticky situation,” but warned that “compliance with ever-harsher strictures not only cuts against the values Apple says it holds dear but also paves the road for other countries less set in their totalitarian ways to forge strictures of their own.” “Whatever the cost of resisting tyranny remains,” it concluded, “Apple ought to be willing to pay.”

On Friday, meanwhile, it was reported that nearly 1,000 Apple employees have signed a letter requesting “that Apple makes clear, internally and externally, that we believe that Palestinian lives matter.” This followed the company’s dismissal of a recent hire after a similar petition called for “an investigation into how his published views on women and people of color were missed or ignored.” This employee activism, combined with the intensifying spotlight on Apple’s behavior in China, raises the possibility of internal pressure like the ultimately successful backlash at Google against its own secret plans to re-enter the Chinese market in 2018.

Elsewhere this week, CDT covered: 

Meanwhile, CDT’s Executive Editor Sophie Beach appeared on the NüVoices podcast to discuss “the genesis of CDT and its vision, the ever-evolving (and opaque) state censorship rules and tactics, and the necessity to amplify persistent voices of resistance of Chinese netizens.”