CDT Weekly, May 21-June 18

One animal more equal than others; Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall; June 4 and Hong Kong; sexual assault and power; nationalism and fake news

Welcome back to CDT’s usually 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.

CDT is currently seeking two new editors. Applications for the senior position close tonight (Friday, June 18), but those for the other role will be open for another week (until Friday, June 25). Applications or help in sharing the postings with potential candidates are very welcome!

Today’s entry on CDT’s Sensitive Words calendar is 豬堅強, or Zhū Jiānqiáng, meaning “Strong-willed Pig.” The name was bestowed upon a porcine survivor of the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake, who became a “symbol of hope and resilience” after he was recovered from the rubble after 36 days. He had sustained himself by eating charcoal and drinking rainwater, but was reportedly so emaciated when rescued that he was initially mistaken for a goat. Zhu died on Wednesday, aged 14, at the museum where he had spent his later years. The BBC reported that “millions of people have taken to social media site Weibo to remember the pig and pay tribute to its long life.” CDT Chinese editors noted the deletion of one online tribute, likely for mocking the florid tone of official propaganda toward eminent Party figures. The obituary concluded:

Mr Zhu Jianqiang’s whole life was one of struggle, of glory, and of wholehearted service to humanity. His passing is a heavy loss to the Jianchuan museum and all mankind. We must turn grief into strength, and emulate his spirit of struggle, steadfast determination, outstanding work style, patriotism, and professionalism in striving for decisive overall victory in the construction of a moderately prosperous society.

May the deceased rest in peace, and the living strive for greatness! Zhu Jianqiang will live forever in our hearts!  

See CDT Chinese for more recent Sensitive Words.

The four weeks of this newsletter’s summer break have seen many other developments, some even more momentous. One major CDT project completed since our last installment was the expanded translation of a Fudan University study of the “Wailing Wall” constructed over the past year in the replies to whistleblower-doctor Li Wenliang’s final Weibo post. Fudan’s Zhou Baohua and Zhong Yuan examined the Wall as a novel expression of online collective mourning and community, and analyzed its participants, content, reactions to current events, and prevailing emotional currents. CDT added translations of posts drawn from our ongoing archive to illustrate the eight major activity spikes Zhou and Zhong identified, and highlighted aspects of the Wailing Wall phenomenon which the original paper could not address. One of the spikes, for example, was only partly explained in the Fudan paper, as the response to a ceremony at which Xi Jinping honored heroes of the fight against the pandemic. In fact, the strength of the reaction owed much to the fact that Li was omitted from the list of honorees, despite other posthumous inclusions. The paper also did not note the impact of censorship, including the ominous removal of the Wall’s comments on June 19, 2019, and their incomplete subsequent restoration. Finally, we placed the Fudan study in the context of a broader analysis from Stanford of pandemic-related content from Weibo as a whole, focusing on the balance of critical and supportive sentiment. Although the Wailing Wall was not this paper’s main emphasis, its findings help convey the significance of Li’s death, which, they suggest, briefly overturned the central government’s usually ironclad possession of greater public trust than its local counterparts.

The situation in Hong Kong has continued to deteriorate, with a second raid against the Apple Daily newspaper this week, strict controls on traditional commemorations of June 4, accusations that the city’s universities have been “penetrated by foreign forces,”  and regulations against “fake news” and political censorship of films on the horizon. On June 3, Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam—a former journalist and one of 47 opposition figures now facing subversion charges—published a letter from jail reflecting on the changing significance of the Tiananmen anniversary in a city whose political climate is drawing sharply closer to that of the mainland. CDT translated the letter, as well as her first one in April. In it, Ho outlines the generational divide in attitudes to the anniversary and the traditional Victoria Park vigil, and challenges common perceptions of younger Hong Kongers’ reasons for skepticism.

Allow me to share my perspective as someone born after June 4. I used to think that Victoria Park, and even the candlelight vigil, was not that important: not because I rejected mainland China, but rather because of my understanding of it. I’ve always paid attention to rights protection cases in mainland China. I am more moved by the faces of contemporary human rights defenders than by history books.

Before 2019, I only visited Victoria Park once. I stood on the football pitch, watching the ceremonies, the testimonies, and the songs (coincidentally, there were some singles by local people that year …), but so little attention was paid to current Chinese activists. I couldn’t help but wonder, of all the Hong Kong people who go to light a candle year after year, did any care about the people in China right now? I always felt uncomfortable with Victoria Park, and I didn’t plan to go again.

[…] I’ve been wondering, if all the people we respect—those who have been silenced by secret interrogations, [court-]appointed lawyers, and gag orders—had had the (relatively) immense platform of the Hong Kong courts, what would they have done with it?

The question might forever remain at the level of speculation. But I still hope that they might have the opportunity to know that in a Hong Kong prison across the river, under the same regime, there are also people accused of “subverting state power,” and who have persisted in mourning June 4, despite being warned that doing so would be illegal. I’ve read their (and their defense lawyers’) written statements over and over again, statements that they may not even have had the opportunity to read in court. I’m not emotional about it: like other cases, you read and focus while taking notes, jot down useful and inspiring portions. But I know that in this era and space, even just the act of reading holds a different meaning.

Several recent installments of this newsletter have focused on the fiercely nationalistic atmosphere now prevailing on China’s social media. Criticism of the government, advocacy of causes seen as at odds with its interests, and even passing expression of concern about domestic issues frequently faces aggressive backlash. As the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Bill Birtles also reported this week, some of those formerly considered radical nationalists, such as Global Times editor Hu Xijin, now face accusations of weakness or worse. 

Zhou Xiaoxuan, also known by her online alias Xianzi, discussed the effects of this nationalistic climate in an essay written on the eve of the second hearing for her sexual harassment court case against CCTV host Zhu Jun. CDT translated the essay in late May, after this hearing was postponed, adding to our earlier translations of writing by Xianzi and her supporters.

Since the first hearing in December, the accusations aimed at me have gone from “she’s a liar” to “she’s attacking the system.” My friends outside Haidian People’s Court, anti-sexual harassment activists there to support victims, have been falsely portrayed as so-called “foreign forces” […]

[…] To remove sexual assault victims’ voices from mainstream narratives actually reinforces the value judgement that women should be ashamed of sexual assault—it even binds women’s chastity to the nation, affirming that a woman’s defilement is the nation’s shame and is thus a reality that should not be spoken of.

[…] To treat victims’ histories as things that can be casually covered up removes victims of sexual assault from mainstream narratives. Similarly, it removes vulnerable groups’ rights from mainstream narratives. Because power always favors vested interests, as soon as vested interests bind themselves to public symbols, they occupy a place beyond criticism.

In other recent CDT translations, feminist activist Xiao Meili also examined the entanglement of sexual assault and power, while another, Zheng Churan, offered similar reflections on the nationalist backlash against equality advocates and assault survivors. More recently, we translated a Sohu News report on the 2018 suicide of a Gansu teenager after a court dropped the case against the teacher who had assaulted her. Her fall from the eighth floor of a department store building was accompanied by cheers from onlookers who had encouraged her to jump.

A recent Phoenix TV post, also translated by CDT, examined fallout from an earlier wave of state-sanctioned aggressive nationalism. The piece chronicles the deteriorating fortunes of two families, those of a man struck in the head with a U-lock for driving a Toyota amid anti-Japanese protests in 2011, and his assailant, who was subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison for the assault. At one point, the victim, still suffering from serious linguistic and physical impairments and undergoing daily rehabilitation therapy, struggles into his shoes, and declares “‘I wear Nike, Nike brand, made in China.’ After a pause, he adds: ‘Rational patriotism!’”

In a Wechat post translated by CDT this week, Shenzhen University journalism professor Gu Xiaojin highlighted the fake news industry feeding both off and into online nationalist indignation. One fake news mill, New Lingnan Observer, recently reported that “Italian Prime Minister Admits that the Coronavirus Was Spreading in Italy Six Months Before China!” The piece was silently withdrawn after Gu challenged it, and later prompted a denial from China’s embassy in Italy. The embassy’s statement, however, received barely a tenth as many views as the original article. “As long as it can draw eyeballs,” Gu laments, “fake news will always be ahead of the truth.”

Right now, there are some self media that engage with the hot topics of the day and meticulously fabricate lengthy international news stories involving China. They pretend to quote from mainstream Western media, including photos and foreign names, concocting what appear to be thorough, timely, truthful “authoritative reports” to dupe their readers. They are all variations on a theme: borrowing Western government officials or media personalities to speak for China and pander to a certain mood online. The kicker is that these “international rumors” exploit the public’s asymmetric access to domestic and international news to propagate themselves, easily gaining hundreds of thousands [of reactions]. The vast majority of readers remain in the dark, to the point that they actively share [this misinformation].