CDT Weekly, May 8-15

Population confusion; sensitive anniversaries; nationalists vs school death skeptics, feminists, and each other

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 CDT’s Sensitive Words calendar is 人口之惑 Rénkǒu zhī huò, or “Population Confusion.” This was the title of a swiftly censored essay questioning aspects of the long-delayed seventh national census, which was finally released this week. As noted last week, heavy censorship had already been deployed against a Financial Times report predicting that the census would show a drop in China’s population, as well as other content on the social and economic headwinds accompanying such a reversal, and speculation that the census data would be manipulated to disguise it. The final figures did show continued population growth, prompting some further skepticism, but the turning point is expected to arrive within years in any case. 

Beyond the total population figure, the census showed the continuation of other trends: gender imbalance, ageing, urbanization, and education. A CDT English roundup on Friday gathered various perspectives on how these trends are playing out for young Chinese, given the falling value of university degrees, mounting pressure in prestigious graduate jobs, and soaring costs of living in the most sought-after urban locations. Another post included translation of a video posted for May Day by Shenzhen’s municipal Party Committee, which celebrated the notorious “996” work schedule, together with skeptical online reactions.

Wednesday was the anniversary of the deadly 汶川地震 Wènchuān dìzhèn, orWenchuan earthquake, of 2008, marked by two entries in the calendar this week. Writer and environmentalist 譚作人 Tán Zuòrén was a leading voice calling for answers about the shoddy “tofu dregs construction” of school buildings that increased the death toll among children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He later served five years in prison for “inciting subversion,” and his name is still targeted for censorship around the disaster’s anniversary each year. Wednesday’s calendar entry included a pair of contemporary censorship directives ordering a tight focus on heroic relief efforts, and promising strict punishment for laxness toward less harmonious information. 

Another looming anniversary marked on our calendar this week is 五月三十五日 Wǔ yuè sānshíwǔ rì, or “May 35th,” one of dozens of evasive online references to the date of the crackdown on June 4, 1989. Historian Jeremy Brown’s new book June Fourth: The Tiananmen Protests and Beijing Massacre of 1989 examines how “demonstrators and decision makers agonized over difficult choices and saw how events could have unfolded differently. The alternative paths that participants imagined confirm that bloodshed was neither inevitable nor necessary.” The book will be the focus of a webinar hosted by the Wilson Center on June 1. For more on the Party’s handling of “sudden incidents”—a broad term encompassing accidents, disasters, and protests—see CDT’s 2017 interview with Brown.

Children’s safety naturally remains as emotive and inflammatory a topic now as it was in the wake of the Wenchuan earthquake. Accordingly, censors pay particular attention to related stories, such as reports of child abuse at the RYB New World Kindergarten in Chaoyang in 2017, or successive vaccine safety scandals. The latest such uproar followed the death of a student at Chengdu’s No. 49 Middle School. CDT English paired news coverage of the incident and school and local authorities’ heavy-handed efforts to contain it with a selection of translated online comments. As in the RYB case, access to crucial surveillance material became a key point of contention, beginning with the refusal to let the parents see key moments of the footage, and culminating in their broadcast on state TV to address public complaints. The episode revived doubts about the purported benefit of such systems to the public, and questions about whose interests they actually serve. The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin examined this aspect of the incident on Thursday.

Some online nationalists responded to the outcry over the Chengdu case with suggestions that hostile foreign forces were at work. Others demanded apologies from critics of the official handling of the case, and even from the student’s mother. The WSJ quoted one social media user’s lament that “all I wanted was to know the truth, and now I’ve become an enemy of the state.” The growing stridency of nationalist voices online was also highlighted last week with the controversy over a Weibo post from the official account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which gloatingly juxtaposed a Chinese rocket launch with funeral pyres hastily constructed amid India’s COVID-19 crisis. Global Times editor Hu Xijin, who made his name as a ringleader for unabashed Chinese nationalism, was one of the more moderate voices in the ensuing debate, prompting surprise and concern at how far the goalposts have shifted. CDT gathered and translated a number of posts from and about Hu, including the following: 

@GaoFalin: After the sharpest criticism is eliminated, it becomes time to eliminate mild criticism. After criticism has been eliminated, ridicule can no longer be tolerated. After speaking is eliminated, silence is regarded as resistance, and praise becomes required. Then, those who don’t praise are eliminated. In the end, the applause cannot be stopped… Chang Ping described this process, hoping that Hu Xijin would understand that his safety is not assured by the maintenance of autocracy, but because there are still opponents of autocracy, and hence it is not yet his turn.

The schism among China’s online nationalists was examined further in the introduction to Monday’s weekly roundup from CDT Chinese, and in an essay at The Initium this week:

Prominent feminist activists have been among the recent targets of online nationalists. Several recently had their online accounts shuttered amid the fallout from an argument between activist Xiao Meili and a male restaurant diner who had refused to put out a cigarette. Another activist, Zheng Churan, has now announced that she will sue Weibo over the closure of her account. In a post translated by CDT, she described how the decision was driven by the current climate online, and the threat she sees in it to the social advances of recent decades:

In their absurd reasoning, our advocacy on college campuses for employment equality is “Western infiltration.” College students pushing against gender-based violence are “ making a fuss.” NGOs are “anti-government organizations.” Any demands for women’s living space, safety, and basic rights are characterized as “attacks on the government and the Party.” No one but these patriotic bloggers is qualified to point out illegal or unreasonable government decisions, and no one else can speak their mind on public affairs. To do so is to betray the state, and anyone who raises questions or objections or who makes proposals becomes the target of cyberbullying.

I’m afraid that if we don’t survive this attack, if we silence ourselves, the gains in women’s rights, hard-won from the 1995 World Conference on Women to the action of young students today, will be gradually erased. Companies will start to overtly hire men only; men who beat their wives and children will face no serious consequences; repeat sexual harassers will have no need to keep themselves in check; anyone with power and authority will consider it their right to pick on the weak.