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  • External Propaganda Casts Beijing as Leader in Global Coronavirus Fight

  • New Leaks Show Business and Politics Behind TikTok Content Management

  • Translation: Notes From an Account Bombing, by Mimiyana

 


Photo: Spring in Summer Palace, by Megan Wong

Spring in Summer Palace, by Megan Wong (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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External Propaganda Casts Beijing as Leader in Global Coronavirus Fight

For nearly three months, Chinese authorities have relied on  and  to control the domestic narrative about the COVID-19 novel epidemic. In an attempt to keep the populace calm, early cases in Wuhan were downplayed or ignored. After unsanctioned information shared by Wuhan healthcare providers was labeled “rumor,” those who shared it were punished, while their punishments were reported on CCTV to serve as a broader public warning. When one of those healthcare providers, Dr. Li Wenliang, died on February 7 after contracting the disease from a patient, censors’ best efforts to control relevant online information couldn’t stop web users from calling for free speech online en masse. (Last week, Wuhan police publicly apologized and retracted their criticism of Li hours after top authorities released a report investigating the death.) Once an epidemic was underway, censorship directives guided the media’s coverage. More recently, as further information about the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and authorities’ censorship of the situation emerged, netizens creatively found ways to preserve it despite the censorship.

With public anger high over Beijing’s official response, state media ensured that none of it would be shown in their coverage of Xi’s first trip to Wuhan since the outbreak began. Some domestic commentators wrote of their disgust seeing official media use their characteristic “positive energy” to cover such a grim situation. Many foreign commentators have characterized Beijing’s censorship as a contributing factor to the massive human cost of the disease and breadth of its spread.

As the virus continues to spread globally and nations worldwide close borders and enact social distancing recommendations, China has recently been reporting dwindling numbers of new cases. On Monday, only one new locally transmitted case had been officially reported nationwide in the last five days (with 46 others attributed to incoming international travelers). A heavily trafficked tourist section of the Great Wall of China was reopened to visitors this week, another potential sign to the world that Beijing may sincerely believe the worst is over. State media Monday reported a zero increase of new cases in Wuhan for five days in a row, and Hubei provincial authorities announced on Tuesday that the two-month-running “brutal but effective” lockdowns of cities would be eased and lifted by April 8. At The Guardian, Lily Kuo reports that while health officials and some citizens are also saying the situation has drastically improved, there is skepticism on these near-zero transmission rates from analysts and local residents:

“I am really worried that there are still many asymptomatic infected people inside Wuhan. As soon as everyone goes back to work, everyone will be infected,” said Wang, 26, who lives in the city. Another resident added: “I don’t believe [the numbers]. This epidemic will not disappear so easily.”

[…] According to a report on Monday by RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, residents said hospitals in Wuhan had refused to test patients who showed symptoms. Kyodo News in Japan reported at the weekend that a local doctor said the number of cases had been manipulated before President Xi Jinping’s visit earlier this month, prompting the beginning of “a mass release of infected patients”.

[…] Some of the concerns about China’s reporting stem from how Beijing classifies patients. While the World Health Organization and South Korea consider anyone who has tested positive for the virus as a confirmed case, China does not include asymptomatic infections in its final tally.

[…] Critics also question why recovered patients who retest as positive are not counted. Data from quarantine centres in Wuhan showed that the possibility of recovered patients testing positive again was between 5% and 10%, according to the state-run Global Times. Officials in Hubei have said those patients would not be recorded as new confirmed cases because they had been counted previously.

[…] [Additionally, early government efforts to suppress information and continued censorship have also damaged public trust of official numbers.] “With the cover-up in December and January we really cannot trust the numbers from the Chinese government without more credible and solid evidence to verify,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University. […] [Source]

At The Washington Post, Jeremy L. Wallace gives reasons for skepticism about official Chinese figures by explaining the primacy of numbers in Chinese politics, and the common falsification by officials incentivized to misreport:

First off, this research [published by the author in 2016 on GDP falsification] highlights the importance of numbers in Chinese political discourse — across a wide bureaucracy, the covid-19 figures serve as the measure of performance. And past findings suggest there are reasons to pay attention to a number of possibilities, including the strong incentives for distortions in officially released data.

The primary reason to be skeptical of official Chinese coronavirus statistics is that the initial reporting of the outbreak was suppressed. Local authorities in Wuhan intentionally hid the outbreak, as did national authorities.

[…] What else do we know about Chinese coronavirus statistics? Total confirmed case statistics out of China probably underestimate total cases of infection. This is true everywhere, of course, but more so in China than most places. In part, this is understandable — Wuhan’s health-care workers did not have the capacity to test widely in the middle of a total health-care system collapse.

[…] It is also likely that officials reported lower numbers of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Especially once the central government’s propaganda mission to win the “people’s war” against the virus became clear, numbers shifted to achieve that vision. Such shifts would probably be subtle — not hundreds or thousands of hidden deaths, but instead excluding deaths that could be attributed to other types of pneumonia or heart failure, for instance. […] [Source]

Wallace continues to note that the bigger picture in China is still “remarkable,” and that Beijing did manage to “flatten the curve” and “keep the virus in check,” further noting that despite this, annual top political meetings haven’t yet been rescheduled and many schools remain closed.

As official Chinese numbers flattened and fell, Beijing’s propagandists increased efforts to shape the global coronavirus narrative and deflect blame. These external propaganda efforts are ongoing as a domestic backlash to Beijing’s propaganda continues. At Deutsche-Welle, William Yang last week reports on a different propaganda tool Beijing is using to improve its international image and portray its system as superior for crisis management:

“This is a timely opportunity for the CCP to turn the narrative of a troublemaker into the narrative of a global leader that’s fighting against a pandemic,” said [expert on China’s political communication Maria] Repnikova.

“I think China’s efforts have in part paid off, as international organizations like the WHO have praised China’s response, and much of the Western media’s narrative has shifted from criticizing China to describing it as a lesson or an example.”

[…] As the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak has shifted from China to Europe, Chinese state-run media also began to actively report about China sending medical experts to other countries to help them fight the coronavirus.

[Director of the China Policy Center in Australia Yun] Jiang said China wants to demonstrate to the world that its governance system is better equipped in a crisis than the liberal democracies in the West.

[…] Repnikova pointed out that China has successfully shifted the narrative from that of a “victim” to a “teacher” or a “leader.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Alissa J. Rubin report on China’s “chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis,” while also noting more sinister efforts by officials to change the global narrative:

In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his “America First” retreat from international engagement.

[…] China has long aspired to assert a more prominent role in the United Nations and other international organizations while projecting its political, economic and military influence in more and more parts of the world — at times in direct competition with the United States.

[…] On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe. “We’re grateful for China’s support,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in tweet. “We need each other’s support in times of need.”

[…]Chinese officials have insisted that a pandemic should be an arena for political cooperation, not competition. China’s success in slowing the disease’s spread, however, has emboldened officials and state media to push back harder — at times clumsily.

One foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, floated a conspiracy theory that the United States Army was behind the virus, while another squabbled with Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian author and Nobel Prize laureate, over a newspaper column he wrote about the pandemic. […] [Source]

See also a video report from The New York Times on how China is reshaping the coronavirus narrative. The Times’ Muyi Xiao tweets:

At the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, Vanessa Molter describes a study further showing how Beijing has leveraged social media and a global network of English-language media outlets in an attempt to influence global public opinion over China’s role in the global spread of COVID-19:

Chinese state media produces and disseminates daily English-language content to English-speaking audiences via Facebook and Twitter (platforms that are technically banned in China). Chinese state media’s English-language Facebook pages post very frequently, and have extremely large audiences. CGTN has over 96 million Page likes; CNN in contrast has only 32 million. These media properties run ads regularly to grow their audiences, which suggests that China invests in these pages as a tool for communicating its message to the English-speaking world. Facebook’s Ads Library shows specific regional ad targeting in India (Punjab State), Nepal, Bangladesh (Dhaka) and the Philippines (Manila), suggesting that English is used to communicate state views to a broad global audience

[…] The English-language Chinese state media has also aggressively reported positive stories about the make-shift hospitals built for China’s immediate emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak. Leishenshan and Huoshenshan hospitals were built in just a few days in late January to early February. Chinese state media disseminated stories about how the international community was “impressed” with China’s rapid building capacity, calling the quick progress of the construction a “miracle.” U.S. media also reported on the rapid building of the hospitals but presented them in a less positive light, saying they were a response to overwhelmed medical facilities or that the temporary structures should not be characterized as hospitals.

[…] Early in the global outbreak, Chinese outlets declared a local victory over the virus, stating that China’s efforts had prevented coronavirus from infecting the world, boasting: “Were it not for the unique institutional advantages of the Chinese system, the world might be battling a devastating pandemic.”  As global coronavirus infections near two hundred thousand, and cases of infection and deaths outside China surpass those within, this narrative has become less defensible.

China has responded by increasing its efforts to position itself as a world leader in virus response and a model of effective governance whilst blaming the United States for the coronavirus pandemic. While U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien has stated that China’s silencing of whistleblowers and covering up early cases in fact exacerbated the global outbreak, Chinese state media has disseminated a statement by Bruce Aylward, Assistant Director-General of the WHO who visited China on a WHO-mission, saying that China’s response “bought the world time” and that the global community should be “grateful.” […] [Source]

In a ChinaFile conversation, experts were asked to weigh in on the ongoing global propaganda campaign, and how the outbreak and Chinese response could influence Beijing’s standing on the global stage. In his response, China Media Project’s David Bandurski illustrates the CCP’s “obsess[ion] with perception” by summarizing the recent findings of an official investigation into late Dr. Li Wenliang, noting the focus on Li as a member of the system and excoriation of “hostile forces” who attempted to frame him as a whistleblower. Bandurski, a preeminent expert on domestic Chinese propaganda, then explains that China’s external propaganda is often still aiming to shore up domestic public opinion:

Of all the matters China treats as pressing at this time of global urgency, nothing is of greater urgency than the matter of perception. The Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with perception, to the detriment of all other calculations. This is why China must maintain a vast system of human and technical controls on information, and enforce a regime of “guidance” at every level of the Party-state bureaucracy on what is now virtually a real-time basis, commanding hundreds of thousands of press workers and propaganda apparatchiks.

Just this week, the leadership released the findings of its investigation into the case of Doctor Li Wenliang, who was one of the first medical professionals to report in late December on coronavirus cases in Wuhan. As a result, he was subjected to a stern and brutish police reprimand that later infuriated Chinese public, showing how the early attempts of health professionals in Wuhan to press for action and awareness about the growing epidemic were callously suppressed. Li’s death in early February galvanized public anger over the early mishandling of the outbreak. Now that the leadership is slowly and insistently turning the narrative on its head, insisting it was always in control, the verdict on the Li Wenliang case flat-out rejects the idea that he was ever working against the grain. It stresses that he was a Party member, and that he was just one among many health professionals working courageously with the Party in its fight against the epidemic. Any suggestion otherwise is the work of “hostile forces,” says another state release. The narrative is forcibly twisted back into the Party’s grotesque shape. The original letter of reprimand is not yet revoked, but Li, we are told, has been given a posthumous commendation from the National Health Commission for his sacrifice.

I’m focusing here on the domestic side, but in fact even most instances of international messaging over the capabilities of Xi Jinping and the Party are directed chiefly toward domestic audiences, the primary point being to shore up the Party’s domestic legitimacy by manipulating the idea of foreign perceptions. Italians, don’t you know, were singing the Chinese national anthem from their balconies! We can treat whether China will win this war of perceptions as a complicated question of global discourse power, the retreat of the United States, and so on. But we should also remember that this global pandemic arose to a decisive extent from the Chinese Communist Party’s monomania about perception. This obsession with appearances has created misery time and again in China. For all Xi Jinping’s talk of pragmatism and performance, perception rules. And under this political logic, no one is safe. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited” author Louisa Lim argues that Beijing’s global blitz to change the narrative shows that “China’s decade-long attempt to build its so-called discourse power overseas is finally bearing fruit.” Lim recalls the efforts that official media, diplomats, and censors took to recast the situation as it unfolded, compares that to similar efforts at distracting and reframing in the West, and finally warns that the back-and-forth in official coronavirus blaming are part of a “bigger battle is over who will control global flows of information and the future of journalism itself.”

[…] As other countries founder, China is pushing that further, casting itself as a responsible global leader dispensing humanitarian aid overseas. This is in part an effort to distract attention from accusations that its initial cover-up is responsible for the rest of the world’s plight, in particular the looming economic catastrophe.

But these efforts didn’t come out of nowhere. Since 2009, Beijing’s been quietly laying the groundwork by expanding its state-run media overseas, running look-and-learn tours—often for free—for thousands of non-Chinese journalists to China and striking content-sharing agreements with foreign news providers. Chinese business leaders acting as state proxies have acquired and established news outlets to amplify Beijing’s voice. All these tools are now being used to reshape the global information landscape, even while its some of its domestic propaganda efforts are encountering unusually vocal resistance [see CDT coverage and translation of examples].

[…] A new storyline percolated online and through WeChat from late January, arguing that the virus might not have originated in China. In late February, the famous epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan lent credibility to this theory, calling it a “disease of humans, not of a country”. By March, the foreign ministry had taken on this battle, with spokesman Zhao Lijian drawing attention to an unfounded conspiracy theory that the U.S. military had brought the disease to Wuhan. This message was then amplified on Twitter—a platform banned at home—by dozens of other Chinese embassies around the world.

One instructive moment was [Yuen Kwok-yung’s column, its quick retraction, and Yuen’s apology] […]. This rhetoric of forced confessions and loyalty pledges was previously unheard of in Hong Kong. But against the backdrop of U.S. President Trump’s descriptions of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” the tussle for narrative control could become an issue of patriotism on the mainland.

[…] The worse the West does at fighting the coronavirus, the better Beijing’s hard-line measures and willingness to supply much-needed goods look. Already its state media is crowing. The China Daily newspaper wrote, “The bitter truth is that the anti-China propaganda campaign has to some extent contributed to the West being negligent to the looming crisis and they are now facing a medical, human and economic disaster.” This may seem like a war of words, but the stakes could not be higher; this current skirmish is over narrative control of the coronavirus, but the bigger battle is over who will control global flows of information and the future of journalism itself. [Source]


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New Leaks Show Business and Politics Behind TikTok Content Management

TikTok, a short video platform owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, has attracted a huge, mainly young audience around the world, for whom it is currently serving as a vital source of distraction and connection amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been described in The Washington Post as “the first Chinese app to truly pierce the global Internet mainstream,” and in a recent New Yorker profile as “the last sunny corner on the Internet.” The former has prompted concern that the service could provide a channel both for Chinese censorship to shape the information diets of young people elsewhere, and for private user data potentially flowing back to Beijing. These fears have been fueled by a series of leaks including, as The Guardian reported in September, rules for handling political content that appear to place Chinese censorship priorities "in a context designed to make the rules seem general purpose, rather than specific exceptions." The company has repeatedly dismissed such leaks as crude and outdated provisional measures from the platform’s early days.

This week, The Intercept’s Sam Biddle, Paulo Victor Ribeiro, and Tatiana Dias reported on two new TikTok documents which "sources indicated […] were in use through at least late 2019," and one of which was apparently created only last year.

These previously unreported Chinese policy documents, along with conversations with multiple sources directly familiar with TikTok’s censorship activities, provide new details about the company’s efforts to enforce rigid constraints across its reported 800 million or so monthly users while it simultaneously attempts to bolster its image as a global paragon of self-expression and anything-goes creativity. They also show how TikTok controls content on its platform to achieve rapid growth in the mold of a Silicon Valley startup while simultaneously discouraging political dissent with the sort of heavy hand regularly seen in its home country of China.

Any number of the document’s rules could be invoked to block discussion of a wide range of topics embarrassing to government authorities: “Defamation … towards civil servants, political or religious leaders” as well as towards “the families of related leaders” has been, under the policy, punishable with a terminated stream and a daylong suspension. Any broadcasts deemed by ByteDance’s moderators to be “endangering national security” or even “national honor and interests” were punished with a permanent ban, as were “uglification or distortion of local or other countries’ history,” with the “Tiananmen Square incidents” cited as only one of three real world examples. A “Personal live broadcast about state organs such as police office, military etc,” would knock your stream offline for three days, while documenting military or police activity would get you kicked off for that day (would-be protestors, take note).

[…] Multiple TikTok sources, who spoke with The Intercept on the condition of anonymity because they feared professional and legal reprisal, emphasized the primacy of ByteDance’s Beijing HQ over the global TikTok operation, explaining that their ever-shifting decisions about what’s censored and what’s boosted are dictated by Chinese staff, whose policy declarations are then filtered around TikTok’s 12 global offices, translated into rough English, finally settling into a muddle of Beijing authoritarianism crossed with the usual Silicon Valley prudishness. [Source]

The Intercept’s report describes guidelines similar to some previously reported by Germany’s Netzpolitik.org, which involved limiting the audiences of overweight, disabled, and other groups of users, purportedly to avoid exposing them to potential bullying. That rationale itself drew criticism, but in The Intercept’s documents, the policy is explained instead as intended to help the platform "retain an aspirational air to attract and hold onto new users."

While these and other aspects of TikTok’s content management have sparked criticism, suspicions of political censorship and abuse of user data carry the heaviest risk for the company, already bringing sharp scrutiny from U.S. legislators and regulators. The firm has responded with an array of measures including hiring lobbyists and commissioning outside reviews of its practices. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal’s Yoko Kubota, Raffaele Huang, and Shan Li reported the company’s latest attempt at reassurance with the completion of its shift away from using China-based moderators to review content from other countries:

The decision will result in the transfer of more than 100 China-based moderators to other positions within the company, according to people familiar with the matter.

The move is the latest effort by TikTok’s owner Bytedance Inc. to distance itself from concerns about it being a Chinese-operated company. The soaring popularity of TikTok has attracted the attention of some American lawmakers worried about its Chinese roots.

TikTok is Bytedance’s short-video app for markets outside of China. While much of TikTok’s content moderation procedures have been localized over the past year or two—including in the U.S., where none of its videos are monitored by moderators in China, according to a TikTok spokesman—some markets such as Germany still rely on human moderators in China to review content.

[…] It is unclear how the shift will affect the level of content-monitoring by the company. [Source]

In the U.S., TikTok this week announced the first members of a new panel of content moderation advisors. From Reuters’ Elizabeth Culliford:

The council, which it announced in October, will meet every few months to give “unvarnished views” and advice on content moderation policies and evaluate the company’s actions.

[…] TikTok said its ‘Content Advisory Council,’ will grow to about a dozen members.

The council’s first meeting at the end of March will focus on topics around “platform integrity, including policies against misinformation and election interference.”

The group will be chaired by Dawn Nunziato, a professor at George Washington University Law School and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project.

The other six founding members include Hany Farid, an expert on deepfakes and digital image forensics, tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, and experts on issues from child safety to voter information. [Source]

TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez reported last week on another new measure, the launch of a "transparency center" at the platform’s North American headquarters in Los Angeles.

The new facility in TikTok’s LA office will allow outside experts to view how TikTok’s teams operate day-to-day, the company explains, as staff moderates content on the platform. This includes how moderators apply TikTok’s content guidelines to review the content its technology automatically flagged for review, as well as other content the technology may have missed.

[…] The Center will open in early May, initially with a focus on moderation. Later, TikTok says it will open up for insight into its source code and efforts around data privacy and security. The second phase will be led by TikTok’s newly appointed chief information security officer, Roland Cloutier, who starts next month.

The company notes it has taken many steps to ensure its business can continue to operate in the U.S. This includes the release of its new Community Guidelines and the publishing of its first Transparency Report a few months ago. TikTok has also hired a global General Counsel and expanded its Trust & Safety hubs in the U.S., Ireland and Singapore. [Source]


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Translation: Notes From an Account Bombing, by Mimiyana

Last month, as authorities were scrambling to contain any shred of unauthorized information or public backlash to the official response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, a new round of “account bombing” (炸号) swept the popular social media app WeChat, closing accounts who had shared unsanctioned news or messages about the public health situation. Despite censors’ increased efforts, the severity and spread of the viral situation–and especially the death of doctor Li Wenliang, who had attempted to share information about the first recorded cases of the disease and was punished–spurred some netizens to continue voicing their critique of relevant information controls and authorities’ slow response to the outbreak, and inspired creative new means of censorship circumvention.

Mimiyana (米米亚娜) is an overseas Chinese feminist writer and longtime proponent of women’s rights in China who has been paying close attention to issues related to China’s model of “digital totalitarianism.” Based currently in the U.S., her WeChat account has long been her crucial connection to her home country, and a major source of her study of Chinese information control. Her account, from which she shared COVID-19 information deemed sensitive, was one of many accounts to be bombed. In an essay published on Matters News, Mimiyana recalls the course of her long “struggle with WeChat” to get back on the platform with anonymity, and the solidarity she found online with others forced through the same fight:

Mimiyana: Mimi’s Record of Account Bombing

This article will document the recent tide of account bombings, and the course of events in my struggle with WeChat. After my account was bombed, I went searching for other users’ bombing stories, which raised my awareness. Even if I didn’t find a solution or a way to settle this issue, just seeing the words of people who’d gone through a similar experience was a kind of comfort. 

My other motivation stems from reading, during the past two days, Yan Lianke’s article “Enduring This Epic Calamity, Let Us Become People Who Remember.” The writer admonishes writers not to abandon recording their own individual recollections and experiences, leaving the public opinion stage to those who always preach grand narratives in pure lyrical tones. This strongly affected me, leaving me in shock. I earnestly recalled my laziness and timidity, which has led to me writing far less than I could. I also reestablished a foundation for writing and publishing as I understand it: history by means of individual witness. Standing on this foundation, I see my own responsibility, not my inflated (or withered) ego, thus enabling me to persevere in a public space. This means I no longer rely solely on my own interest to work, and when my ego becomes weak, I will have a transcendental strength to drive me onward and upward.   

So, I should write down my experience getting my account banned for being vocal during the current epidemic. We are all essentially Li Wenliang’s comrades. He was forced onto the frontlines of the struggle, but there are many others we lack statistical data on, who have not been researched or documented. Few know who they are or what they’ve experienced. Stories of forbidden speech are as strictly censored as forbidden speech themselves, so these recollections are hard to present and disseminate.   

For context regarding this account bombing, please refer to my article “Our Loss Is Irrevocable: Remembering Li Wenliang,” not duplicated here. Here I will narrate what I did, encountered, and learned in the wake of my account bombing. 

I’d been using my WeChat account for over eight years, and I’d accumulated almost 5,000 contacts, so the sudden, permanent ban was a huge loss. Seeing WeChat users deploy frigid irony and scorching satire, people say things like, “You know this thing sucks but continue to use it, so doesn’t it serve you well?” But I want to say the biggest problem is obviously the [Great Fire]wall. Why criticize its victims? My mortal body is outside the Wall, and getting on WeChat feels like “visiting a prison,” and realizing that for the many people in the “prison,” it is not so easy to escape, physically or psychologically. When people decide which social media to use, it’s not just a question of software, but where people’s social connections will occur. The Wall, getting higher and higher, together with WeChat’s colossal composite of functions (assembling news, social life, payments, recreation, content production), already monopolizes the vast majority of Chinese life. (Other domestic social media platforms also abide by censorship mechanisms, villains colluding together to form this LAN ecology.) “Controlling a majority of the people” has always been the purpose of censorship and social stability maintenance. In the short term, it is very difficult for an individual to influence this.        

Recall that after Iranian authorities admitted to shooting down that airliner, female superstar Taraneh Alidoosti said: “We are not citizens. We are hostages, millions of hostages.”

And right then, the Wall and WeChat kidnapped the Chinese people. Are we also not just millions of hostages?

It was around the evening of February 4 when I discovered I’d been forcibly logged off by WeChat. After logging back on, I saw the notice saying I’d been permanently banned. The reason given was: “Content violation, propagating malicious rumors.” At this point, WeChat had provided me temporary login privileges, so I could transfer the money out of my WeChat Wallet.

After logging in, I found I couldn’t transmit or receive information, and WeChat Moments was restricted. I couldn’t communicate with anyone, but I could still see group information updates and Moments updates from close friends. It was just like the bombed say: I felt like I’d died, like I was a spirit watching this world. I tried sending a few messages, but they weren’t delivered. Feeling a bit worried, I hastily transferred out my Wallet balance, over 1000 kuai. (I later discovered it’s best to leave a few yuan in Wallet to make follow-up logins more convenient.) Then I opened up WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal one by one. I spoke with friends about the bombing as I began to register a new account.      

The main reason I’d been bombed was I’d been republishing sensitive articles to my own group. My group had also been bombed, along with another admin’s account. Fortunately, when we established the group we’d synchronized with friends on Tele and established a group there, so most group members were backed up outside the Wall. This allowed me to contact them immediately. Then everyone in the bombed group launched location sharing, warning each other that the group had been bombed.  

(After the group was bombed, many members couldn’t easily find out because people could make statements as usual, but they couldn’t see each other’s statements. They also couldn’t receive replies. WeChat deals with overseas users differently than domestic ones, so it often emerged that overseas users could communicate with each other in a bombed group, but domestic users couldn’t see their messages appear. But everyone can see “location sharing,” so if you find someone in a group has launched location sharing for no reason, it is very likely the group has been bombed, or that person’s account has been bombed.) 

I used the American mobile number bound to my bombed account to apply for a new account. WeChat noted that it was already bound to another account and asked if I wished to continue. My brain growing feverish, I chose to continue. The mobile number was automatically unbound from the bombed account.   

For the application process, I needed a third party to help me with verification, another WeChat user friend had to scan the QR code for me to open the account. (And not just anyone qualified to scan. If a mainland user, they’d need to have been registered six months or more. If a local user, they’d need a month or more.) I sent the QR code to a friend, and very quickly succeeded in opening an account.

I then distributed the new account name, adding more than 300 friends in one night, one after another. Later, people were warning me unceasingly that my account was abnormal. The next morning, this new account was permanently banned. The reason given: “There were actions that violated regulations, such as harassment, malicious marketing, and fraud.”   

I judged the cause to be the mobile number that had been bound to the first bombed account. I changed to the domestic number I’d used when returning to my home country, and once more applied (at that time, all I had on hand was this mobile number). Once more I sought out a friend to assist with the authentication process, and again I distributed the new WeChat account. Everyone’s reaction was: “How were you bombed again?” Unfortunately, not even 20 minutes passed before WeChat forced me to log off. I was notified I’d been banned again for the same reasons as before. 

After the WTFs had cleared from my mind, I fought my impulse to quickly restore the account. Sober and calm, I thought about why this was happening. My strongest feeling was I’d been fixed—WeChat censors (or net police) could keep bombing my accounts as they arose because they definitely knew my identity. Moreover, they could bomb me faster each time. 

But friends who’d been bombed many times said that it was easier to get bombed if you moved too urgently to register after a previous bombing. It was better to wait a while. Also, you shouldn’t add people too fast to the new account, or you could easily trigger an abnormal rating. 

In any case, those several days WeChat prohibited speech with near-demented intensity—far beyond the normal, everyday level.

I again consulted a tech specialist, and their suggestion was to get a new mobile number and use a new cellphone. A SIM card that didn’t need my identity was best (and still regarded as easy to get in the U.S.). As much as possible I was to avoid doing things that could identify me. 

I was feeling a bit discouraged due to my series of account bans, so I bought an anonymous SIM card online. I didn’t use WeChat as I waited for the SIM to arrive. Instead, I did some self-work and meditation in this idle time. I found I was still alive and well without posting on WeChat, and noticed that my life no longer revolved around WeChat Moments.   

I was moved to learn that, immediately after finding out my account had been serially bombed, a friend formed a “support group” on WeChat. It took a lot of time to dredge up and return all my friends from the bombed group, greatly decreasing my follow-up workload of adding people.  

Another friend lent me, for temporary use, a WeChat account he’d registered in Hong Kong. The account was bound to his bank card. We’d never even met. This really was an act of supreme trust.  

Luckily, I already had a new cellphone I hadn’t even opened, so I used it to register the borrowed account (after he obliged me by sending the verification code). Finally, I could use WeChat normally.

Sort of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I just wanted some everyday exchanges. Why did that require operating like a secret agent? But since I had trained as a secret agent, it would be a waste not to charge the tower, right?

After I saw some online accounts of bombing experiences, I also tried to appeal. First, I looked up Tencent’s WeChat customer service number and called. This was completely automated and recorded, there was no way to contact a real customer service representative. Then I followed a “consult customer service” link provided at the bottom of the banned account page, and from the limited options I chose an account ban review. To do this I also needed a third party’s WeChat account to scan a QR code for verification. I went ahead and used my borrowed WeChat account to scan. After that I just had to use this account to fill in the application. Word count was limited, giving me little scope for my writing skills.

Unexpectedly, I saw that Tencent customer service warned review applicants: “If customer service discovers relatively serious violations, the account may receive more serious penalties. Please be aware!”   

Fuck your ancestors to the 18th generation, how about that?

About two days later, the review findings were sent to my borrowed account. It was just a few short words, a casual refusal to lift the permanent ban.

We’ve been treated in this arrogant way for a long time now, and we’re powerless. I recall that during the Huawei 251 incident, I criticized this land’s companies, saying they’d learned their foul behavior from the authorities, that all of them had become the mafia. 

I didn’t dare add people to the borrowed account. I had to give it back, after all. During the long wait for the new SIM card, I tried several times to log in to my three bombed accounts. I found that the last account could be unbanned. All I had to do was go through real-name authentication. That is, bind a domestic bank card.  

So, for the life of me I tried: The bound debit card had to be owner-verified at the bank’s reserved mobile number. I hadn’t been in the country for several years, and the reserved mobile number had changed. I called the bank to ask about it, and they said I had to go to a counter. So, then I tried using another card, a domestic bank credit card. I called the domestic credit card center and succeeded in changing the reserved phone. They said it would take effect in 24 hours. I waited 24 hours and again tried, wondering if this time I would achieve my aim. 

The result was WeChat said since it was a foreign currency credit card, it couldn’t be tied to the account. 

I tried asking my mom if she could help me in-country by purchasing a new SIM and using her identity to register on WeChat, then hand me the account to use. She replied saying that amid the current epidemic, people aren’t leaving their doors. Businesses wouldn’t be open anyway. There’d be nowhere to buy.

She added: “Keeping your mouth shut might be good for you.” My own mother???

By the time slow American delivery at last handed me the SIM, I was itching to get on with things. Because I wanted anonymity and didn’t want to pay for a monthly service package, the card I bought was from a not-widely-used service dealer. I had to register online to activate, and didn’t expect the post-registration request to bind a bank card. I thought that it wouldn’t be a problem using an American card over here. How could WeChat investigate this information? It turned out that after trying several times, the bank card was unsuccessful. I didn’t know why.  

At this point, my tribulations were caused not only by Wall Country’s censorship machine, but also the whole of modern society. Indeed, it was hard to believe. In this convenient, fast, lauded Brave New World we’d established, how could I come to a dead end on so small a matter? Or, if the dead end was real, was all the convenience and speed just a mirage imprisoning us? The internet had died. It was dead in this endless cycle of binding, verification, real-name verification, and manifold censorship.  

On the verge of collapse, I attempted to dig deeper into this problem, to fight desperately on. I went to a nearby mobile shop and bought a pay-as-you-go card. I installed it in my new cellphone, and once again registered a new WeChat account.  

Of course, I again came up against the red-tape need for third-party verification. I sent the authenticating QR code to at least four friends. They tried repeatedly. They had plenty of mainland registered WeChat accounts, plenty of Canadian and American accounts. Moreover, they were all in accordance with WeChat’s clearly stipulated authenticator qualifications. But after requesting they fill in their real-names and ID card numbers, WeChat still told them they were unqualified to help me authenticate.    

My friends weren’t having it: “How am I unqualified? You’re really telling me I’m unqualified after I gave you my real-name and ID?”

So, even using a new cellphone and new SIM, I failed on verification. There was still no way to register a new account. 

I was starting to think I’d never be able to use WeChat again, when I discovered there was still one method I hadn’t tried. That was, to simply find and buy from a WeChat account scalper. 

I felt then that I was being forced into something unseemly, straying off of the honest path.

Taobao had been cleaned up by then. Keyword searches turned up nothing. I tried Googling and sure enough found some account sellers. The biggest problem was that there was no way to be certain they were legit. 

I was trying everything in a desperate situation, like giving medicine to a dead horse. Even if I got scammed, it was only a few dozen RMB, so I contacted a webpage’s QQ number and chose a WeChat account registered overseas. After paying several dozen RMB via Alipay, my fair-trading dealer sent me a number. The scalper even aided me in conducting cellphone authentication. I came smoothly ashore, changed the password and the bound cellphone number.  

After several days of use, I dared to begin slowly adding people. Moreover, I spread my new account far and wide. One friend said: “I have many of you here.” I replied: “I can already gather together enough for a mahjong table.” 

But in the wake of adding more and more people, again I had friends warning me my account was abnormal. I looked into it a bit and found this account I’d purchased was registered in Malaysia. Malaysian accounts unexpectedly had an option to bind bank cards (American accounts did not). Also, you could only bind local Malaysian cards. This meant I had no way to carry out real-name authentication via bank card binding. So, if WeChat were to enforce real-name verification on Malaysian users, my new account could still be banned at some point.  

The question is, why should WeChat want to force Malaysian users to use real-name verification? Is it an indicator that China’s penetration of Southeast Asia has reached a certain level?  

After my account was bombed, many people took the initiative to find me and convey their sympathies. Thank you, everyone. There are fellow sufferers out there. Misery loves company, and these friends have shared their experiences. Some went through unremitting appeals for as long as three months. Some at last recovered their accounts, but others, despite persistence in appealing, nevertheless had their accounts canceled. Another widely-shared case involved a WeChat WeBank loan of several hundred RMB. Paying such a loan back in installments could apparently forestall an account bombing. Many people forwarded this story to me, but soon a friend said he still had 40,000 yuan to pay back, and was permanently banned regardless. Fundamentally, I feel there are no fixed standards. It seems entirely down to individual luck.     

Someone online said this is called: “If punishment is unfathomable, then power is limitless.” Someone else said censorship is effective because it has boundaries. When it loses its limits, it means everything we say is wrong, and the fear of censorship also vanishes.

I again submitted an appeal. I declared that if I couldn’t get my account back, I would submit evidence to an American lawyer and relevant organizations, resolving to find Tencent’s legally liable. I didn’t know if these threats would be effective. Yesterday I logged into the bombed account again. Although the ban was still not lifted, I found I had new privileges. I could export all data from the account, including the address book and Moments. I just had to submit an export application, then wait for WeChat’s email response. 

I chose to wait until I had my data to continue my appeal.

Later, a recently-bombed friend told me a trick. If I changed my bound cellphone number to a European number (or used one to register), I could obtain the “export data” option, in the “Settings-Account and Security-More Security Settings” page. This is because in order to operate in Europe, WeChat must comply with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) bill, permitting users to export their data.  

I spent a few U.S. dollars and used Dingdong to register a Belgian cellphone number, then bound my new WeChat account to this number. After several minutes, sure enough there appeared the export data option. At the time I finished this article, this method was still effective, so this should still be able to reduce losses during an account bombing.   

For the past few years, domestic internet companies have followed the “different internal and foreign” policy that is now the norm. Internal national authorities cooperate and display the most immoral behavior. And yet, they will obey other country’s laws, controls, and restrictions. This gives us some space to move in, indirectly, although it is not at all a cause for celebration. 

Half a month has passed between my first bombing and my current—and temporary—ability to use WeChat. It is incredible to me that this has caused so much friction. I’ve lost contact with people. I’ve lost so many records of my life, and that’s just the beginning. Then comes time and energy consumption, physical and mental exhaustion. More traumatic for me personally was the arrogant power of these people generally. They can do whatever they like and not pay any price, to the extent that more people have no choice but to throw their precious life energy at this absurd process of humiliation.     

I can’t tolerate letting this kind of meaningless experience exist in my life. I won’t allow its unceasing corrosion of my strength. So, I must write it down, as a way of striking back.  

Throughout this whole process, I saw many people unceasingly striking back. From the “WeChat account ban” super topic, to the “I want freedom of speech” and “I demand freedom of speech” social media campaigns. There was reportedly a Shanghai girl on the streets holding up a signboard, and many scholars and citizens groups striving for free speech have launched jointly-signed declarations. All of this has led to reaction overseas. I’ve seen foreign news journalists covering and investigating the WeChat account bans during the epidemic. Citizen Power Initiatives for China has also launched a collective lawsuit targeting Tencent.   

Striking back may attract more suppression. Wasn’t I bombed for my long-term and repeated challenging of the boundaries of public expression? But suppression can ferment the next counterattack. The hangman’s noose is not tightened all at once. If there is no way to broaden the boundaries of public discourse, we can at least resist a bit when they tighten the rope. And then, resist a bit more. [Chinese]

Translation by Alicia.


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