How China managed to erase all mentions of its most explosive #MeToo case

Hours after Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused former Communist Party official of sexual assault in shocking online article, Eric Liu witnessed one of the most intensive censorship campaigns carried out before his eyes .

The process seemed familiar to Liu, who worked as a content censor on Weibo, the microblogging site where Peng described how former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex before the two entered. in an intermittent link. But the scale was unprecedented, the 34-year-old said, due to the shocking nature of Peng’s story, the large number of people on social media and the growing desire of Communist leaders to keep the public opinion under control.

“This is a very large-scale campaign,” said Liu, who left the company in 2013 and now follows Chinese censorship to China’s digital time the United States. “There is nothing that can be compared to this. Although more serious political events have taken place in the past, internet censorship was not that strict. I would expect them to use their full capacity to complete this task.

The leadership of the Communist Party regards any scandal involving its main members as a threat to its government. Since the publication of Peng’s post, Beijing has sought to erase it from the country’s history by banning media coverage, demanding 24-hour human efforts from social media companies and, through ” a system of sanctions, by encouraging citizens to self-censor. He demonstrated the country’s ability to keep its island cyberspace even as the affair made daily international headlines.

The aim is to make Peng’s accusations taboo, just like the crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, so that even those who read the message avoid talking about it. letting the incident fade from memory and lose its meaning. like China’s biggest #MeToo case.

The campaign requires massive human contribution from all Chinese social platforms. While keywords like “Peng Shuai” are “Zhang Gaoli” were immediately blocked by search engines, censors had to keep adding new words to their list of sensitive terms because users came up with euphemisms, such as as “tennis”, “melon”, the Korean drama title The Prime Minister and I, and other celebrity names that resemble those of Peng and Zhang.

For Beijing, it is about eradicating mentions of the incident without drawing attention to the widespread censorship itself which could pique further curiosity. That’s why most of the work had to be done by human censors, who could decode the veiled references that the algorithms were unable to recognize, and then approve the unrelated content, Liu said.

“The platforms could have banned all the keywords with just one click, but they chose to do it manually,” Liu said. “They try to make things normal at all costs. But they are struggling. ”

Censors could be seen working in real time as an international campaign in support of Peng made its way across the Chinese internet. A key battleground is the page of Hu Xijin, the editor of the party-run tabloid World time. As rumors circulated about Peng’s safety, Hu sought to silence criticism from China by sharing clips of the tennis player on Twitter. However, none of these videos were accessible in the Great Firewall.

Censorship of Hu’s page is tricky, as commentators often speak in a sarcastic manner, making it difficult even for humans to tell whether one was criticizing or praising the government for its handling of the matter.

A comment that said “good | point, ”for example, garnered hundreds of upvotes on Hu’s page before catching the attention of censors. It was a veiled insult to the government’s failed attempt to prove Peng’s safety when it posted a screenshot of an email allegedly written by her on state-run international media. CGTNTwitter account of. The screenshot was widely ridiculed for having a text cursor in the middle of a sentence. The account that posted the comment then disappeared.

Even the fact that Peng’s post had been online for about 20 minutes already showed a flaw in the censorship apparatus. Liu said Weibo usually leaves messages from pop stars and athletes online before being vetted by a group of seasoned censors, given how rare it is for Chinese celebrities to speak out against the government because their careers could easily be derailed because of bad things. Remarks.

Peng’s post showed that the model could fail. Liu said authorities could hold Weibo and its individual censors responsible for leaking Peng’s message, although no sanction has been made public. This week, China’s internet watchdog, the Chinese Cyberspace Administration, ordered platforms to step up “real-time surveillance” and “active warnings” to prevent celebrities from posting content deemed harmful by the state.

Weibo did not immediately respond to VICE World News’ request for comment.

But Beijing’s damage control has so far been successful. Although occasional articles about the tennis star can still be found, general censorship has ruled out any meaningful discussion of his allegations against Zhang on the Chinese internet.

“There is no doubt that the authorities have succeeded in preventing any independent reporting or discussion of Peng Shuai,” said David Bandurski, researcher at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “Those posts that manage to share facts nationally will always be a race against time, fading away before they can generate a substantial discussion.”

The diligence of censorship workers is facilitated by the increase in self-censorship. Chinese internet users are required to register their accounts with real identities, and criticizing online authorities could lead to the dissolution of entire chat rooms, the deletion of individual accounts and even the detention of the perpetrators.

Even in private WeChat groups, for example, many people would avoid mentioning Peng’s case for fear of losing their accounts, which are essential for accessing a wide range of work, payment, and welfare services.

The Chinese government has tried, with a carrot and stick approach, to ensure that the growing women’s rights movement remains under its control. In response to a #MeToo movement that has hit prominent men in academia, business, religion and entertainment, authorities have enacted new sexual harassment laws and even arrested a major pop star for rape. However, they are blocking petitions, detain activists, and prohibit the media from covering matters involving men within the political establishment.

In another country, allegations of sexual abuse against prominent politicians can boost the local women’s rights movement and encourage more women to speak out. But in China, the fallout from Peng’s claims appears to be provoking the opposite reaction.

A 30-year-old Chinese feminist activist in the United States, who spoke on condition of anonymity for her safety, said her fellow #MeToo advocates in China were too afraid to speak out about Peng’s case in public. “I am concerned that #MeToo suffers from a more organized and large-scale crackdown,” she said. “The authorities could present #MeToo as something imported from abroad aimed at subverting the state. This is what I fear most. ”

Despite the breakdown of information on Peng, the activist said she believed the Chinese people would remember what happened.

Young women in China have strongly condemned the gender discrimination and violence women face in their society. But they are prohibited from speaking out now that the movement has reached the most powerful organ in the country, the leadership of the Communist Party.

Searches for Weibo messages containing the name “Peng Shuai” reveal only one recent message, with the French Embassy in China expressing concerns on Monday over the lack of information on his fate. Foreign embassies tend to enjoy more leniency with censors.

Thousands of users commented on the post, but only 16 of the approximately 2,800 comments were spared censorship on Thursday.

“Come on, mind your own business, fool,” said the most approved comment.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.

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