Waking Up in China

Peng Shuai, a Chinese women’s tennis player, was foolish enough to write about an abusive relationship with a top-level member of the Chinese Communist Party on her Chinese social media page. She, along with her post, has since disappeared from the internet and apparently from any contact with the outside world. Now, a formal denial of her earlier accusations against Xi Jinping’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli has appeared in her name — on Twitter and in English, which means the letter is intended purely for non-domestic consumption.

The post has the unmistakable tone of a totalitarian regime’s forced retraction. Meanwhile, as reported by Benjamin Hart at The Cut, it is not merely Shuai’s own social media presence that has been tossed down the memory hole. The Chinese government’s internet algorithms have taken things to a far more comprehensive level, in which even “private” messages on the internet which contain discussion or screen shots of Shuai’s original post are being censored, and personal accounts suspended. This is significant, since of course these algorithms used to monitor online discussion will allow a totalitarian regime to isolate, in theory, any internet discussion of topics regarded as being “of interest” to the regime, and to identify those discussions in real time. 

A couple of days ago, of an early morning, I posted a short essay here in Limbo entitled, “Taiwan’s Independence.” After posting it, just by chance, I happened to sign in to my website’s analytics program, which is able to show me, among other things, any recent visits to my site, identified by location. I was immediately struck by the fact that I had just had a visit from a location in China — not a source of regular traffic to my site — literally within a couple of minutes of having posted that Taiwan piece. Coincidence? Possible, though it would be quite a big one. It is also possible that the Communist Party’s internet firewalls are also set to discover any online posts from anywhere in Asia featuring certain keywords that might indicate anti-Chinese sentiment. (Korea, where I live, has been dealing with an increased awareness of direct Chinese meddling in its online political discussion in recent years, similar in motive to the Russian trolling used in the U.S. to foment angry and divisive rhetoric in support of Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016.) I will never know for sure. But I know that at that moment, I felt a little like someone who had just woken up in China.

The Chinese Communist Party, in any case, apparently prefers to be the sole purveyor of what it regards as anti-Chinese sentiment — after all, their very existence is itself is the most virulently anti-Chinese expression in the nation’s five thousand year history — and is now taking increasingly severe steps to isolate, and where possible eliminate, any competitors. 

With an increasing amount of the world’s population unwittingly complying with Chinese regulatory demands in all internet-related areas — banking, trade — due in large measure to global government-corporate drooling over the prospect of accessing China’s enormous market, it is important to see stories like that of Peng Shuai in the proper light. This is not “their problem,” or “so sad for those people.” We are all living under the specter of continual monitoring — and its intended effect of ever-increasing self-censorship — with the differences pertaining only to how severely our local authorities choose to come down on us when we step out of line. Never kid yourself, however; as we all know by now, the level of severity is entirely a choice, almost a whim, and adjustable as the state determines on a day-by-day basis.

And of course our monitors are not usually agents of the Chinese Communist Party, although they often share a similar frame of mind regarding the supposed need to, shall we say, “ensure that people are getting authorized truths, and not being exposed carelessly to misinformation from non-authoritative sources.”

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