“Even if I court disaster like an egg against stone or a moth to a flame, I will tell the truth about you and me.” So wrote Chinese doubles tennis star Peng Shuai. Her post lasted 30 minutes on Weibo before it was censored, and her name rendered unsearchable.
Though Peng had done the unheard of—accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into a sexual relationship—this is not China’s only high-profile story of sexual misconduct in recent years. The removal of Peng’s posts comes on the heels of the case earlier this year of scriptwriter Zhou Xiaoxuan, also known as Xianzi. Zhou’s own accusation, which originally went viral on social media in 2014, was against Zhu Jun, a news anchor for one of China’s main state-run channels and a household name. She took Zhu to court, asking 50,000 RMB (about $7,600 USD) in damages and a public apology for groping her in a dressing room during an interview. This past September, the judge ultimately decided that Zhou’s accusations had insufficient proof. Once again, Zhou took to social media, this time to criticize how the judiciary treated her legal team and detailing how she was barred from introducing evidence of the assault. Her social media accounts were subsequently shuttered.
Peng’s and Zhou’s experiences are connected by their efforts to share their sexual assault stories and the support both received. Their respective hashtags were not mere trends, but also catalysts for the formation of communities connected by anguishing experiences of sexual harassment. Discussion of Zhou’s case online attracted attention and encouraged women to speak up, share her story, and find solidarity with one another. (Zhou herself was encouraged to speak up back in 2014 after seeing a friend posting a story of sexual harassment.) Meanwhile, Peng’s disappearance spurred frantic shares of the post detailing what she had gone through. International stars, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, trended the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai.
After Peng’s and Zhou’s stories came to light, state censors aimed to erase any evidence of wrongdoing and preserve the reputations of the powerful men at the core of Chinese state and political culture. In Zhou’s case, censors went after friends and well-wishers; a 300-member WeChat group that had grown in the wake of her court case suddenly vanished. Peng Shuai’s post prompted takedowns of not only her name and Zhang Gaoli’s name, but also temporarily the terms “tennis” and “melon,” a Chinese slang term for snacking while watching controversial or dramatic events. Moreover, the speed of the takedowns in the days since Peng’s post was taken down encouraged self-censorship.
The reception of these stories and the treatment of those who supported them show that censorship in China is more sophisticated than merely suppressing content that violates policies and guidance.
Most critical analysis of Chinese social media censorship focuses on the increasing number of words, phrases, or topics censored or filtered. But the function of censorship is far broader than this piecemeal approach suggests, encompassing also the destruction of online spaces and communities. Censors don’t focus solely on keywords. Organizational capacity and the ability to assemble in virtual spaces are key factors in how the party assesses political risk, and in how law enforcement in general decide how to throttle activities by groups outside of mainstream politics.
When civic spaces are closed and groups deleted, individuals with few or no connections outside of social media have backlogs of resources and connections taken away. In the case of WeChat specifically—which users in China utilize for chats, payments, blog publishing, travel, and other digital record keeping—a suspension or ban cuts a user off from many everyday communication and life tools.
This is not about topics. This censorship is fundamentally about the dismantling of social resources. Content takedowns not only address the shorter-term problem of text or images that government actors want to remove, they also weaken activists’ ability to rebuild by isolating them and dampening their ability to create new resources. Censors can ensure that these groups stay silent. Conceptualizing censorship in a solely piecemeal way neglects the damage that destroying the foundations of organizing and civic society components can do.
Chinese censors have not operated using content- or keyword-only censorship for nearly a decade, finding early on that the social nature of social media was key to modernizing and maintaining China’s Great Firewall. Xi Jinping himself characterized cyberspace in a 2016 speech as a “spiritual garden” for information innovation and cybersecurity. He claimed that this conceptual garden has “a clear sky, and crisp air with a good ecology in cyberspace conforms to the people’s interests. A pestilent atmosphere with a deteriorating ecology in cyberspace, in turn, does not conform to the people’s interests.” Unsaid but key to his analogy was what, and who, would have to be pruned and removed.
Communist Party internal literature also acknowledges the power of digital social networks beyond banning specific keywords. In preliminary studies of community environments on Weibo that led to increased control over social influencers, researchers identified the environment as a new frontier in civic spaces. Party scholars wrote: “Because cyberspace has no systemic barriers or binding ideological constraints … different classes, areas, and types of media can exchange, integrate, or confront ideas, making the public opinion environment increasingly complex.”
Topic-based bans do remain an integral part of censorship, barring mention of historically taboo events like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and content published by banned media outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC. However, after the rise of bloggers and social media influencers in the late ’00s, the public opinion environment was also precisely targeted by campaigns meant to curtail influencer impact and the capacity of nongovernment thought leaders to build community.
In theory, social media users with large followings were private citizens. However, the mid-2010s handed them a choice: They could serve and support the politics of Chinese authorities, or they could face discipline by law enforcement and the dismantling of their communities. In 2013, amidst a flurry of blogger crackdowns, novelist Hao Qun summarized the trend aptly: “They want to sever those relationships and make the relationship on Weibo atomized, just like relations in Chinese society, where everyone is just a solitary atom.”
By the time Peng appeared in a November 2021 video call with IOC chair Thomas Bach, the Weibo and WeChat environments had virtually purged discussions with offending keywords or references to an earlier, clumsier cover-up email sent to the Women’s Tennis Association.
In Zhou’s case, censors assessing organizational risk were likely concerned by the number of supporters, as well as their ability to mobilize actions in the physical world, including sending supplies to those holding vigils outside the courthouse where her case was evaluated. The collective characteristics of their support, too, was cause for concern.
Silencing organizers and victims of sexual assault is one of many tactics used to weaken the capacity to assemble cases and public opinion campaigns. The playbook of making communities taboo and isolating politically inconvenient views spans a wide breadth of groups, from feminists to Marxist labor organizers to citizen journalists who covered the handling of the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
Though Zhou has not received prison time or been arrested for her case, the monitoring of her activity itself is meant to put pressure on her to tone down or silence her calls for justice, and stop her story from spreading. The closure of her account likely sets an example for her supporters as to what is verboten in terms of discussion or commentary. In speaking about the aftermath, Zhou was determined in her appeal but visibly shaken by the takedowns of her posts. Though she said she would try to pursue the legal procedures to the end, she was stunned by the sudden and abrupt silencing of her accounts. “It felt like everything that I did was a crime,” she recounted in an interview with The Guardian. “This is a torturous feeling.”
Like Zhou, feminist activist Lü Pin was not left unscathed by the sudden shutdown of Feminist Voices, the organization she cofounded. The group’s closure demonstrates that Chinese censors may keep working in perpetuity while the communications tools of activists and people with stories against the grain, like Peng, have their online existence hang by a thread. “Because what the government does is to isolate us from one another,” the activist explains, “therefore, we must connect with each other, and moreover, we must create and spread the alternative knowledge of resistance. This is what feminism is good at, after all.”
Chinese censorship and platform maintenance is multifaceted and easy to replicate in part or whole. The subsequent impact of censorship can manifest in longer-term ways beyond the stifling of a specific topic at a certain point in time.
Peng Shuai’s censorship over Chinese social media continues, with topics based on her name and story still banned on Weibo and WeChat publishing platforms. Though the IOC feels confident that she is safe, the systemic changes of the acts of censorship continue to reverberate online, for her and for other individuals with #MeToo stories bursting at the seams.
As it turns out, remembering the politically inconvenient is a risky thing. To help others to remember is even more dangerous.