Watching China From Cyberspace
One of the very first posts on China Digital Times over the past year was this directive from the so-called Ministry of Truth:
State Council Information Office: All websites must find and delete the article “Who Is [This Weibo User] Sihaiweichuanbo (@四海微传) Behind Xi Jinping’s Steamed Buns?” by the author Zheng Zhi. Do this immediately. (January 1, 2014)
This simple propaganda directive, which references Internet criticism of a trip by President Xi Jinping to a local steamed bun shop, established themes that reappeared in much of China Digital Times’ coverage over the coming year: the official campaign to promote Xi as a “man of the people”; Weibo users’ scrutiny and skepticism of such image-polishing efforts; and propaganda officials’ silencing of those defiant voices.
A crackdown on free speech and activism that began as soon as Xi Jinping took office in 2012 only intensified and broadened throughout 2014. While bolstering his own credibility by launching an unprecedented campaign to root out corruption, Xi also demonstrated that his proclaimed commitment to rule of law faltered when it came to the rights of common citizens.
Prominent lawyers, journalists, and activists were questioned, detained, and sentenced; amid a major security crackdown in Xinjiang, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was sent to prison for life, partly for his work editing a website.
A steady stream of filtered search terms and propaganda directives guided coverage and discussion of a broad variety of topics and stories, from Xi Jinping’s steamed bun meal to the arrest of former security chief Zhou Yongkang. The 25th anniversary of June 4th and the protest movement in Hong Kong were among the most strictly censored stories in China in recent memory.
But the harsh tactics used by authorities to silence their critics did not work to intimidate the most outspoken Internet users, who continued to find creative ways to express themselves.
While suppressing speech, the government also took advantage of Chinese Internet users’ affinity for social media to polish Xi Jinping’s image and post photos of him interacting with common citizens in everyday situations. But Xi’s foray into social media soon became the subject of netizen scorn when he publicly praised a nationalistic and factually-challenged blogger. A post linking the blogger, Zhou Xiaoping, to Xi’s image-crafting campaign, and mocking them both, was one of the most popular posts on CDT Chinese in 2014, showing the tenacity of online public opinion even in a censored environment.
CDT recently published a new eBook, “Covering China from Cyberspace in 2014,” which looks back on the major stories of the past year. This yearbook is not an effort to chronicle everything that happened in China over the year. Rather, it gives a broad outline of the main events and issues that resonated most deeply…