How China Managed to Wipe Out All Mentions of Its Most Explosive #MeToo Case

A former Chinese censor says the scale of the censorship is “unprecedented.”

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

The process looked familiar to Liu, who worked as a content censor at Weibo, the microblogging site where Peng described how former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex before the two entered into an on-and-off affair. But the scale was unprecedented, the 34-year-old said, due to the shocking nature of Peng’s story, the sheer number of people on social media, and the Communist leadership’s growing desire to keep public opinion under control.

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“It is an extremely grand-scale campaign,” said Liu, who quit the company in 2013 and is now tracking Chinese censorship for China Digital Times from the United States. “There is nothing that could be compared to this. Although more serious political events have taken place in the past, the internet censorship was not that strict. I would expect them to use their full capacity to carry this out.” 

The Communist Party leadership regards any scandal involving its core members as a threat to its rule. Since Peng’s post came out, Beijing has sought to wipe it out from the country’s history by banning media coverage, requiring around-the-clock human efforts from social media companies, and, through a system of punishments, coaxing citizens into self-censorship. It has demonstrated the country’s ability to keep its cyberspace insular even as the case was making international headlines every day. 

The goal is to make Peng’s accusations taboo, just like the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, so even those who have read the post would avoid talking about it, letting the incident recede from memory and lose its significance as China’s biggest #MeToo case.

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

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For Beijing, it’s a delicate matter of eradicating mentions of the incident without calling attention to the sweeping censorship itself that could pique further curiosity. That’s why the bulk of the work had to be carried out by human censors, who could decode the veiled references that algorithms were unable to recognize, and then approve content not related to the issue, Liu said. 

“The platforms could have banned all the keywords with one tap, but they’ve chosen to do it manually,” Liu said. “ They are trying to make things look normal at all costs. But they are struggling.” 

Former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, has been caught in China's biggest #MeToo case. Photo: WU HONG-POOL/GETTY IMAGES

Censors could be seen working in real time as an international campaign supporting Peng made its way into the Chinese internet. One key battlefield is the page of Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the party-run tabloid Global Times. As rumors swirled over Peng’s safety, Hu sought to silence China’s critics by sharing clips of the tennis player on Twitter. However, none of those videos could be accessed within the Great Firewall. 

Censoring Hu’s page is tricky, since commentators often speak sarcastically, making it difficult even for humans to tell if one was criticizing or praising the government for its handling of the matter.

A comment that read “good | point,” for example, got hundreds of upvotes on Hu’s page before it caught censors’ attention. It was a veiled insult to the government’s failed attempt to prove Peng’s safety when it published a screenshot of an email purportedly written by her on the state-run international outlet CGTN’s Twitter account. The screenshot was widely ridiculed for containing a text cursor in the middle of a sentence. The account that posted the comment later vanished.

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Even the fact that Peng’s post came online for about 20 minutes already displayed a flaw in the censorship apparatus. Liu said Weibo usually let pop stars’ and athletes’ posts go online before being screened by a group of senior censors, given how rare it had been for Chinese celebrities to speak up against the government, as their careers could easily be derailed because of unsavory remarks.

Peng’s post showed the model could fail. Liu said the authorities might hold Weibo and its individual censors accountable for letting Peng’s post slip, although no penalties had been made public. This week, China’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China, ordered platforms to step up “real-time monitoring” and “active warning” 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 posts about the tennis star could still be found, the blanket censorship has eliminated any meaningful discussion of her allegations against Zhang on the Chinese internet. 

“There’s no doubt that the authorities have managed quite effectively to prevent any independent reporting or discussion of Peng Shuai,” said David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “Those posts that manage to share facts domestically will always be racing against the clock, vanishing before they can generate any substantial discussion.”

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The diligence of censorship workers is aided by increasing self-censorship. Chinese internet users are required to register their accounts with real identities, and criticizing the authorities online could cause entire discussion forums to be disbanded, individual accounts rescinded, and even the authors detained. 

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

The Chinese government has been trying, with a carrot-and-stick approach, to make sure the growing women’s rights movement stays within its control. Responding to a #MeToo movement that has hit prominent men in academics, business, religion and entertainment, the authorities have implemented new laws on sexual harassment and even arrested a top pop star for rape. However, they are blocking petitions, detaining activists, and banning media from covering cases involving men within the political establishment. 

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In another country, allegations of sexual abuse against top politicians may give the local women’s rights movement a boost and embolden more women to speak up. But in China, the fallout from Peng’s allegations appears to be causing the opposite reaction. 

A 30-year-old Chinese feminist activist in the U.S., who spoke on condition of anonymity for her safety, said fellow #MeToo advocates in China were getting too scared to talk about Peng’s case in public. “I worry that #MeToo will suffer from a more organized, large-scale crackdown,” she said. “Authorities could frame #MeToo as something imported from abroad aimed at subverting the state. This is what I fear the most.” 

Despite the information blackout on Peng, the activist said she believes the Chinese people will remember what happened. 

Young women in China have been vocal in condemning the gender discrimination and violence faced by women in their society. But they are forbidden from speaking up now the movement has reached the country’s most powerful body, the Communist Party leadership.

Searches for Weibo posts containing the name “Peng Shuai” now only turn up one recent post, which is the French embassy in China expressing concerns on Monday about a lack of information on her whereabouts. Foreign embassies tend to enjoy more leniency with the censors. 

Thousands of users have commented on the post, but only 16 out of some 2,800 comments were spared from censorship by Thursday. 

“Go mind your own business, dumbass,” says the top approved comment.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.

Tagged:

Censorship, Tennis, #metoo, worldnews

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