Here’s the Story Behind Snowden’s Mysterious Chinese Tweet

The former NSA contractor and whistleblower was following a long tradition of coded dissent.
May 17, 2021, 12:23pm
Snowden censorship china meituan book
Parts of Edward Snowden’s memoir have been censored in China. Photo: Jörg Carstensen / dpa / AFP

Edward Snowden has shared a 1,100-year-old poem on his Twitter account, adopting a well-known method of criticizing repressive regimes in China through ancient verses.

The poem, The Book-Burning Pit, is a classic written by Tang dynasty (618-907) poet Zhang Jie. It criticized tyrannical rule by referring to an infamous attempt to burn books deemed subversive by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.


Snowden, whose tweet went out on May 13, was probably inspired by a prominent Chinese tech executive who shared the same verses a week ago—and paid dearly for it. He lost $2.5 billion as his company’s stock plummeted amid speculation that he was criticizing China’s leader and could be punished as a result.

Ironically, on Monday, users were barred from posting screenshots of Snowden’s tweet on several popular social media services, including Douban and WeChat, although the content appeared to be allowed on Weibo.

In about 213 B.C., the Qin emperor ordered the burning of books on a variety of supposedly taboo topics, including agriculture, medicine, and the history of kingdoms he had defeated. He later commanded authorities to burn hundreds of scholars alive.

The cruel history has been repeatedly brought up by Chinese intellectuals in the next two millennia as a warning against rulers’ attempt to quash dissent. 

The poem points out the irony that the Qin dynasty, which brutally persecuted intellectuals, was eventually brought down by uneducated warriors and peasant rebels.

It first made headlines when Chinese food delivery giant Meituan’s chief executive Wang Xing posted the poem on his social media page on May 6. The post immediately prompted speculation that Wang was making a veiled criticism of President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule. Other readers theorized that Wang was comparing Xi with the uneducated ancient warriors that came to power.


The post was later deleted. Wang explained in a follow-up post that the poem was about how an unexpected newcomer could emerge in the future to threaten his company’s dominance in the food delivery industry.

Still, the share price of Meituan plunged by 13 percent in three days. Wang’s criticism, if taken as an offense by the authorities, could bring disastrous consequences to himself and the company in a country where loyalty to the Communist Party is key to the survival of businesses. 

Last year, Jack Ma, founder of another e-commerce giant Alibaba, criticized China’s financial regulators in a speech and triggered a backlash that thwarted a $37 billion IPO for Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Group. Tech giants including Alibaba and Meituan have also since been hit with a sweeping antitrust clampdown—this is why people speculated that the Meituan CEO was unhappy with Xi.

Nicholas Morrow Williams, an expert on classical Chinese poetry at the University of Hong Kong, said Zhang’s poem reflects the Chinese tradition of expressing dissent by writing about historical events when making direct criticisms of the government is too dangerous. 

While the Meituan CEO’s intention of quoting the poem was unclear, Chinese readers, well aware of the tradition, would naturally draw a connection between the work and the incumbent leader Xi Jinping, Williams told VICE World News.


“Throughout the whole history of imperial China, people were really sensitive to poetry for that reason. That tradition really continues today,” he said. “You can also say that the tradition of government censorship has also continued throughout the history of the imperial china and then up to the present.”

Snowden did not explain why he shared the poem, but he retweeted a Twitter user’s interpretation that the work was “an attack on the state’s confinement of thought, and the final irony is that it is someone else who is overthrowing the state’s power.”

Snowden’s autobiography Permanent Record was published in China in 2019. But parts of the book, including the whistleblower's criticism of authoritarianism and China’s Great Firewall, were censored, which Snowden said violated the publishing agreement. 

In the full translation of the book he posted on Twitter last week along with the Chinese poem, the censored paragraphs were restored and underlined.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.