Agony and ecstasy—12 months of turmoil, disaster, death, rescue, victory, and celebration
During President Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit last Saturday, the two leaders agreed to curb the flow of the synthetic opioid fentanyl to the United States.
A White House announcement said Xi agreed to label fentanyl a controlled substance so that sellers of the drug would be “subject to China’s maximum penalty under the law,” which is the death penalty. The Trump administration called the move a “wonderful humanitarian gesture”: Opioid overdoses, often involving fentanyl, led to more than 70,000 American deaths in 2017.
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Inside China’s heavily censored internet network, it’s often a game of cat and mouse as creative netizens think up new ways to bypass censors. Web users have recently employed a variety of creative tactics—including word plays and digital technology—to keep a step ahead of government officials, but censors are often quick to catch on.
When Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died in prison in 2017, censors quickly scrubbed any references to Liu, candle emojis (as expressions of mourning), and even the letters “R.I.P.” on the Twitter-like Weibo. But Chinese users who wanted to remember the late democracy activist started using other terms to discuss him, including “Teacher Liu” or “Wang Xiaobo” (switching out his surname).
Homophones are also often used in Chinese, both as puns and to escape censors. For instance, in Chinese the word for “river crab” sounds like the word “harmony,” a term former President Hu Jintao often used to justify the silencing of dissent. The term “river crab” is now used online to indicate censorship. (As the #MeToo movement arrived in China, censors temporarily blocked the hashtag, leading netizens to instead use the characters for “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu.”)
For longer posts or open letters, web users post images of text—sometimes rotated or upside down—in order to bypass censors. But ever-updated algorithms eventually identify those images as well. A study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that WeChat Moments (similar to Facebook’s timeline) uses optical-character recognition to identify sensitive texts in images as well as a visual-based algorithm that compares pictures against blacklisted images.
The researchers found ways to distort the forbidden images in order to slip past censors: blurring the photo, mirroring the image, or duplicating the same image multiple times and adding a black border. While these techniques may work for now, they’ll likely be blocked as WeChat’s technology advances.
Earlier this year, supporters of #MeToo activist Yue Xin found a new platform to get their message up and keep it up: blockchain technology. It started in April when Yue and other students at Peking University filed a freedom of information request about a student in the 1990s who was sexually assaulted by a professor and then committed suicide. Instead of releasing the information, authorities and school officials harassed Yue and silenced discussion of the case online.
Yue posted on WeChat an open letter about the intimidation she faced, a letter censors quickly scrubbed. But then a supporter of the activist embedded Yue’s letter in a tamper-proof blockchain transaction record. Blockchain is a public digital ledger originally created for the digital currency bitcoin. Because blockchain is decentralized and distributed across a network of computers, it’s permanent and impossible for censors to alter.
The anonymous supporter used a blockchain for another digital currency, Ether, to send himself (or herself) zero Ether cryptocurrency, attaching the text of Yue’s letter in the metadata. Because Ethereum transactions are permanent and public, anyone in China could read the open letter. The post has received 330 comments, with many calling the move “historic.”
Still, the Great Firewall could block access to block explorers (the search engines for blockchain transactions) so that everyday people would be unable to find the transaction without more advanced technical knowledge. In addition, in October the Cyberspace Administration of China drafted new regulations requiring local blockchain companies to register users with their real names and ID number.
Islam in China:
In The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson looks at the long history of Islam in China and what led to the current crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. He also touches on why the Chinese government has never accepted Christianity.
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Authorities in China are cracking down on student Marxist groups and labor activists. In recent weeks, 12 activists have disappeared in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Wuhan, according to Reuters.
This comes after police arrested 50 student activists in August after they traveled down to Huizhou in Guangdong province to support workers trying to unionize at Jasic Technology, a welding machinery manufacturer. As the students organized demonstrations and created a social media campaign, police raided an apartment where 50 activists were staying. Most of the detained activists were sent home without their cell phones and kept under surveillance, Reuters reported at the time.
While the Chinese government claims to espouse Marxist ideology, ever since the 1989 pro-democracy protests, it has clamped down on student activism. This school year, Peking University (PKU) banned the student Marxist society from registering as an official club, and installed Qiu Shuiping, a former state security official, as the party secretary of PKU. Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University also punished labor activists on campus.
One student missing since August, Yue Xin, is a member of PKU’s Marxist society. In April Yue wrote an open letter to the school’s administration demanding information regarding a sexual harassment and suicide case from the 1990s. After school officials tried to harass and censor her, they finally allowed Yue to finish the school year as her story gained traction on Chinese social media. But after graduation, Yue helped organize the protests in Huizhou, leading to her arrest. Today no one, including her family, knows where she is.
At PKU, students created a student group called “Looking for the Moon” to raise awareness about Yue’s disappearance, as well as that of student activist Gu Jiayue (both of their names include a Chinese homophone for “moon”). The group handed out flyers on campus and created a WeChat group discussing how to help the two students, according to SupChina.
Two weeks ago, a group of unidentified men on the PKU campus grabbed two recent grads who were involved in the Jasic protests and stuffed them into a car. Authorities forced witnesses to delete any photos or videos of the scene. One witness who posted videos and essays about the kidnapping, Yu Tianfu, has also disappeared. Censors shut down the Look for the Moon WeChat groups, although students recreated them under a new name.
In an open letter, the activists wrote that they would continue to seek justice for the persecuted students: “We can’t let those who collected firewood for others be frozen to death in the snow, and we can’t let those who created the path of freedom be trapped in the thorns.”
Umbrella Nine: This week nine leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests will stand trial. In a sign of the deterioration of Hong Kong’s civil liberties, the group faces three rare colonial-era criminal provisions against causing a “public nuisance.”