In the second part of our retrospective on the most significant articles that were censored in 2023, chosen by CDT’s Chinese editorial team, we present five additional articles covering a wide range of topics, including poverty among elderly migrant workers, suggested revisions to the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law,” penalties for using VPNs, Li Keqiang’s death and political legacy, and the shrinking space for online discussions about the Chinese economy. In the first part, we discussed five other censored articles about the 2022 protests against the “White Paper,” ChatGPT, Xi Jinping’s unopposed re-election, struggling stand-up comedians, and censored infographics. (To learn more about these subjects and popular online terms, check out CDT’s newly released ebook, “China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition.”)
We have handpicked ten articles and essays to showcase the limited amount of online material that vanishes daily from the Chinese internet as a result of censorship or self-censorship. In 2023, our CDT Chinese editors have successfully preserved and included 287 new posts, essays, and articles in our “404 Deleted Content Archive,” which now holds a total of 1,515 items.
The article “Elderly Migrant Workers” by Qiu Fengxian.
On July 5th, a video presentation on the topic of older migrant workers, given by Qiu Fengxian, an associate professor at Anhui Normal University who specializes in researching the migrant workforce, garnered significant interest. After conducting a survey with 2,500 questionnaires and interviewing 200 migrant workers, Qiu found that China’s initial group of migrant laborers, who have spent approximately thirty years working in major cities, have been overlooked and neglected. These workers suffer from health issues, are not included in the social welfare system of large cities, have limited savings, and cannot afford to retire.
The original video was a TED Talk-style presentation on Yixi, an educational platform. Yixi has a WeChat public account and a YouTube channel. However, when the WeChat account 正面连接 (Zhèngmiàn Liánjiē, “Positive Connection”) shared highlights of Qiu’s survey titled “Three Decades of Working Like This,” it was quickly removed. The video and text versions of Qiu’s lecture on Yixi were also taken down. The full lecture can still be found on CDT’s Chinese-language YouTube channel. This censorship has continued into 2024, as a NetEase News documentary with the same title was also taken offline and its hashtag blocked on Weibo just one day after its release. Despite repeated censorship, important questions about the treatment of migrant workers who have contributed to the development of Chinese cities remain. As Qiu Fengxian pointed out in her lecture, “The first generation of migrant workers spent their whole lives working in these cities, just like urban residents, but they have nothing to show for it. This is not normal.” One internet user commented on the censorship of the NetEase News documentary, expressing their disappointment that a film depicting the real lives of the underclass would be banned in China for not aligning with the “main melody.”
Qiu’s lecture includes several infographics that present alarming statistics. According to Qiu’s research, 58.5% of migrant workers do not seek medical assistance for their illnesses, and 60.7% have no intention of retiring until they are physically unable to work.
The lack of media coverage on the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” by Wei Chunliang is concerning.
In early September, a post by current-affairs blogger Wei Chunliang discussing proposed changes to the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” was censored. These amendments, which were up for public comment at the time, aimed to criminalize comments, clothing, or symbols that the Chinese government deemed as undermining the nation’s spirit or causing harm to its feelings. Wei pointed out that legal experts had raised concerns about the broadness of these proposals and the potential for arbitrary application, but Chinese media outlets remained largely silent on the matter. In his censored post, Wei listed several major Chinese media outlets that had not covered the proposed changes and mentioned legal scholars who had bravely spoken out against them. He argued that this media silence was further evidence of the declining influence of traditional media outlets. At the end of his post, Wei included links for citizens to comment on the amendments and encouraged his readers to share their opinions.
A computer programmer in Chengde, Hebei was charged one million Yuan by the police for bypassing the Great Firewall in order to use the unrestricted internet for work purposes.
In September, a Weibo user who works as a computer programmer in Chengde, Hebei province, reported that he was punished by the local public security bureau for using a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass the Great Firewall (GFW) while working for a client abroad. According to the programmer’s post on Weibo, the Shuangqiao Branch of the Chengde public security bureau (PSB) fined him 200 yuan ($27 U.S. dollars) and confiscated his earnings for the next three years, totaling 1.058 million yuan (over $144,000), for the period of 2019-2022. The post, which was partially translated by CDT, was later censored.
I appreciate the support and concern from my online friends.
In both April and July of this year, I was interviewed multiple times by the police. During these interviews, I gave a detailed explanation of my employment status and provided them with my bank card, my employer’s company registration information from the country it is located in, the consulting contract I signed with the company, and other relevant documents. The PSB informed me during this time that their investigation found no connection between me and the Twitter incident. However, they also informed me that I would be penalized for bypassing the Great Firewall and that my income would be considered “illegally obtained.”
In August of this year, a formal ruling was made on an administrative penalty: it is against the law to bypass the firewall, therefore any earnings from doing so are considered illegally obtained income.
I submitted an administrative reconsideration request on September 5, but the department responsible for reconsideration agreed with the PSB’s decision. If I want to continue, I must file an administrative appeal with the courts.
During this procedure, I have repeatedly mentioned that navigating to github.com and my company’s post-purchase assistance and support website can be done without bypassing the GFW. Additionally, writing code on a local computer can also be accomplished without circumventing the GFW. However, these explanations were not acknowledged.
The following action is to hire an attorney who will actively assist me in preparing for my administrative appeal in court.
The recent revelation that earnings earned from work outside of the Great Firewall may be considered as “illegally obtained income” has caused fear among Chinese professionals who use VPNs to access the global Internet for work. This is a result of the crackdown on VPNs in 2017 and the implementation of stricter rules governing their use. As a result, many VPN apps have disappeared from Chinese app stores, domestic VPN providers have faced fines, closure, and even imprisonment, and state-run telecom providers have been instructed to block access to VPNs for their customers. Chinese Twitter users have also been identified and punished, while academic, scientific, and business communities have suffered due to limited access to crucial online resources. The enforcement and consequences of violating VPN regulations can vary greatly, ranging from small fines and public shaming to lengthy prison sentences.
Shuai Li, an author on Medium, explored the identity of a programmer and his employer, as well as his extensive contributions on Github. This topic sparked discussions on Reddit and other technology websites, and also led to widespread criticism on Chinese social media. Some individuals condemned Chengde for imposing steep fines, while others made jokes about avoiding the city to avoid having their salaries deducted for violating VPN regulations.
9. “Li Keqiang’s Backstory,” from WeChat account 喀秋莎来信 (Kāqiūshā Láixìn, “Letter from Katyusha”
Following the unexpected death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on October 27 at the age of 68 due to a heart attack, there was a significant increase in the censorship of information surrounding his life, passing, and impact. Throughout his lifetime, Li Keqiang was overshadowed by Xi Jinping and eventually lost political relevance. However, for many Chinese citizens, his death symbolized an alternative path for China, making any tributes to him politically sensitive. According to a censorship directive translated by CDT, media outlets were instructed to only use quotes from mainstream central media sources (such as Xinhua, CCTV, and People’s Daily), control comments sections, and be cautious of excessively positive comments or assessments of Li’s political and historical legacy. Numerous online tributes to Li were censored, including a photo essay that, while not overly praising, included many images from his personal and political life. Despite the strict censorship, many Chinese citizens still mourned Li on social media, with some posting tributes on Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall. One visitor wrote, “Today, it seems another truth-teller with the surname Li has departed.” Others expressed frustration that even expressions of grief were being censored and noted that comments sections under some online news reports of Li’s passing had been shut down.
The “Year in Memoriam” article by Caixin Weekly, which paid tribute to influential figures who passed away in 2023, was unexpectedly removed from publication in early January. Among those honored in the piece were Li Keqiang, doctors Jiang Yanyong and Gao Yaojie, renowned jurist Jiang Ping, and victim of thallium poisoning Zhu Ling.
In 2012, an interview with economist Wu Jinglian from Caijing was censored for discussing the nearing critical point of socio-economic contradictions in China.
During the second half of 2023, there was a noticeable rise in the restriction of economic information online. This was specifically seen in the removal of studies and articles discussing the root causes of China’s slow economic growth. Each month, content about issues such as high youth unemployment, sluggish economic growth, problems in the property sector, economic inequality, and reform efforts were deleted.
An article titled “Ten Questions About the Private Economy” was published and later deleted from the WeChat account “Caijing 11”. It featured a discussion between four prominent Chinese economists (Huang Qifan, Liu Shijin, Shi Jinchuan, and Zhang Jun) and journalists from the finance magazine Caijing, covering various economic and structural issues. Economist Liu Jipeng, who is the dean of the Capital Finance Research Institute at China University of Political Science and Law, seemed to have faced restrictions or a ban on several social media platforms, possibly due to his recent comments on the struggling Chinese stock market. Users on Douyin, Toutiao, and Weibo reported that they were unable to follow Liu’s accounts. In early December, Liu delivered a keynote speech at a finance conference where he criticized the lack of progress in reforms in China’s capital markets. He pointed out that despite having 45 years to implement “reform and opening” policies and 33 years to develop its capital markets, there is still an unjust distribution of wealth. A Weibo user commented that “Liu Jipeng’s ban is a classic tactic: if the government cannot solve a problem, they punish the one who brought it up for discussion.”
A recent interview with renowned economist Wu Jinglian, conducted by Caijing magazine in September 2012, was removed from WeChat in December 2023. The interview, which gained attention after being shared by WeChat blogger Leng Xiao, addressed the need to limit government interference in the economy, continue with market-based reforms, and uphold the rule of law. Wu Jinglian, now 93 years old, is a highly recognized and respected economist in China known for his direct opinions and insightful analysis. In 2003, the Wall Street Journal stated that Wu is a must-listen for anyone interested in China’s economic outlook and described him as an expert diagnostician. Two months before the Caijing interview, Wu spoke at a global conference sponsored by the International Economic Association and emphasized the importance of a legal framework for a modern market economy, criticizing the government’s use of administrative measures to interfere in the market. Eleven years later, it appears that Wu’s criticisms are still relevant enough to prompt censorship in China.