There’s something everyone with a smartphone in China knows how to do: the ritual of scanning QR codes, or “sao yi sao”. My dad likes to joke that even those vendors selling roasted sweet potatoes on sidewalks are using WeChat mobile pay; the shabbiest of carts have QR codes hanging off the sides. In a country where 90% of internet users are accessing the net via their mobile devices, social media is integrated into the smallest details of everyone’s daily lives.
WeChat is China’s largest messaging app, although you can more accurately think about it as a combination of Facebook, Uber, PayPal, Facetime, Venmo, Instagram, and a lot of other individual apps that you may rely on. It’s ability to be an everything-app has made it a source of inspiration for American social media companies like Facebook. But it’s also tainted by what Western liberals may see as it’s fatal flaw: its complicity in state-censorship regulations.
Of course, WeChat isn’t the only social media site that is actively filtering for key words. Signs of censorship are equally prominent on Weibo, a micro-blogging site comparable to Twitter, where controls seem to be getting even stronger in recent months. When I was on the DKU campus, I was able to take advantage of the power of “sao yi sao” to keep in touch with many of my interviewees, whom I either contacted via WeChat, or asked immediately after our conversation whether we could connect on WeChat. As a bonus, I was now regularly reading articles my new friends would share on their Moments (the equivalent of a Facebook wall) with their own commentaries. A few days before leaving China, one of these friends messaged me with an article she believed I may find of use. In just the past few hours she had seen it spread rapidly in her Moments. Aware the link may no longer be available by the next morning, she also attached several screenshots.
It was a piece regarding the Beijing Film Academy sexual assault incident. Speaking out via the personal Weibo account of a friend, a female graduate of the academy accused the father of a former teacher of a sexually assaulting her in 2011. Her allegations immediately following the actual assault resulted in her being ostracized by teachers and students, and even being denied her graduation diploma until most recently. The immediate aftermath of allegations being posted on Weibo was received with outcry from Chinese netizens in her favor and a series of responses from the academy that essentially dismissed the allegations and discredited this student.
The article my friend shared with me goes further to decry what happened even later: Weibo’s deletion of related topics, comments, alterations of the number of times a thread was shared or “liked.” The author, let’s called him Liu*, is a Chinese college student. The role Weibo played in this narrative engaged Liu’s attention for two reasons: 1. “This incident happened on a college campus, and as a college student I’ve developed a new sense of fear, a fear that I may be next. And if that happens, how would I want others to react? Remain silent?” 2. “What’s happened to all the victims of [lists several topics/incidents Weibo has censored]. We never get any answers.” He laments the absurdity of blowing up celebrity gossip to replace the sexual assault incident in trending topics, all while the official responses from the film academy remain intact. And he laments the fact that when another anonymous Weibo user provided evidence to support the female student’s case, the account’s contents were deleted.
In Liu’s observation of Weibo’s censorship of controversial topics, he’s lost a sense of security in his own home. His point is, this isn’t an isolated event, and Weibo has repeatedly silenced the accusing party in favor of the more powerful, reputable accused party. What kind of message does this send to the common citizen? Because of this and other similar incidents, Chinese women can reliably assume that their attackers will never be held accountable even when damning evidence is provided.
Remember that according to many of my interviews, censorship regulations are meant to target unverified information. But clearly, not all citizens are given equal opportunity to determine what qualifies as verified fact, and not just because of lack of access to education. The people who get to make those decisions are in positions of power, are men, are government officials. If you read Liu’s article word for word, at no point does he condemn the Chinese government for oppressing each netizen’s individual right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t condemn censorship.
This may seem like a novel idea for a Western liberal, so I should first address a discrepancy in definitions of democracy. Western liberals subscribe to procedural democracy, placing emphasis on democratic processes and principles like fair elections. But the Chinese view of democracy is substantive, and has its roots in the Confucian tradition of min ben or “people as the foundation”. For Chinese people, democracy is not about process, but about government delivering results and providing for the welfare of its people.
So, for those of us who’ve grown up in Western democracies, censorship is a problem of free speech; it’s a violation of a key democratic principle, precisely because it is capable of undermining the democratic processes we hold dear. For Liu, censorship’s problems—or perhaps for other Chinese citizens, it’s merits—are evident in its consequences.
But I’ve been thinking: these consequences honestly aren’t far off from what you may see in similar sexual assault incidents that have happened on American college campuses. I remember the outrage I saw on my Facebook when those first headlines reporting the Stanford swimmer rape case chose to emphasize that Brock Turner was a star athlete instead of seriously addressing the details of the rape allegations. The light sentence he received created another outrage as it was proven once again that Turner would not be held accountable for his actions. The obvious difference is that the media here is exercising their own editorial control over what is published, while Weibo is regulating what kind of posts can be seen in accordance to censorship standards set forth by the Communist party.
The common thread I see here is people in power having the ability to manage information in their own interests. The Beijing Film Academy can keep its reputation untarnished because censorship regulations favor more official sources. Stanford and other universities have the power to prevent more people from creating bad press if they regularly dismiss and discredit victims and protect accused offenders. The court has power over deciding whose life will be more “severely impacted” by a rape. Facebook has its own rules over what posts count as hate speech. In the end, censorship goes beyond just deleting accounts and banning certain hashtags, and becomes also making people feel helpless enough to remain silent, thus self-censoring themselves. And that, it seems, is universal.
*real name is unknown