As a Beijing court dismissed China's landmark sexual harassment case on Tuesday, Weibo censors acted to muzzle a number of accounts that voiced support for the accuser, or even simply discussed the trial beforehand.
In 2018, the plaintiff Zhou Xiaoxuan, better known by the nickname Xianzi, filed a high-profile #MeToo case against Zhu Jun, a renowned state broadcast show host. Zhou claimed that Zhu sexually harassed her while she was an intern on Zhu's show in 2014. Chinese web users have closely followed the civil suit, which has also drawn international media attention.
The Tuesday trial was closed to outside observers, and tech companies like Weibo are now actively blocking public discussions of the court ruling. Shortly after the trial, Weibo users (including this author) started receiving messages from platform administrators that notified them of account suspensions due to recent posts that "violated relevant national laws and regulations," which is the language most frequently used to identify politically disfavored online speech. The suspension windows range between seven days and 30 days. During their suspensions, users cannot comment or share. Some users with large followings even saw their accounts deleted for good.
The attempts to erase the footprints of Xianzi's case didn't stop there. According to the China Digital Times, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tracks Chinese censorship, a directive came down from China's internet regulators ordering an unidentified website to ban coverage of the case as well as to filter all content that mentions the court ruling.
The Beijing Haidian People's Court, in a statement posted late Tuesday on Weibo, cited a lack of evidence to support its dismissal of Xianzi's sexual misconduct allegation. But Xianzi tried to offer a counter-narrative, claiming the court refused to admit some evidence, including surveillance footage outside the room where the alleged incident happened. Those posts, which appeared via third-party accounts — Xianzi was barred from posting to her 340,000 Weibo followers for a year starting in July — were also quickly censored.
The censorship initiative went wide and deep. One Weibo user wrote in a post that at least 20 of their Weibo friends who shared posts about the Tuesday trial had been muzzled; they had only a few dozen friends on Weibo.
"Today's Weibo looks like a graveyard," one user posted on Tuesday, adding their feed was "full of posts about friends whose accounts were suspended, deleted or who are 'reborn' with new accounts."
"Not everyone will remember the past, but some will," the user continued. "And these people will not give up just because they are muzzled."
The latest wave of account suspensions and deletions is just an extension of Weibo's ongoing tightening of its grip on users, numbering nearly 566 million. As Chinese authorities have ramped up a crackdown on freedom of speech in the past five years, account deletion, one of the more severe penalties, has become increasingly common. In April alone, Weibo deleted over a dozen accounts that belonged to feminist activists after ultranationalists launched hate campaigns against the women. Weibo, a Nasdaq-listed company, didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment. In an attempt to remedy what the Party sees as toxic celebrity and fan cultures, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), China's cyberspace watchdog and central internet censor, earlier this summer launched a campaign to "cleanse" the internet, including erasing from the web the presence of several pop stars whose actions weren't in line with Party ideology.
More censorship coming
Restrictions on freedom of online expression in China will likely continue to proliferate as cyberspace authorities hand down more internet regulations. Coincidentally, on the day of the sexual-misconduct court hearing, the Central Committee General Office and the State Council General Office released a set of new policy guidelines that called for "strengthening online civilization construction." Of the eight sections, one mandates further standardization of "online content production, information release and the dissemination process," and the building of a national mechanism debunking disinformation based on the existing national Internet Rumor-Refuting Platform.
On Wednesday, a day after the court ruling, the CAC rolled out another set of policy guidelines to step up its control over online expression. The policy document aims to reinforce tech companies' responsibility to moderate content. It mandates firms tighten user supervision, especially certain accounts that "require attention," and establish a database of "blacklisted accounts." The new rules also require social media platforms to prevent the so-called "reincarnation of illegal and irregular accounts." This means that social media users who get kicked off from Weibo can no longer get back on by creating a new account. Companies are also required to beef up in-house content moderation staff in order to improve their censorship system and "further expand the scope" of content moderation.
In August, the CAC released draft regulations to limit tech companies' usage of algorithmic recommendations. The draft rules require companies to build mechanisms that allow humans to manually curate popular search terms, trending topic charts and pop-up windows to "vigorously present information content that conforms to mainstream values."
The treatment of this latest phase of Xianzi's #MeToo case is a departure from, and likely response to, the viral nature of its opening. Last December, when a Beijing court first heard Xianzi's civil suit against Zhu, hundreds of people gathered outside in support of the plaintiff. Live videos and photos circulated widely on Chinese social media as the hearing was in session, and at one point "Xianzi" topped Weibo's trending chart. By contrast, this week, the crowd was far smaller, and one participant said authorities blocked cellular signals outside the court to prevent supporters from communicating via social media. With this censorship operation in full swing, "Xianzi" has not appeared anywhere on Weibo's trending chart. Instead, the top item on the chart on Wednesday was Beijing's new policy guidelines calling for "strengthening online civilization construction."
But these moves haven't deterred web users who have been vocally supporting Xianzi. "Eyes that are open cannot pretend that they can't see what's going on," wrote another Weibo user. "This fight continues, and we will each do our part."