Hours after Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former Communist Party official of sexual assault in a shocking online post, Eric Liu witnessed one of the most intensive censorship campaigns carried out before his eyes.
The process looked familiar to Liu, who worked as a content censor at Weibo, the microblogging site where Peng described how former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into sex before the two entered into an on-and-off affair. But the scale was unprecedented, the 34-year-old said, due to the shocking nature of Peng’s story, the sheer number of people on social media, and the Communist leadership’s growing desire to keep public opinion under control.
“It is an extremely grand-scale campaign,” said Liu, who quit the company in 2013 and is now tracking Chinese censorship for China Digital Times from the United States. “There is nothing that could be compared to this. Although more serious political events have taken place in the past, the internet censorship was not that strict. I would expect them to use their full capacity to carry this out.”
The Communist Party leadership regards any scandal involving its core members as a threat to its rule. Since Peng’s post came out, Beijing has sought to wipe it out from the country’s history by banning media coverage, requiring around-the-clock human efforts from social media companies, and, through a system of punishments, coaxing citizens into self-censorship. It has demonstrated the country’s ability to keep its cyberspace insular even as the case was making international headlines every day.
The goal is to make Peng’s accusations taboo, just like the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, so even those who have read the post would avoid talking about it, letting the incident recede from memory and lose its significance as China’s biggest #MeToo case.