Xiaoying Zhou

After Sensitivities, A Sharp Online Wit Silenced

Another one bites the dust. Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, has lost major voices due to censorship before, including lawyer He Weifang, historian Zhang Ming, activist Yu Jianrong, and economist Han Zhiguo. Yesterday, followers of @作业本 (or Zuoye Ben), a famous microblogger with a handle that literally means “homework book,” awoke to find that their beloved microblogger was gone as well.

Unlike many famous Weibo IDs on Sina, Zuoye Ben is neither an actor nor a rich CEO in real life. A self-proclaimed member of China’s “post-80s” generation from Qingdao, Shandong province, he claims to have attended fourteen schools from elementary school to college, because of his bad grades and trouble-making personality.

He had a very cute avatar.

Zuoye Ben’s online fame started in 2010. His tweets were sometimes sharp-tongued, sometimes sentimental. He was sometimes hilarious, and yet his dark humor made many sigh and reflect. Before his ouster from Sina Weibo, he had attracted more than 2,770,000 followers on Weibo, many of whom are famous public figures themselves. Over the past two years, many online have asked, “Who is Zuoye Ben?” But no clear answer has ever emerged.

Zuoye Ben participated in many public debates on Weibo when his Weibo identity was still “alive.” But on the evening of June 4, he posted a picture (captured and shown below) of a gathering in Hong Kong in memory of China’s Tiananmen protest in 1989, an incident which China’s Communist Party has tried effectively to scrub from its official history. By the early morning, his account had been stripped of all past tweets; shortly thereafter, his entire account vanished. Before this final showdown, the government had already “invited” Zuoye Ben to “drink tea,” slang for an in-person warning delivered to free speakers in China who are deemed potentially threatening, but not destabilizing enough for further official action.

Followers of Zuoye Ben and other Weibo users exploded after the discovery. Earlier today his disappearance became the fifth most popular topic on Weibo. Most netizens were angry at what they felt was Sina’s betrayal, although Sina may simply have been following orders.

Many public figures like Kaifu Lee (@李开复) have petitioned on Weibo for his return. Lee tweeted in support, “[Zuoye Ben] is very talented and full of dark humor. He does things as he likes. He’s criticized a lot of people, including me, but I still respect him. I think he was born with the gift to write good tweets, and he knows where the limit lies. Please, have him back!”

@骆第益, a successful businessman from Jinhua, Zhejiang province, tweeted: “I wanted to do my homework after my dinner, but I can’t find my homework book anymore! [sad face]”

Luckily, the Internet gives us all nine lives. Some hopeful netizens were confident that Zuoye Ben would definitely return, albeit in altered form. @王者清风wqf joked: “Rumor has it that Zuoye Ben has gone to take the “gao kao” [China's college-entrance examination] now and will come back very soon. Don’t worry and be patient!”

Questions about Zuoye Ben’s disappearance have been asked and then deleted immediately on online forums today. The alleged reborn Zuoye Ben, @作业本卷土重来, [literally, "Zuoye Ben's comeback"] appeared active on Weibo for a time, until it was pulled again later today. Once the period of heightened sensitivity over the Tiananmen anniversary has fully passed, will Sina Weibo give in to netizens’ pressure this time, and release Zuoye Ben’s old account and restore it to its former glory? 

The last picture posted by Zuoye Ben, which most likely caused his disappearance.

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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.