On a day with much sad news in China and the U.S., it’s perhaps worth remembering that China’s blogosphere has been home to many touching and amazing stories in 2012. Censored and fraught thought it may be, China’s Internet is also a place populated with hundreds of millions of human beings, and thus hundreds of millions of stories. As we hurdle toward 2013, it’s worth reflecting on some of the most uplifting of those stories.
Mother of “Sugar Pea” has her Weibo account, and memories, restored (Jimmy, February 23)
For months, a Sina Weibo user with the handle Mo Zhiguo (@魔之果) used the social media platform to chronicle the birth and infancy of her baby girl, “Sugar Pea” (“Tang Dou”). Mo Zhiguo’s account gathered followers (14,000 of them) and accumulated tens of thousands of tweets.
And then, on February 23, 2012, Mo Zhiguo retweeted a picture that was apparently deemed politically sensitive by Weibo’s internal censors. The censors deleted the post – and Mo Zhiguo’s entire account.
The loss of the thousands of photos and entries documenting her baby’s childhood incensed Mo Zhiguo, her followers, and her friends. One such friend, Zhuang Wuxie (@庄无邪), took to Sina, posting a long essay inveighing against the company’s heavy-handed censorship. Bolstered by Zhuang’s words, other netizens joined in the protest, calling for boycotts of Weibo and urging friends to “fight for your rights.”
Finally, Mo Zhiguo’s account was restored. Her first post back? A message for Sugar Pea: “Sugar Pea, your weibo is back. Mommy has fought very hard. A lot of people have fought very hard. Sweet dreams.”
Commenting function restored to Weibo platforms (David Wertime, April 3)
On March 31, Sina Weibo users attempting to leave comments on microblog posts were greeted with the following opaque message:
“To all Weibo users, recently, comments left by microbloggers have started to contain much illegal and detrimental information, including rumors. In an effort to clean them up in one stroke, the commenting function of Sina Weibo will be temporarily disabled from 8 a.m. March 31 to 8 a.m. April 3. After the clean-up, we will reopen the comments section. Necessary clean-up of information is conducive to providing everyone a better communicating atmosphere. We expect your understanding and consideration. Thank you for your support.”
In the days preceding Sina’s decision, the Chinese blogosphere had been ablaze with comments, rumors, and prognostications over the fate of Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s one-time Party Secretary. After a series of events including an attempted defection by Bo’s police chief, Wang Lijun, Bo was removed from his political post. When some netizens began (erroneously) reporting tanks appearing in Beijing, the government pounced. Tens of websites were shut down; accounts of prominent bloggers were erased; and yes, the commenting function on China’s top social media sites was suspended.
Three days later, when comments were restored, Chinese netizens poured out their bottled-up words. On that day, a search for the term “comment” resulted in 100 million tweets. And few social media users seemed blind to the importance of the moment.
“This is a historical moment,” @宋玉青—易百装饰 wrote. “Later people won’t understand, but you understand! Give a few shouts!”
Chen Guangcheng escapes confinement, and netizens in the know cheer (Jimmy, April 28)
It reads like the précis of an action movie: Blind human rights lawyer escapes from extra-legal detention, stymieing his guards and the government that wrongfully imprisoned him.
On April 22, imprisoned human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in rural Shandong province. Chen, who is blind, had feigned illness to distract his guards before climbing over a wall in the middle of the night (breaking his foot in the process) and fleeing to the US embassy. After weeks of tense negotiations, Chen decided to leave China for the United States, where he had been offered a fellowship at New York University.
Chen, a popular figure who was known for his advocacy on behalf of women’s rights and against corruption, was lauded by Chinese netizens. “Protecting lawyer Chen is every freedom-loving citizen’s basic duty,” one microblogger wrote.
Netizen outcry helps save Wu Ying’s life (David Wertime, May 22)
In 2006, Wu Ying – a 25 year-old entrepreneur with only a middle school education – became China’s sixth-richest woman, having amassed a fortune of over US$500 million. One year later, Wu was arrested for financial fraud, and after being tried in 2009 was sentenced to death.
Chinese netizens were outraged. Many commenters argued that Wu’s punishment did not fit her crime and lobbied against the death penalty as a punishment for economic wrongdoing. But the majority of those opposing the sentence expressed indignation at China’s inequitable legal system, noting that corrupt Party officials often evade conviction and almost never face the death penalty.
In April 2012, just a few months after Wu’s case was decided, China Supreme People’s Court rescinded her death sentence. In May, a Zhejiang court re-sentenced Wu to a two-year reprieve, which will likely be commuted to life in prison.
In response, millions of netizens celebrated what they considered a victory for online activism. As one netizen (@洪陈纷纭) wrote, “The power of democracy; the power of Weibo.”
Jenna Cook’s search for her birth mother (Chris Zheng, May 30)
Xia Huasi (夏华斯) was abandoned at a government office in Wuhan shortly after she was born. Adopted by an American woman named Margaret Cook, Xia – or Jenna, as she was now called – grew up in the States and attended Yale University.
And it was at Yale that Jenna decided to embark on a mission that would soon captivate Chinese netizens: She decided to find her birth parents.
This past year, Jenna traveled back to Wuhan in search of her birth parents and the family that briefly adopted her after her abandonment. Her story caught the eye of a Wuhan reporter, who wrote about Jenna’s search. That story quickly spread online, and Jenna was invited to do a “microinterview” on Tencent Weibo, one of China’s most popular microblogging platforms. The interview generated 330,000 Weibo posts, and her introductory tweet was reposted 28,000 times.
Beijingers band together in face of torrential rain (Yueran Zhang, July 23)
On July 21, torrential rains flooded Beijing, submerging cars, stranding pedestrians, and swamping roads. The downpour – the heaviest the city had ever encountered – reportedly took the lives of 77 Beijingers, including a police officer.
But even in the midst of tragedy, the heroism and compassion of many Beijing residents shone through. Car owners teamed up to collect stranded pedestrians from the street; netizens took to social media websites to offer free food, rides, and even housing. With taxis scarce, residents of Wangjing, a community near Beijing’s airport, volunteered free rides to and from the airport.
At day’s end, a Weibo post from Chinese legal scholar Xu Xin (@徐昕) captured the emotion of the day: “I’m sleepless tonight thinking about the heavy rain, the lives lost, the injured people and the police’s rescue efforts; I’m also thinking about so many asking for help on Weibo, and so many offering their help. The spirit of Beijing is not reflected by grand, meaningless words but by the pictures of Beijing tonight.”
Netizens cheer gay marriage on Chinese Valentine’s Day (Liz Carter, August 24)
While gay marriage has now gained legal recognition in a handful of US states, it has remained proscribed (and almost entirely unseen) in China.
Until Sina – one of the country’s biggest news outlets – published an article about a gay couple in southern China who had openly declared their engagement.
The Sina article ran on Qi Xi (七夕), the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Over the next few days, wedding pictures of the two men – posted earlier to their Sina Weibo account – were shared hundreds of times. And in the comments, netizens almost uniformly wished the couple well. As one Weibo user (@傲慢火影小子天王) wrote: “When I read this, my eyes were brimming with tears. I hope your love lasts for ever and ever.”
A classic love story, from China (Shelley Jiang, November 6)
In 2001, a Chinese research team on an expedition in southwest Chongqing discovered 6,000 steps carved into a steep mountain. When they followed the steps, they uncovered what may be the greatest love story of all time.
In 1942, Liu Guojiang saw Xu Chaoqing for the first time. Liu was six, and Xu – ten years his senior – was sitting on a palanquin on her way to be married. Ten years later, after Xu’s husband died of meningitis, Liu saw Xu once again, this time as she crossed a river. When Xu slipped (with her youngest child in tow), Liu jumped in to save her. The two fell in love – but their relationship was scorned by their fellow villagers. Finally, in 1956, Liu and Xu eloped to the mountains of rural Sichuan.
The mysterious steps discovered by the researchers represented Liu’s lifelong gift to Xu. The couple had built a house high in the mountains, and Liu worried that his wife would be unable to descend safely to the village below. Over 57 years, Liu built the 6,000 steps that would allow his wife to travel safely to and from home.
Following the researchers’ discovery in 2001, the story of Liu and Xu – and of Liu’s “ladder of love” – spread throughout China.
U.S. President Obama’s victory speech echoes in China (David Wertime, November 13)
On November 7, when re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama stepped to the podium for his acceptance speech, many Americans celebrated the end of a long and contentious campaign. But for some of the Chinese netizens who were listening, Obama’s words carried additional meaning.
“We can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for…the chance to cast their ballots like we did today,” Obama said.
When an online commentator posted a photo of the quote – combined with an image of Obama – to Sina Weibo, the post was retweeted 12,000 times.
And then it was censored.
Ren Jianyu, imprisoned for speech crime, is released (David Wertime, November 19)
In 2011, recent college grad Ren Jianyu was two years into a stint as a village official serving in the backwaters of Chongqing. Then, one day, the 25 year-old was arrested and sentenced to two years of “reeducation through labor.” His crime? A series of social media posts deemed critical of the provincial government.
But when news of his travails went viral on China social media, Ren’s fortunes began to change. Thousands of netizens posted in support of Ren, lambasting Chongqing officials’ flimsy evidence and contrived court procedures. Even Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the highly nationalistic tabloid The Global Times, voiced his support for Ren. “The era of getting punished for pure speech…should be over,” Hu wrote. Finally, last month, Chongqing authorities announced that Ren would be set free.
Netizens rejoicing in Ren’s freedom also celebrated what may be a broader victory. For one, Ren’s case marked a triumph for freedom of speech in China – and, to netizens delight – for online speech in particular. And with erstwhile Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s recent fall from grace, Ren’s manumission may also reflect the end of what had become known as the “Chongqing terror.”