The Twitter User Taking on the Chinese Government

The Twitter User Taking on the Chinese Government

The Twitter User Taking on the Chinese Government

“Teacher Li” has become a one-person news outlet and a crucial source of information about the protests in China for those both inside and outside the Great Firewall.

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On November 26, a Chinese Twitter user, known to his now more than 825,000 followers as Teacher Li, received a photograph via direct message. It was of a student in Nanjing holding a piece of white A4 paper in front of a bell tower on a university campus. A fire in a locked-down apartment building in Urumqi, Xinjiang, had recently killed at least 10 residents, and commentary on the news had been censored, leading to viral social media posts that were repetitions of a single Chinese character: 好—hao, or “good”—a bitter statement about critical comments being scrubbed from the Internet, leaving “good” the only thing to say. Now, with the university student holding a blank sheet of paper, the online protests had moved to the streets.

Within a few hours, similar actions spread across the country. The formats varied: Some were small vigils, others were individual protests, and a few involved crowds of several hundred people chanting and marching. The demands ranged. Many protesters asked for the government to lift Covid lockdowns while others demanded broad political rights such as freedom of the press. Over the next few days, Li, who lives in Italy, became an information hub, disseminating news directly from the front lines. He shared videos, photos, and texts almost in real time: In Beijing, a crowd of hundreds marched into the early morning, chanting, “Ziyou!”—“Freedom!”—as they walked by a local police station; in downtown Shanghai, in front of a line of police, people shouted in unison, “Xi Jinping, step down! CCP, step down!”

Li told me he received up to 40 submissions each second during this period. “Similar things were springing up at many places,” Li said in Mandarin when we spoke last week. As more and more people followed Li, his sources expanded. Almost overnight, he became a one-man news outlet, with on-the-ground reporters all over China. In November, there were 354 million visits to his Twitter profile. The protesters’ anger and solidarity, as well as the danger that followed, reached people across the globe. The videos that Li broadcast and archived on his Twitter account were downloaded and shared with Chinese users as the censors scrambled to catch up.

Inside China’s Great Firewall, which blocks access to many overseas websites, including Twitter, the news spread haltingly, but outside, it ran free. “In this information ecology, Teacher Li became a special trusted channel and a critical connector,” said Xiao Qiang, a professor at Berkeley and founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors China’s cyberspace. “Cell phones are usually pieces of a surveillance machine. The state always knows where you are. But once these demonstrators overcame their fear, it became a weapon. They turned their cameras on in front of the police,” Xiao said. “As the tide rose, Teacher Li became a surfer.” By playing this role, Li not only amplified people’s voices but also insulated those submitting to him from repercussions. His following quadrupled in a week.

As the submissions rushed in, Li said he felt no choice: “People were already on the streets, actively facing danger. It won’t be reported in China. We, however, are on a platform where we can speak freely, and therefore have the responsibility to document what’s happening.” He forced himself to sleep six hours, but as soon as he woke up, he started reading submissions in bed. “I was reading news and sharing, without considering the consequences,” he said. “I didn’t know what would happen to me, or how the protests would turn out.”

By November 28, on Li’s feed, footage of solidarity was replaced by images of state domination. In Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, squads of police formed a phalanx outside of a shuttered Apple store. The pavement reflected purple from the lights of their vehicles. Messages from Shanghai and Beijing reported that police cars had parked along many city blocks and open spaces. Li began to notice that he was receiving a lot of false information, and he issued corrections as soon as he found out. Emotions were high, and the subject was contentious. “Every error takes a toll on my credibility,” Li said, “I wasn’t sure if some people were baiting me, or if everyone was too excited and inadvertently sharing misinformation.”

He issued a message to his followers, pinned at the top of his page, asking them to double-check the details before submission. “I need your help,” he wrote, “I hope everyone gives up on self-censor, and joins journalistic fact-checking.” Afterward, Li noticed a substantial improvement of the quality of submissions. “I was very moved. People were used to passively receiving information. In that moment, however, they actively participated in filtering out the misinformation. In many threads, people added evidence to things and improved the coverage,” Li said.

Meanwhile, Li received warnings that he was about to face a coordinated effort to have his Twitter account taken down. He tweeted, “If you know ways to protect this channel, please help. And please make your submissions to others you trust, as well.” Soon, a large number of Twitter users reported one of Li’s tweets for violation of Twitter’s community rules.

Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, is familiar with this malicious practice. “When an account is used by an activist or to document activism and passes a certain following threshold, it often receives mass attacks from China-based accounts and gets suspended,” said Wang, who had previously worked with Twitter to help dozens of Chinese activists to get their accounts back. With Li’s permission, she wrote to Twitter on his behalf to guard against a possible suspension.

Followers watched Li’s feed anxiously, not only for the words on the protests but also for proof of his safety. Chinese Twitter is hyper- aware of state surveillance. Twitter users in China often receive police visits because of their posts. Given the content of Li’s work and his remarkable reach—he is now one of the Chinese Twitter users with the largest followings—many Twitter users assume he is in danger. After a short absence from Twitter, Li will return to worried messages. He started to tell people when he steps away for even 15 minutes. He said sustaining and protecting the account became his priority. “This has become a lighthouse or a torch. To many people, this is the embodiment of freedom of speech, where they can see news they can’t see inside the firewall.”

Before all this, Teacher Li was a painter. At 19, he started to tutor students who were trying to get into art schools, and his friends nicknamed him “Teacher Li.” A few years ago, he left China and moved to Italy. In the last decade, he had been a devoted Weibo user, where he sometimes shared his microfiction romances and once had more than 100,000 followers. The number wasn’t huge by Weibo standards, but the community was what influencers would call “sticky”—his fans discussed things and interacted a lot. There, his followers would submit messages to him—sometimes just their own photography, painting, or just a journal of their moods and thoughts.

Earlier this year, when the story of an abducted woman chained in a rural shed shocked the country, Li would share related news. One of his followers, from Guangdong, asked that he help post a missing person ad to look for a sister. Li obliged, and his account was banned. Li started a game of whack-a-mole with Weibo censors: He kept starting Weibo accounts, and censors kept shutting them down. In two months, he said he lost 52 accounts. “In this process, I started to get angered,” Li told me. “You can say this was my way of resisting. If they found me, I’d lose my account, but before they found me, in a few minutes, I would gather thousands of my fans again. It became a performance art.” Over time, Li’s Weibo username itself became a banned keyword.

About five months ago, Li started to use his Twitter account more frequently. “Here, I realized that I could say things normally. And once you realize that, there is no going back.” On Weibo, he had to use terms like “you know who” to refer to President Xi Jinping. Li lamented that Internet crackdowns have grown so swift, sophisticated, and omnipresent that today’s Chinese high schoolers have no idea what free Internet is like. “When they watch short videos on social media, many words are replaced with acronyms, sounds are bleeped, images are mosaic,” he said, “and to keep your accounts, you have to remind yourself what you are not allowed to say.” Sometimes people, for example, users can’t type the word xuexi, or “study,” because it contains the president’s surname. “When politics has invaded every aspect of life, you have no way of avoiding politics,” Li said.

This weekend, Li’s Twitter avatar—a cartoon cat with tiny T-Rex-like paws—became a target of censorship. People were not able to share this image on Weibo or WeChat, Li said, and he advised his followers to crop out his username and avatar when sharing screenshots of his Tweets for their safety. “You can call it the most sensitive cat in China,” he joked.

For a while, Li’s Twitter bio featured a line that seems to belong to a world of epic tales. “Look at the giant tower which stands tall and reaches the heavens. Every moment, someone jumps from it. When I was little, I didn’t understand, and thought they were flakes of snow.” Li said he used to be a xiaofenhong, or “little pink,” referring to overtly nationalistic young people. “In this phase, when I see things that were unreasonable, or bad, I would have said, for the country to progress, we could sacrifice the welfare of this small group of people,” Li explained, “now I realize that these sacrifices were people’s lives.” With this insight, he said the falling snow from a grand tower became something else.

After the weekend, some submissions reported that police were examining the phones of people they detained. One submission shows a photo from the Shanghai subway, where a pair of uniformed men are inspecting riders’ cell phones. Twitter users started to discover that some protest posts disappeared, along with Chinese users that they’ve known for some time. Dozens of followers told Li that when the police discovered they were using “ladders”—virtual networks that skirt the Great Firewall—they asked them if they knew Teacher Li. Four days after the first protests, according to a message submitted to Li and verified by China Digital Times, China’s Cyberspace Administration issued a directive asking its officers to strengthen its censorship on protest-related news.

Meanwhile, Li received death threats. As the protests faded and the policing caught up, he felt exposed. His Chinese payment app and social media account were logged in by others, and sometimes his password was changed. “China’s police machine is moving at full speed,” Xiao said, “they’ve been surveilling and infiltrating Chinese Twitter long-term,” Xiao said. Since 2018, they’ve been detaining and talking to Twitter users based in China. “This never stopped,” Xiao told me.

Li kept repeating that protecting the account is his first priority, but I couldn’t help but remind him that without the person behind it, the account is just a shell. Bonding Li and his followers isn’t anything transactional or institutional. It’s a tremendous amount of trust that Chinese users have invested in one person. Over the weekend, an anonymous account called “China Protest 2022” was set up, and it attracted 40,000 followers almost instantly. Within a day or two, however, people started to doubt its purposes. Some even wondered if it was a fishing account set up by state security. It stopped posting.

Xiao thinks it takes a special kind of character to succeed in a role like Li’s. “Teacher Li was someone from mainland China, and he focuses on content that can’t survive inside the Firewall, and he doesn’t sensationalize,” Xiao said. “He’s not a trained journalist, but his ethics and approach made people trust him. Even if he couldn’t verify everything, even though he made a few mistakes and could be scared or tired, people trusted him more for it because he is a real individual.” Like everyone in the protests, Xiao said, Li is a regular person who rose to the occasion.

Since the protests began, Li’s inbox has been filled with suggestions. He receives theories on how to rule a country to proposals of new national anthems. A few have even suggested that he should lead a revolution. “I can’t do things like that. I’m here to report the news, and you are supposed to understand what’s going on, and make your decisions.” He told me that he feels both the weight of high expectations from those that trust him and the vitriol from those that hate him. “Four or five days ago, I was just an ordinary guy,” he sighed, sounding as if he were already nostalgic for an easier time.

But Li dutifully reports on. He has tried to find more information on the possibly missing protesters. There was a spate of government announcements about more-relaxed Covid policies: fewer Covid requirements to use public transit in Shenzhen, Guangdong province; freer access to grocers and restaurants in Tianjin. In other places, arbitrary policies persisted, and new lockdowns appeared. At the university in Nanjing, faculty informed students that their online communications were under surveillance.

Deep down, Li remains a romantic, “I had always been moved by the movement in 1989, but now I document this movement, and it feels like I am participating in history,” he told me. He wondered if this was “just an episode in history” or “the beginning of a history.”

But Li said it’s difficult for him to think about the long term. He said he has lost his life to the constant flow of information, focusing on an ever-present “right now.” At the height of the protests, on November 28, Li issued a manifesto to Chinese officials, asking them to reflect on what made his Twitter feed so necessary. “If Chinese media could report on the news, if Chinese people could discuss what has been happening, they wouldn’t need to come to me to speak their mind,” he wrote. “I was someone who painted and scribbled crappy love stories. All these were supposed to be far away from me. You, with your speech control, made me.”

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