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“Navigating China’s Narrowing Information Flow” was part three of the collaborative panel produced by Nüvoices, Young China Watchers and Chinese Storytellers. Hosted by Isabelle Niu, founding member of Chinese Storytellers, the panel featured Amy Qin, International Correspondent for The New York Times, Kecheng Fang, Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lotus Ruan, Researcher at The Citizen Lab, and was moderated by Zhaoyin Feng, Correspondent at BBC World Service. As the panelists discussed, the pandemic has tested and put on display China’s system of information control. Propaganda and censorship kicked into full gear to control the narrative of the outbreak, while internet governance and surveillance has flourished in post-COVID-19 Chinese society.

Lotus Ruan explained some of Citizen Lab’s methods to monitor Chinese censorship, including the use of reverse engineering to detect censorship on the platform YY, which allows for hourly updates on what is being censored. She explained that YY began to censor COVID-related topics on December 31, one day after Dr. Li tried to warn others about the virus and one day after the Wuhan health commissioner started making COVID-related announcements. On WeChat, she added, they started to notice a lot of keywords being censored starting in mid-January, while the scope of censorship on the topic of the virus was clearly extended by February. Neutral and factual information was censored in addition to misinformation.

Clockwise from top left: Kecheng Fang, Zhaoyin Feng, Lotus Ruan, Amy Qin.

Moderator and speakers

Kecheng Fang made the potentially surprising claim that “Journalism is not dead in China.” He traced his claim back to the reporting that took place in January and February, which included independent investigations and hard-hitting news featured in more liberal outlets such as Caixin as well as citizen journalism that spread via social media. “Journalism seems easy to be heard but not easy to be killed,” he said. Citing previous disasters in China such as the Sichuan earthquake, Kechang argued that the relationship between journalists and the government is never fixed; instead, it’s in a state of continuous improvisation. At the beginning of major events, the government officials are often slow to act and journalists can move quickly to seize the opportunity to report. Later, as the government adjusts its response, these reports get stifled.

Amy Qin described her reporting trip to Wuhan at the start of the outbreak. Half-expecting not to be allowed to get off the train at the Wuhan stop, she and her colleague were pleasantly surprised by the fact that the conductor let them off to a shockingly deserted train station. “The window of opportunity was really evident,” she said, describing a relatively free reporting environment wherein — to her knowledge — they were not followed or prevented from entering the most sensitive settings such as areas surrounding hospitals. But this open reporting environment did not last forever: “The night I left China with the State Department was the night that Dr. Li died,” she said. “The censorship really picked up after that.”

Panelists also discussed othering and distance, both between Chinese people inside and outside of Wuhan as well as foreigners’ interpretations of the virus as distinctly Chinese and unlikely to affect and infect them. Other topics covered include the limits of using Weibo for research and the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic was China’s first major disaster that unfolded amidst a highly fortified social media environment.

This event was part of a series co-organized with NüVoices and Chinese Storytellers.

— By Johanna Costigan

Webinar Recap — Navigating China’s Narrowing Information Flow (June 25)
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