Jeff Rambin, December 11, 2018
“There is no word for the pain, sadness, humiliation and anger I feel in my heart.” After six years and four months of tweeting, Wang Jiangsong was forced to delete his account. Wang calls himself a “labor scholar,” but he is too modest. William Nee of Amnesty International calls Wang “arguably the most prominent labor academic in China.” This is due not only to Wang’s scholarship, but also to his connections, and most importantly, his compassion. Wang’s perspective has been relied on by the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, and Reuters. Last year, Wang became part of the news himself. As reported by Radio Free Asia, officials in a Beijing neighborhood used a November fire as a chance to evict migrant workers. With winter effectively underway, Wang and others not only set up shelters for the workers, but also penned an open letter condemning the evictions as illegal.
In a farewell tweet, Wang said that the deletion was “due to force majeure which you all understand.” Though he said that “the sun will continue to rise,” Wang spoke of the deletion of his account as an “obituary.”
5,614 tweets to more than 23,300 followers will be gone in a few hours.
[As of now Prof. Wang’s handle is still alive, and he’s subsequently tweeted an account of the police visit.]
This happened on Tuesday, December 11, 2018, the day after the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
As followers of ChinaChange.org are aware, Wang Jiangsong’s story is far from isolated. It is part of a recent and accelerating crackdown on the use of Twitter by Chinese authorities. On November 9, 2018, Wu Gan’s Twitter account was deleted. That deletion carries concerns of its own, because Wu has been in prison since 2015. What is more, the deletion was unannounced. Yaxue Cao just happened to be online at the right time to see it go down. As with Wang Jiansong, Wu Gan used his Twitter account for the cause of the oppressed. Time and again, Wu rallied support to those who were ignored.
30,277 tweets from 2009 to 2015. Erased as though they never existed.
The list of names is rapidly growing. The campaign against Chinese Twitter users is being followed with increasing alarm on Twitter itself. It has been reported by outlets including Beijing Spring, the Epoch Times, the Hong Kong Free Press & Agence France Presse, and Human Rights Watch. As reported by Eva Xiao of AFP: “Despite being blocked in China, Twitter and other overseas social media sites have long been used freely by activists and government critics to address subjects that are censored on domestic forums — until now.” More and more Chinese Twitter users are receiving invitations to “drink tea” at the police station. To put it mildly, this is a consent issue. These accounts are not being deleted voluntarily.
What Wang, Wu, and so many others are up against is the “People’s Republic of Amnesia,” as described by former BBC and NPR reporter Lousia Lim in her book by that title. Indeed, the first rule of imposed political amnesia is that there is no amnesia; China has banned novelist Ma Jiang’s book China Dream, in which he describes both the efforts to erase memories, and the way those memories come back to the surface like a ball which has been held under the water.
The systematic campaign to erase history is now reaching out to Twitter users. Not via technological means, but by the knock on the door in the middle of the night.
This is loss on a staggering scale, and the worst of it is that there’s no way of knowing exactly how bad it is. How do you account for the damage done by severing the connections of someone like Wang Jiansong? How do you assess the impact of the collective body of free-minded people tweeting everyday acts of individuality? We can get some idea of their value from the extent to which oppressors are going.
Has the next Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Martin Luther King, Jr., been formulating ideas tweet-by-tweet? Purists might laugh, but I wonder if today’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or at least its existence and how to access it, wouldn’t be spread via Twitter. Imagine such tweets permanently disappearing.
Imagine that the perpetrators of the June 4, 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square had the ability to delete every image of Tank Man. No doubt they would.
That is not an armchair historian’s counterfactual. Through the deletion of Twitter accounts, we are losing the record of what is happening right now in the Xinjiang camps. We are also losing the record of non-Uighur Chinese who are trying to stop that atrocity. In other words, this is not only about a historical record. Twitter users are trying to save lives in the here and now.
The “Dual Key” System
What is Twitter going to do about this? Twitter may not have the resources to investigate consent in so many cases. Besides, determining whether a deletion was voluntary or under duress could embroil Twitter in political issues. Same for issuing a blanket order that no deletions will be permitted from China, or any other country. Twitter is by-and-large, what the users make of it.
Given what is at stake, though, Twitter should find a way to do something.
The point of a dual key system would be to protect the dissenter, the dissenter’s tweets, and Twitter. Twitter would not be involved in assessing consent.
The second key would be held by a person of the primary account holder’s choosing, most likely in another country. The second key holder would have no ability to tweet, only the ability to approve or veto deletions. The conditions under which deletion would be permitted would be determined up front between the keyholders.
Such a program presents moral quandaries. To state but one: If the ground rules between key holders are to never delete no matter the circumstances, do you abide by that as a second key holder?
The thing is, we are already in the moral quandary whether we acknowledge it or not. As things stand, when the knock on the door comes, Chinese Twitter users are alone. And we’re letting that happen, pretending that none of the responsibility falls on us. To my mind, though, as I’ve gone about my daily business, I’ve been a free rider on what Wang Jiangsong and so many others have done and are doing to fight darkness in this world. So in some way I owe this to him — even though we’re a world apart and we’ve never met. Perhaps others see things the same way. Perhaps Amnesty or Human Rights Watch or others would be willing to coordinate this with volunteers from around the world. Electricians, teachers, retirees, college students – the variety of volunteers will be surprising.
This is about connection and shared burden. When a Twitter user is sitting in an interrogation room facing a demand to delete their account, they should not be alone. The very existence of a second key holder changes the dynamic in that room. If a deletion request is made, the notification to the second key holder will be a pre-arranged call for help. A dual key system turns the table on the interrogator by shining a light into a dark place.
Please, Twitter, do something. Brave dissidents are already risking punishment by speaking. Give them the option of a dual key account to preserve their words. In these trying times give us reason to sing “All people become brothers where your gentle wing abides.”
Jeff Rambin is a father and attorney from Tyler, Texas. He is a lifelong student of history and politics. Years ago, he served as the chairperson of the foreign-policy focused Wiley Lecture Series at Texas A&M. Memories of 1989 have stuck with him. At some point he grew sick of reading books and watching the news and decided that he had to do something.
He can be followed on Twitter at @RespectHope.
China Steps up Nationwide Crackdown to Silence Twitter Users – the Unmediated Story, Yaxue Cao, December 5, 2018.