The story is a familiar one by now: When a mysterious virus cropped up in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, a 33-year-old opthamologist named Li Wenliang took to WeChat to sound the alarm. “7 cases of SARS have been confirmed in the Huanan fruit and seafood market,” he wrote in a private message to a group of his medical school classmates. “They were isolated in the emergency department of our Houhu District hospital.”
Someone posted Li’s messages online. Soon afterward, local police reprimanded Li for spreading rumors and forced him to apologize. But their efforts to muzzle him backfired. Li eventually contracted the virus. On January 30, 2020, as his condition worsened, he posted publicly about his run-in with the authorities on the Twitter-like platform Weibo. What happened next reveals a great deal about the dynamics of state control and popular dissent on China’s internet.
The metaphor most often used by Western observers for the Chinese internet is a wall. The slew of controls enacted by the state to regulate internet traffic is the “Great Firewall,” and using a VPN or other tool to circumvent these controls is called pa qiang, or “climbing the wall.” But this metaphor tends to obscure what is happening on the other side of the barrier. There we find people who respond to state controls with creativity and spunk. While some spend their days trawling cat videos, others create oases of subversion within the reality that they’ve been dealt.