A Month or so in the House of Twitter

I registered a Twitter account two months ago, but didn’t start actively using it until my Sina Weibo was blocked in mid-December. Since then, I have made 600 plus tweets (including a lot of retweets and some replies) and been following over 200 people as of now. Every so often, I feel like sitting in a bustling tea house, the southern kind where all windows are flung open and a steady stream of people come in and out of the door, alone at a corner table, occasionally joined by one or the other of the two friends I have, listening to conversations twirling around me and, over time, getting to “know” some of the frequenters as well as the drop-bys.

Twitter is a very different tool if you are tweeting in Chinese. With 140 alphabets you can only make two—no more than two–quick chirps; but with 140 characters, you can chat, debate, argue, fight, narrate, contemplate, complain, cry for help, or, if you feel like, rhapsodize.

The estimate is that there are close to 100,000 Chinese Twitter users, and I assume the number is for users who tweet in Chinese, regardless where they are. I tried to find how many Chinese from inside China are using Twitter but to no avail. Because Twitter, along with Facebook, Youtube and other social media sites, are blocked in China, it is no surprise that those who take the trouble to climb the GFW are those who feel the need to do so to access information and to congregate.

Just the other day, I came across a tweet that exclaimed, “Wow, so many ‘revolutionary-looking people’ out here on Twitter!” You know, he was right: Twitter is where the dissidents and the activists gather. Some of them also tweet in Weibo to reach a large audience, but others can’t hold an account on Weibo without being repeatedly deleted.

It is in this community tea house that I have sat.

Among my very first impressions are the many IDs with 8964 suffix. A lot of them are former students who participated in the Tian’anmen Square protest in 1989. Having seen tanks and machine guns up close when they were young and now, in their mid-life, having lived long enough in the society, they are a group who has very little illusion about the nature of the regime. And more than once, I was impressed by the clarity of their thinking and yearned to hear more.

And you also hear their personal stories. Over the last couple of weeks or so, Ma Shaofang (@mashaofang), a former student leader, recounted, in a series of still on-going tweets, his capture and prison time after that summer. For the first time it came to my realization that so many students were expelled from college, others served prison time, and a lot of them have had a hard time to hold steady jobs for years to come because of harassment on the part of the government. Those who escaped from China in the aftermath have not been able to return to China to visit family for the last 23 years, unless they write up a confession of their “crime” and guarantee that they will not do anything “against” the party anymore. Some did and returned, but many chose to say no and continue to live in exile. When one of them (@wurenhua) tweeted about his recent conversation with his 80-year-old mother over the phone and why the mother and son had avoided video chatting (so that they can hide sadness from each other), you get a glimpse of what this exile entails.

On Twitter Chinese, you get a steady flow of tweets that cry for help: A has not answered his cell phone for the last two days (who would resurface later tweeting that the police took him away to answer questions); B was summoned by police to “have tea”; and C was not allowed to leave her home. In media we get to know about the big stories of China’s human rights travesties—the sentences, the illegal house arrests, the torture and whatnot, but we don’t hear much about the constant harassment a lot of the activists sustained from the police. To pressure the landlords and drive them out of their rental is one, to prevent them from meeting friends is another. Still more egregious, the police would pressure employers to fire them. In the recent issue of Heard on Weibo, I reported how the state security police forced a couple to separate.

Just two weeks ago, police raided the home of Hu Jia (@hu_jia), a prominent activist- whose story I am only beginning to learn and whose courage and moral clarity impressed me immensely- confiscated his computer, and threatened re-imprisonment. The last tweet of Hu Jia remains at January 10th, but to my relief, his wife (@zengjinyan) is still tweeting, nothing but cute things their toddler daughter does and says, a signal that the family is fine. For now anyway.

On certain days, such as around Christmas when Chen Wei (陈卫), and then Chen Xi (陈西), were sentenced to heavy prison time for articles they had written, there was a sense of desperation that chilled the screens.

Apart from responding to what is in the news day in and day out, people tweeted about everything in their lives: books and readings, thoughts and reflections, meals and liquor, soccer games and parties, friends and family, jokes and desires. One of the two friends I have (@gexun), who maintains the Free Chen Guangcheng site, tweets “It’s eight AM Beijing time and have a great day” every day, while the other, an artist in Beijing emerging only infrequently, mostly retweets others with terse add-ons that remind me of Jimmy Fallon slow jamming news.

No doubt Twitter is a free place.

But that nobody deletes your message doesn’t mean nobody is watching over what you say. Somewhere over a dim table, state security police are scanning every word. In November 2010, Wang Yi (@wangyi09), a well-known rights activist, was sentenced to one-year “reeducation through labor” for jokingly challenging angry “patriots” demonstrating against Japan to storm the Japanese Hall of the Shanghai Expo. She was the first person punished for a tweet, a tweet that consisted of 5 characters.

Even I, a newcomer and an outsider to this community, am beginning to have inklings. For example, who is that ID that signed on to follow me the day before yesterday that has a dozen or so tweets in a language I can’t identify but follows a hundred or so Chinese dissidents and intellectuals? How come those a couple of IDs, very vocal and widely known, always have “inside news” that happens to help deescalate pressure for the government? Who are they really?

Now and then, a verbal fight breaks out. From my little corner, I couldn’t see it clearly to begin with, let alone to take sides. If I am irritated enough, I hit the “unfollow” button, but mostly I choose to watch just to, well, get to know people.

Finally, Ai Weiwei. You can’t write about Twitter Chinese without talking about Ai Weiwei. Needless to say, he was among the first people I followed. But within 24 hours I unfollowed him, because when I came back on Twitter the next day, OMG, all I saw was @aiww, nothing but @aiww, screen after screen. I figured that I will hear news about him and interesting things he said anyway from retweets.

He tweets very short tweets, mostly 2 or 3 characters replying to friends, followers, and “debtors.” Lots of “嗯呢” (yes, humm). When he comments on things, often no more than one sentence, he is direct and sharp. For a man of his fame, he seems surprisingly approachable and sometimes “childish.” I am only beginning to learn how much he has done to look into and speak the truth over the years. Over the last few months, he managed to turn charges against him into “performance art”, first the debtor revelry, and then the Ai Naked (艾裸裸) campaign, that befuddled the authorities. On Twitter Chinese, screen after screen, the Ai Weiwei crowd is fun, smart and irreverent.

Soon enough, I re-followed him, this time feeling the need for a figure like him: he brings to Twitter Chinese warmth, a sense of confidence (although not certainty), street smartness, and he makes you feel a tad stronger, even though he is under surveillance of 9 cameras and multiple police cars permanently parked outside his gate.

The good news is he is not hanging online all the time. Hardly.

Tweeting from my dining room over these weeks, it is hard not to pause every now and then to think about the forsythia outside my window that is due to bloom in six weeks, the sunlight, the grass, and the thing we call freedom.

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About Yaxue Cao

I grew up in Northern China during the Cultural Revolution, came to the United States in the early 1990s to study literature and stayed. I have been writing stories about China, exploring both my own experiences and those of others against the larger picture of Communist China. You can find my work on Amazon.com, and new works are being added periodically.
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25 Responses to A Month or so in the House of Twitter

  1. Helena says:

    Re @aiww, did you mean “creditors” rather than “debtors”?

  2. gregorylent says:

    twitter … makes me feel like china is a thugocracy … but i never see that in daily life, or know anyone who does

    • Chopstik says:

      Without taking a position on the idea that China is a thugocracy, it is worth noting the importance of sites like Tom’s which offer insight beyond the “good/bad” views of China into everyday life and the views of normal people who do not live in the limelight. As you point out, you may not see it as it is often described so it is sometimes hard to reconcile what you read with what you see.

      By that same token, however, just because you cannot see it does not mean that it does not exist, either. Things that were not always immediately apparent to me but were pointed out subsequently helped to shape how I see things today.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    A quick way to find out what a thugocracy China is to visit Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights lawyer under illegal house arrest.

    There are many, many more thug stories. If you don’t know them, you have not learned the real China, I am afraid.

  4. Chopstik says:

    Yaxue,

    I like this post. I have to admit that, since I am functionally illiterate, I tend to pass over your Chinese tweets (or retweets, as the case may be), but I’m not surprised by what you have written. I would be curious to know just how many Chinese posters are “dissidents” as we think of them versus those posting trivial every-day details that you have found? That we can’t measure the impact of Twitter in China is not good but also not surprising. However, it is also worth considering that the impact of Twitter in “revolutionary” activities has also been overstated. It is a great forum for venting but not necessarily the tool of the masses – particularly when the masses have been blocked from it in the first place. Thanks.

    • Yaxue C. says:

      Chopstik, you are right that “It is a great forum for venting but not necessarily the tool of the masses” because Twitter is blocked by Chinese government and it takes a lot of trouble to climb the GFW. I have seen multiple tweets that merely says, “Oh hi, everyone, it’s so hard to get here!”

      By “dissidents”, I mean anyone who dissents. People dissent on different levels, and all considered, there are tons and tons of dissidents in China. Only a small portion is on Twitter, and more are on Weibo. I have no way to ascertain, but from anecdotal impressions, I would say, on Twitter, there must be a lot more “dissidents” than people who are just chitchatting. The former group needs a space where they can meet like-minded people and talk without their messages being deleted or accounts eradicated, while the latter would find a lot of companionship on any domestic weibo site without having to climb the wall.

      The “dissidents” though, as you can imagine, are perfectly normal people with a lot of fun. Thank goodness, they don’t just vent; they also share details of their everyday life. I don’t know if you read the “buried alive” part of the last issue of Heard on Weibo. There you have a pretty good sampling of the crowd–all of those items were taken from Twitter.

      Oh, sorry for “painting” your screens with my tweets :) Feel free to hit the “unfollow” button!

      • Chopstik says:

        Thanks for the clarification.

        And no need to worry about “painting” my screen with tweets. I only follow a select group of people/organizations and, while I may not be able to follow everything that you do tweet, there is the incentive to try to do so when I have the opportunity (and the time and ability to sit down and try to read through it with the liberal use of a dictionary). Besides, one day you might actually put up something I can read without a dictionary! ;-)

        I also like some diversity in what I read, too, and you help to provide some of that… Thanks!

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    Apart from being a place to meet up with like-minded people, Twitter Chinese also serves some important purposes: 1) a place you can go, or ask someone else to go on your behalf, to report your trouble, in event you are force to disappear or raided by police so that people will know and try to help anyway they can; 2) a place to get out news that might be censored within the wall; 3) On Twitter, people remind the community to send cards to political prisoners around holidays, raise money for their families, etc. Without Twitter, it will be very hard to perform any of these.

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  19. But spiritual revelation, and how that revelation is translated and transmitted to “the masses” are two sides of the same coin.

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