Author: Initium Media

Who is Seeing the Real America?

The first time I saw a “zero-dollar shopping” (零元購) video, I was taking the Beijing Subway late at night. “Zero-Dollar Shopping, America’s Common Prosperity Policy” — it was certainly an eye-catching headline.

“Bang!” A gunshot rings out and the camera focuses in on a storefront. A crowd of masked Black people charge in. They ransack the goods on the shelves, stuffing their bags full. Some cradle TVs half their height; others run out onto the street with their arms wrapped around huge bundles of clothes. In one video, they don’t even leave the potted plants by the cash register. Customers stand by in stunned disbelief while security guards shake their heads helplessly.

Two years ago, just as I had decided to go study in the United States, these short-form videos on the deplorable state of public security in the country began appearing on my feed non-stop. Up until I arrived in New York, the “zero-dollar shopping” trend still hadn’t faded from the Chinese internet.

“Zero-dollar shopping” in the state-run China Daily.

I chose to settle in Harlem, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan that has been a gathering place for Black Americans since the Great Migration over a century ago, when Blacks in the South moved north to escape poverty, discrimination, and segregation. In the last twenty-odd years, though, Harlem has experienced gentrification and the Black population has fallen proportionally.

When I told my Chinese friends I was living there, their first reaction was to ask, “Is it safe there?” At first, I admit I was nervous. When I finished classes in the evenings, I’d want to sprint the last 100 meters home. Later, I realized there were always police patrolling the neighborhood. Sometimes police cars with flashing lights would stop by the streetside. Maybe it was because Asian faces were rare here, but sometimes officers would give me a friendly wave and say, “Have a good night!” It didn’t seem like the New York of short-form videos where outlaws preyed upon the land.

Read this story in its original Chinese by writer Liu Yi (劉怡) and Initium journalist Yang Jing (楊靜).

But as soon as I opened Chinese social media platforms, videos like “zero-dollar shopping” decrying the lawless state of American society came at me non-stop. Similar videos also turned up on the phones of my family members in China and they’d send them to me in WeChat groups or private messages. I liked to chat on the phone with my family on the way back home from school, and my grandmother would urge me to get home as quickly as possible. In her imagination, nowhere is safe in New York after nightfall. When I talked to relatives on my way to work in the mornings, they warned me to be careful of Black people on the street, who, they cautioned, are “uneducated and savage.”

They had never been to America before, yet had this rigid impression of what it was like: free, dangerous, full of all sorts of people, and at all times you had to keep your distance from Black people. As I was reminded of this point constantly, I began to wonder: which one of us was actually seeing the real America?

A Hotbed of Rumors

By chance, I happened to meet Jin Xia, who had moved to the States four earlier. I learned from her that “zero-dollar shopping” clips weren’t just novelty videos: they were “the number one rumor in California” — something that had been circulating and flourishing online for years.

Jin Xia works at a fact-checking website called Chinese Fact Check, or Piyaoba (闢謠吧), a nonprofit service run by the San Francisco-based civil rights advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action (華人權益促進會). It specializes in verifying rumors circulating in Chinese, to help Chinese American communities get accurate information. Resources offered on the website include real-time fake news alerts, fake news reports, and in-depth fact-checking articles — all of which are posted to Piyaoba’s public WeChat account.

A selection of Piyaoba’s many articles debunking the myth of “zero-dollar shopping.”

According to Piyaoba’s introduction to the topic, “zero-dollar shopping” refers to acts of theft and robbery committed by people of African descent in broad daylight in American cities. Many of these Chinese-language videos are edited to include clips of Black Lives Matter protests, African American street vendors and performers, Black church services, Black actors in TV shows, Black people cleaning the ruins of wildfires, and CCTV footage of in-store thefts (sometimes apparently committed by white people).

In some videos, we also see violence meted out against Black people by US police, like the death by choking of George Floyd, which ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

In all of these cases, though, the time, location, and source of the clips are never cited. All of them seem to agree that the mere sight of a Black face on camera makes it self-evident that a crime is being committed.

The videos claim that theft by African Americans is not considered a crime, but this is a misreading of California’s Proposition 47. The measure, which was passed by a referendum in 2014, recategorized some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. These include shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, and fraud, provided the values involved do not exceed US$950. Misdemeanors are still punishable by six months in jail and a corresponding fine.

The videos claim that theft by African Americans is not considered a crime, but this is a misreading of California’s Proposition 47. 

Proposition 47 is a hallmark policy of judicial reform in California, which aims to take pressure off the state’s overcrowded prisons and address the problems of unfair policing and fines that have not kept pace with inflation. Relevant legal documents and studies are freely available online. But all of this important context is missing from these wildly popular “zero-dollar shopping” videos. Before spreading this “knowledge,” none of the videos’ editors were willing to get to grips with what the “information” and “truth” they so want to disseminate truly are.

“We’ve refuted the rumors in these zero-dollar shopping videos countless times,” Jin Xia tells me as we browse through related articles on Piyaoba.

Over the past year, the website has published nine fact-checking articles on the viral trend. In the explainer “What is ‘Zero-Dollar Shopping?’” the author points out that the term itself is not only inaccurate but discriminatory. The article mentions how racist terms became popular on Chinese-language social media after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, for example translating the Black Lives Matter movement into a statement of the monetary value of Black lives in comparison to other races, and using “zero-dollar shopping” as a mistranslation of “looting.”

This word originally referred to the appropriation of goods during a war, but was later applied to natural disasters, riots, and protests. In the Black Lives Matter movement, “looting” behavior was not really about stealing goods but making a political statement — therefore symbols of authority like police cars were targeted rather than upscale apartment buildings.

But all this complex background information and rich political meaning was erased by applying the term “zero-dollar shopping” across the board.

Piyaoba’s articles quote from a wide variety of legal texts, supplemented by professional interpretations by lawyers and legal scholars and context provided by sociologists and historians. However, the spread of fact-checking content cannot be compared to that of rumors. On WeChat, the clicks articles like these get are nothing compared to fake news on official accounts with hundreds of thousands of click-throughs, not to mention content on Douyin (抖音), China’s TikTok, that gets millions of views.

What’s even more frustrating is that Piyaoba’s official WeChat account has been shut down by the platform. In other words, if you want to read their posts you can only find them through targeted searches. Jin Xia says that WeChat is still the main channel for fake news in Chinese, but Chinese-language Twitter (X), Telegram, YouTube, and Xiaohongshu (小紅書) are all culprits as well.

A video on “zero-dollar shopping” by the China Times (中國時報), a pro-China newspaper in Taiwan.

For Chinese people in North America, the truth is rapidly submerged by the deluge of misinformation in simplified Chinese.

Even though they live in Canada and the United States, where English is the main language, a mix of habits, cultural affinity, and other factors means that they continue to get most of their information from Chinese-language media. Taking New York, where I live, for example, surveys from 2020 show a high proportion of the over 600,000 Chinese in the city are recent immigrants with limited English.

In addition to Chinese-language online media and social media platforms, newspapers run by overseas Chinese have also declined. These were once an important information channel for older Chinese. At a recent gathering of Chinese-language journalists, reporters from the long-established World Journal (世界時報) told me that Chinese-language media in the US were beset with failed digital transformations, poor management, and parent companies reducing their financial investments and marginalizing outlets. With nearly half a century of history, the World Journal once played an important role in relaying information to Chinese communities, but now editorial staff frequently resign and the quality of news is a pale imitation of the past.

At an activity center for elderly Chinese in Brooklyn, I saw staff laying out copies of the World Journal and Sing Tao Daily (星島日報) every day. But when I cracked open the newspapers, I saw just a few thin pages mixed with reems of advertising and promotional material. All that remained was news about community safety.

Copies of the Sing Tao Daily (left) and World Journal (right).

As I was flipping through the paper, an old lady took a copy from in front of me and placed it under her lunch. An elderly gentleman told me he doesn’t usually read the newspaper because “the characters are too small” and he gets most of his information from WeChat posts and videos. He also doesn’t know how to find new WeChat accounts so he just reads whatever turns up in his groups. Most of the articles he showed me were exaggerated or misleading reports.

He told me he believes America is becoming more and more unsafe, and he deliberately avoids black people when he sees them on the streets. He said with absolute certainty that, since the Covid-19 pandemic, street crime has been skyrocketing nationwide. When I asked him where I got this information, he said, “This is what everyone thinks.”

“Who is everyone?” I asked him.

“Everyone!” he said with absolute certainty.

Cozying Up With Right-Wing Groups

In the Chinese-speaking world, a lot of information can be impossible to find.

This is not just a problem for ethnically Chinese people in North America. If you live in mainland China and use Baidu to search for what “zero-dollar shopping” is, the first result will tell you: “In China, robbery constitutes a crime regardless of the amount; but in the US, robbery up to a certain amount is not classified as a crime.”

Of course, most people do not need to deliberately search for “zero-dollar shopping” content. The sheer volume online means they will come across it on every social media platform whether they mean to or not. When I searched for “zero-dollar shopping” and “USA” last December, I got more than 100 million results — articles, videos, satirical cartoons, you name it. These came with titles like “American-Style Robberty is Booming! Black People in America Are Leading the Zero-Dollar Christmas Craze”; “Hilarious! Zero-Dollar Shopping Has Become America’s Biggest Cultural Export”; “Zero-Dollar Shopping is Taking Over America — Could It Be They Have No Laws or Police?”; and “Zero-Dollar Shopping Sweeps the Nation, Anything Under $950 is Up for Grabs.”

For Chinese people in North America, the truth is rapidly submerged by the deluge of misinformation in simplified Chinese.

When I used “California” and “Proposition 47” as search terms, the search results showed 6 million entries — only six percent of the total results returned when searching for “zero-dollar shopping” and “United States.”

Accounts that post videos about “zero dollar shopping” are active across nearly all Chinese social media, from domestic platforms like Douyin, Kuaishou (快手), and WeChat Sights (微信小視頻) to YouTube. Looking at these accounts in detail, their content comes from three sources that appear to have nothing to do with one another and yet have reached a remarkable, if tacit understanding. 

First up are Chinese-language right-wing outlets based in the United States. In an article from the WeChat account Greater LA (大洛杉磯LA), for instance, the author labels a robbery at a luxury store in August 2023 as a case of “zero-dollar shopping.” They say the thief was carefree and felt it was “very safe” to steal from Chinese communities, ultimately linking the incident to Proposition 47. According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times and other local media, however, it was part of a series of retail robberies organized by a criminal group last year that involved million-dollar sums and resulted in numerous fatalities. It was a major case being actively pursued by the LAPD and had nothing to do with the kind of non-violent, first-time crimes valued under $950 that Proposition 47 addresses.

Still, the comments under this article, mocking various policies of the Democratic Party, demonstrate that readers fell for its misinformation hook, line, and sinker. According to a professional fact-checker, Chinese-language media in North America that make posts like this tend to oppose the Chinese Communist Party and support Donald Trump, and the information they share on “zero-dollar shopping” tends to be accompanied by criticisms of the Democrats. These outlets have a limited presence on WeChat, but they can seep into WeChat through YouTube, Chinese-language Twitter, and other social media platforms.

Official PRC media are also passionate about spreading the notion of “zero-dollar shopping.” On Christmas Eve 2021, the Communist Youth League’s official Kuaishou account released a video that paired festive Christmas music with scenes of masked assailants robbing stores and destroying police vehicles, spliced with clips of a speech by US President Joe Biden in which he says that Americans are richer now after the Covid-19 pandemic. Whoever produced the video did not cite the sources for this footage, but we traced some of it back to a November 2021 robbery of a Louis Vuitton store in Illinois. According to reporting by CNN and others, this incident did not take place during Christmas nor even in California. Crucially, it was a highly organized, high-value crime that local police took very seriously. And even if it had taken place in California, the perpetrators in this case would not have received a light sentence.

In August 2023, a comic titled “American-Style ‘Zero-Dollar Shopping’ Won’t Stop!” was published online by China Radio International, part of the China Media Group stable under the direct control of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. In the original Chinese, it shows a group of thieves fleeing in panic, laden with jewelry and luxury goods, while one proclaims confidently, “I’ve done this so many times, there’s nothing I don’t already have!” Underneath, two lines of text relate that “According to CNN and other US media, there have been dozens of ‘flash mob’ robberies at shopping centers and luxury stores in Los Angeles in the past three days. Similar incidents have also occurred beyond California in Washington, New York, and Ohio, causing panic among businesses and the public.” It’s hard to see the logical connection between this and the cartoon, but that didn’t stop major news portals like NetEase (網易) and ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao (今日頭條) from republishing it.

CRI’s cartoon on “zero-dollar shopping.”

While right-wing Chinese-language media in North America mock Democrats for their political correctness and sanctimoniousness, PRC state media poke fun at the superficiality of America’s economic recovery, and commercial Chinese media get clicks by using “zero-dollar shopping” to show how happy and safe life is in the motherland, by contrast.

In January 2024, a video appeared on the Douyin account “Legendary Documentary of the Founding of the Nation” (建國傳奇紀錄片). Titled “They don’t Produce Luxury Goods, They’re Just the Porters for Luxury Goods” (他們不生產奢侈品,他們只是奢侈品的搬運工), it stitches together surveillance camera footage of masked men robbing stores with clips of Black street vendors selling luxury goods, creating an imagined narrative: by night they rob luxury stores and by day they sell the stolen goods to Chinese tourists.

The voice-over is seething with naked racism: “The darker the vendors’ skin,” it says, “the better the goods.” This bizarre video has garnered over half a million shares, 700,000 likes, and hundreds of thousands of supportive comments, mostly from users with Chinese IP addresses. Fang Kecheng (方可成), an Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, wrote in an article that “The stranger the conspiracy theory, the further it spreads. Many official WeChat accounts are now becoming the creators of conspiracy theories. It’s not necessarily that they hate American politicians so much, but posts like this are very likely to break through the 100,000-click threshold.

“The stranger the conspiracy theory, the further it spreads.”

Much of the content published by these types of accounts reaches far and wide, with tens of thousands of views, likes, and comments. Most of the comments demonstrate an unwavering belief in the veracity of “zero-dollar shopping” and adopt a mocking tone. Some spice up the original post with more exaggerated claims, writing that “You can take whatever you want but if you exceed the [monetary] limit you’ll be detained.” Others apply anti-Black sentiment to the Chinese context, predicting that they will “soon have the same in Guangzhou,” which is home to Asia’s largest African migrant population. Many others added unabashedly racist comments like “The Blacks are stocking up again” and “Black purchasing agents offer fair deals to everyone.” A few users expressed doubts about “zero-dollar shopping” but were quickly drowned out by the ridicule of others.

China Fact Check, or Youju (有據), used to be an active fact-checking group in mainland China focused on verifying international news for the Chinese-speaking world. Determining whether or not “zero-dollar shopping” is fake news would have fallen within their area of expertise; but unfortunately, the nonprofit, which took over 50 reader requests for verification daily at its peak, is no longer operational. Founder Wei Xing told me that although the demand for their services was great, he felt like he was doing arduous and thankless work from the group’s start in 2020.

This reason why is simple: in mainland China, independent organizations like Youju that fact-check rumors circulating within and about the country are liable to have their accounts shut down or become subject to repeated questioning. But, on the other hand, “self-media” (自媒體) accounts circulating misinformation about Japan or Ukraine — no matter how preposterous — are left to their own devices, as long as they don’t touch upon matters of diplomacy.

“Spreading fake news about the United States is considered politically correct and is less likely to be censored or shut down,” Wei Xing said.

Owing to various pressures and a lack of financial support, Youju’s WeChat account has gone silent for over a year, while their official website occasionally sees updates from Wei himself. Fact-checking, as he sees it now, has its limits. It’s like an effective medicine you take for a specific condition, he tells me. “When you find an infection you take a dose and bam! — you’ve debunked the misinformation. But when new ailments are coming thick and fast, just relying on medicine isn’t enough anymore.”.

Over in California, fellow fact-checking group Piyaoba has received support from the local Chinese community, but they also face scrutiny from WeChat and struggle to keep pace with the issues they see. On top of that, fact-checkers also have to worry about cyberbullying. During our interview, Jin Xia reminded me many times not to publish the details of accounts posting fake news.

“Why is it that misinformation can be shared so openly while those of us who debunk it have to be so scared?”

When Jin debunked fake news on WeChat concerning an affirmative action bill in 2020, she and her colleagues became targets. She was inundated with malicious messages in Chinese and English in WeChat groups and social media platforms. The worst came one night when her phone buzzed nonstop with constant insults hurled at her in four or five WeChat groups, all directly tagging her handle.

“You can imagine the kinds of abuse aimed at women,” Jin says, clearly reluctant to revisit the experience. “Those disgusting words, posted like [Cultural Revolution-era] big-character posters.” She fell into a pit of anxiety and had trouble sleeping for a long time afterward. “Why is it that misinformation can be shared so openly while those of us who debunk it have to be so scared?” she asks.

Dog-Whistle Politics

During my first few months of tracking “zero-dollar shopping,” I raised the issue with several friends in New York, both Americans and foreigners — but nobody had ever heard of it. After I described the ideas behind it, though, some of them said they believed it. A Russian girl who works as a beautician told me with wide eyes that the “zero-dollar shopping” videos are all true, especially in California. “X [Twitter] has lots of shoplifting videos!” Even though she hadn’t been to California in years, she believed the story. 

When we asked Professor Ian Haney López at the UC Berkeley School of Law if he had heard of “zero-dollar shopping,” he said no. But at the same time, he told us, the content of these Chinese videos is nothing new — similar messaging appears all the time on US right-wing news outlets and social media. 

During our interview with Professor López, we watched a viral video from February 2024 titled “Masked Thief Caught on Video Stealing Dozens of iPhones from California Apple Store.” Published on various platforms by Fox News and its local affiliates, the 45-second clip shows the eponymous thief making off with a large number of phones from a store reportedly located in the city of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area. He passes a police car outside the store but officers do not stop him.

In the Fox News article, local police say that although there was a police car parked near the store at the time, there were no officers inside. The San Francisco Standard reported that police had already arrested a suspect, who was also charged with numerous counts of burglary, larceny, petty theft, and trafficking stolen goods. But these two pieces of information are entirely absent from the now-viral video. It was reposted multiple times on many platforms, with many comments implying that African Americans have an innate preponderance for criminal behavior, while others mock California for being turned into a haven for crime thanks to Democrats’ political correctness.

Professor López points out that the Apple Store in the video is actually in Berkeley, not Oakland, “but Berkeley is an affluent white neighborhood, while the majority of Oakland residents are black,” he says. “There would be more racial tension if people mistakenly thought it happened in Oakland.” This lines up with the confused messaging, racial fixation, and fear-mongering of Chinese “zero-dollar shopping” videos. López explains there has been an abundance of similar rhetoric in the US for the past sixty years. Unlike the blatant racism of the Chinese internet, this kind of content is more adept at using hidden language to talk about racial politics in the United States, with the ultimate goal of garnering white votes.

Since the 1960s, mainstream US politics and public opinion have edged away from overtly racist language. However, right-wing populists within the Republican Party have gradually developed a way to curry favor with white voters by covertly attacking people of color, namely by swapping out one set of racist concepts with another.

In his 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, López analyses this approach in detail, explaining how politicians promise white voters they will be tough on crime, curb illegal immigration, and protect America from Islamic infiltration. White voters come to believe that minorities are the real enemy, but fail to see that the politicians who get their votes actually support lowering taxes for the rich, giving corporations regulatory control over industrial and financial markets, and aggressively cutting social services.

According to López, the most common language used in this approach implies that “some types of people commit more crimes and rely on welfare more than others; some types of people are more likely to be illegal immigrants and illiterate than others; and some types of people from certain religions like violence more and have less respect for life than others.”

Right-wing news outlets like Fox, or right-wing accounts on social media, know this language in intimate detail. In the swathes of crime-related videos they post, which mostly last around ten seconds, viewers don’t see the full story or relevant statistics. They only see suggestive captions, clips, and close-ups, reinforcing stereotypes that people of African descent are criminals, that reform of the justice system condones African American criminality, and that crime has increased in the United States under the Democratic Party post-Covid.

As far as the correlation between race and crime is concerned, criminologists Professor Shaun Gabbidon of Pennsylvania State University and Professor George Higgins of the University of Louisville point out in their book Shopping While Black: Consumer Racial Profiling in America, that whites account for a disproportionate number of shoplifting offenses.

According to data released by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, whites outnumbered blacks in most arrests for various categories of crime. In 2020, whites outnumbered blacks by two-to-one in arrests for property-related crimes. But in both Chinese and English videos on shoplifting and theft, we see — or are made to see — almost exclusively Black offenders.

Inducing people to believe in the supposed “inferiority” of a particular race isn’t just aimed at Black people. Professor López points out there have also been popular dog whistles that demean and discriminate against Chinese people. Most notably, during Covid, Trump kept referring to the virus as the “Chinese flu” or “Wuhan flu.” 

“On the surface,” López explains, “Trump was talking about China-US relations and geopolitics. But in reality, he was talking to the white voters he wanted to win over.” 

The implication was that the Chinese are unhygienic, disease-ridden, and an inferior race. Similar discrimination has, to a certain extent, motivated the Chinese and even the Asian population broadly to support African Americans, with the emergence in recent years of many solidarity groups and movements. However, this information and these discussions are conspicuously missing from the Chinese-language media environment. 

As for the well-publicized spike in crime in the wake of the epidemic, The New York Times, CNBC, NBC, and other mainstream US media outlets have already published stories answering the question, “Is there really a surge in shoplifting in the United States?” The conclusion is that the volume of these crimes is widely overestimated. In fact, retail theft in more than 20 major cities, including San Francisco, declined dramatically during the pandemic and is now merely returning to pre-pandemic levels.

This information comes from a variety of sources: the most recent shoplifting report was from the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, released in November 2023 and based on a survey of 24 major U.S. cities. Others include national crime statistics released by the FBI in 2022 based on police reports from around the country, and a Gallup poll on Americans’ perceptions of the crime rate in their local area over the past few decades.

Zero-Dollar Shopping Goes on Tour

As I tracked Chinese content on ‘“zero-dollar shopping” and its English-language doppelgangers, I slowly came to understand the connection between the two. Just as my investigation was about to end, I realized that this absurd idea of “zero-dollar shopping” had already come full circle and landed back in America’s own English-language discourse.

On a popular Subreddit with over 4 million followers called “No Stupid Questions,” a Taiwanese Redditor asked fellow users on the American social network: “What do you think of California’s ‘Zero-dollar shopping?’”

He explained that he had seen this issue covered by the press in Taiwan and was aghast. To explain “zero-dollar shopping” to English speakers, he quoted from two Taiwanese outlets. The first, an article from United Daily News’s (聯合報) UDN Global site, was titled “Good Intentions Gone Bad? Zero-Dollar Shopping Demonstrates the Consequences of Bad Lawmaking.” The second, from the Want Want Group’s Commercial Times (工商時報), bore the headline “The Real-Life Sin City! Why is ‘Zero-dollar shopping’ Devastating America’s Retail Profits?”. Both newspaper groups are known for their conservative, pro-China, and increasingly US-skeptic politics.

The main thrust of the UDN article is a critique of California’s judicial reforms. The article begins with the observations that, “In the past few years, many American chains like Target, Walmart, Apple, CVS Pharmacy have experienced so-called ‘zero-dollar shopping.’ This does not refer to huge discounts but to people simply waltzing out of the store, shopping carts full, without paying.”

The author then inserts a hyperlink under “zero-dollar shopping” to the phrase’s Chinese-language Wikipedia entry. When you open up the page and scroll down to its citations, there are 21 sources — but not even one is from an English-language media outlet or research institute. Instead,it cites a variety of mainland Chinese sites like the official Xinhua News Agency. Additionally, the two case studies in the Taiwanese articles are the same as the fake news content we noted earlier. It confuses the type of crimes and the financial sums.

At time of publication, only five Redditors have responded to this thread. They all admit they have never heard of the term “zero-dollar shopping.”  One user commented, “‘Zero-dollar shopping’ was invented by mainland Chinese web users and is very politically tinged.” Another user added, “If you search for ‘shoplifting’ in America, you will find a ton of videos and news. It is the same as what you posted. It definitely exists in America and the numbers are rising.”

At this point, “zero-dollar shopping” has emerged as a uniquely imaginative piece of translation. From the United States, it arrived in mainland China, wandered over to Taiwan, and then finally, through Chinese-English translation, returned to its home soil, completing a ludicrous round-the-world journey.

This story by writer Liu Yi (劉怡) and Initium journalist Yang Jing (楊靜) was originally published in Chinese at Initium, and was translated by CMP staff.

Confessions of a Han Chinese Woman

The following essay, published by Initium on December 4, 2022, was part of a series of reports on the so-called “white-paper protests” in Shanghai that grew out of defiance over China’s stringent lockdown policies. The protests followed the tragic death on November 24 of at least 10 people who were trapped – possibly due in part to Covid-related lockdown measures — as a fire broke out in a high-rise apartment block in Urumqi, the capital of the far western Xinjiang region. All of the victims of the fire, including 9 others who were injured, were members of the Uyghur ethnic group, which since 2017 has faced a repressive crackdown.

The essay, written by an unidentified Han woman, is also part of an extended series at Initium called, “Does A Woman Have No Country?” (女人沒有國家?), edited by Fu Yuxin (符雨欣), which explores the relationship between women and the state.

A full translation of the essay follows. 

Victims Turned into Symbols

During the wave of protests against lockdowns in China, I took part in a candlelight vigil overseas for the victims of the fire in Urumqi. And at the event, I was filled with guilt and despair. I had the profound feeling that night that as a Han Chinese, I was a Chinese White.

I understand, of course, that such acts of resistance are rare in China, and that I should praise and cherish the opportunity. But I felt even more that this movement of resistance ignited by the Urumqi fire, which had spread from the streets of Shanghai across the world, could not provoke or achieve real unity until the slogan “Free the Uyghurs!” was shouted. Without that, it didn’t matter how often we shouted for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to step down.

A Symbolic Memorial

This vigil I attended was much like other commemorations taking place overseas that I had seen online. It was about expressing support for the resistance movement inside China by remembering the victims of the Urumqi fire. There were quite a few people attending, and everyone brought along candles, fresh flowers, and blank sheets of paper. At the event, everyone shouted with indignation the slogan that had been draped across the Sitong Bridge in Beijing. Messages were placed among the candles and fresh flowers, opposing the lockdown, opposing authoritarianism, and calling for freedom — but there were just a few photos of the victims.

People in the crowd shouted for the peace of the deceased, but I had no idea how many actually knew for whom they were mourning, or how many people knew that every one of the victims was Uyghur, or how many people knew that five people from one family had perished in the fire — [a Uyghur mother and four of her children] — and that the father and older brother had been held in concentration camps since 2017.

Of course, this ignorance of the identities of the dead is rooted in the way the Chinese government turns victims into numbers, refusing to release their identities. Even searching for information on the victims is criminalized in China. But as people whose purpose in attending the vigil was to remember, was it not possible for us to find what little we could online — to truly and authentically remember? In this anti-totalitarian protest for freedom, the Uyghurs who perished in the fire had become symbols.

It is hard to describe the feeling of shame and uneasiness I felt in that moment of realization.

A ‘Uyghur Lives Matter’ poster at a solidarity protest in the US.

I had no business disparaging other protesters or the organizers. After all, I too was exploiting the Uyghur dead in a symbolic sense. During those days when I had nursed my anger over the Urumqi fire and felt invigorated by the mass resistance unfolding in China, I had never taken it upon myself to find out who the victims actually were. Before the vigil, I had thought only of taking along a blank sheet of paper. It hadn’t even occurred to me to print out and take along photos of the deceased. It was only before the vigil too that I realized I didn’t really know who we were mourning, and only after an internet search did I discover all the victims were Uyghurs. It was from the Uyghur blogger Abduweli Ayup that I first learned about the fate of the father and eldest son who had lost five family members in the fire.

The victims in Urumqi are not just those who suffered or died under Covid lockdown policies, like those victims who died in the Guizhou bus crash in September. Even more, the Uyghur victims in Urumqi are those who have suffered under the policy of ethnic cleansing.

How could Han people have the gall to refer to Uyghurs as their brethren? For so many years, the vast majority of Han Chinese had turned a blind eye to the tragic experiences of their brethren as they faced ethnic cleansing.

It was also as I was grappling with these things that I became aware of the fact that many posters and slogans we shouted mentioned our “brethren” (同胞). How could Han people have the gall to refer to Uyghurs as their brethren? For so many years, the vast majority of Han Chinese had turned a blind eye to the tragic experiences of their brethren as they faced ethnic cleansing. Now, with an eye to their own freedom, they had begun shouting “brethren.”

It was just as Nyrola, another Uyghur blogger, wrote — that once the lockdowns had ended, Han Chinese could simply “move on.” But what of the injustices suffered by the Uyghurs locked up in concentration camps these past five years? Who would release them? Yes, exactly. Once lockdown policies had been relaxed and Han people had stepped out from behind their containment fences, would they still remember their Uyghur “brethren” in the concentration camps?

On my way to the vigil that night, I made up my mind. I would shout the slogan, “Close the concentration camps!” I realized that if I did not speak up for the Uyghurs at a vigil being held in the name of remembering Uyghur victims, this would be inhuman.

In the tide of shame that overwhelmed me, I mustered up the courage to shout as many times as I could. The crowd followed suit. I also shared the story of the family of five that I knew, and there were expressions of outrage.

“Close the concentration camps!” I shouted.

But it didn’t make me feel any better. That night, I knew something about the family of those five victims, but I knew nothing about any of the other victims. I didn’t even know their names. I still had no idea who I was commemorating. Authoritarian government control is built on the foundation of dehumanization. But here too an event opposing authoritarian rule was using victims as slogans and symbols of protest. And it is precisely for this reason — because there are no concrete people, and no Uyghurs, to be seen — that anti-totalitarian protests like this actually encourage and even foster Han-centrism and oppression of the Uyghurs.

I shouted for the closure of the concentration camps, but I still felt no better. To not go, and to not shout these slogans and make my voice heard would have been wrong. But for me as a Han Chinese to shout, “Close the concentration camps!” at such an event without the presence of Uyghur voices — that also felt wrong.

I felt an indescribable sense of hypocrisy. At that moment, I felt like a white person at a rally of white people chanting “Black Lives Matter!” — or like a white man at an all-male rally chanting for women’s rights.

All in one moment, I faced a truth, at last, that I had always evaded. As a Han woman, and as a feminist who had long faced suppression, I had never considered that I might enjoy special privileges in China. I had identified as one of the oppressed. But I could not deny that as a Han Chinese, as a Han person who had long known of the tragedy facing the Uyghurs but had turned away and remained silent, I was privileged, and I was the persecutor.

The Violence of Unity

A few days ago, I saw a widely forwarded manifesto on the internet about non-division (不分化宣言), and I heard many people saying they want to acknowledge different political demands — in the spirit, probably, of seeking common ground while setting aside differences. I can’t agree with such a view. In my opinion, it’s not true that if we all oppose totalitarian rule we will avoid being divided and will therefore be able to build solidarity.

In particular, we cannot view the appeals of Han people and Uyghurs simply as reflecting different political aspirations. Saying such a thing means entertaining the illusion of equality between Han and Uyghurs, and it obscures the oppressive power relationship between Han and Uyghurs.

The unity many people are talking about now is a unity created forcibly by the Han people as they take up their own demands and interests… it is violence in the name of unity.

A few days ago, I saw a comment shared by Zhang Chenchen that I felt put it quite rightly: “China is a Han supremacist state. Han people’s solidarity with Xinjiang has to be built based on this realization.” Only by acknowledging this Han-centric oppression, only by acknowledging this division, can there be true unity. The unity many people are talking about now is a unity created forcibly by the Han people as they take up their own demands and interests. To put it more harshly, it is violence in the name of unity.

Since this movement began, I’ve personally encountered a lot of Han-centrism overseas (largely from men). Many protesters have been courageous enough to chant slogans about Xi Jinping and the Communist Party stepping down, but there is strong opposition to the flag of East Turkestan. Many people even openly distributed an imperialist-style anti-secession declaration. This is not an isolated case. A friend of mine even attended an event where she spent the whole night arguing with the anti-secessionist men.

In situations like this, it’s not possible to simply say in a conciliatory manner that we have differing political aspirations. We absolutely must acknowledge that the political aspirations of many Han Chinese are oppressive political aspirations. Here, I’m referring not just to the openly anti-secessionist Han supremacists. I think the larger problem with this movement is that it acknowledges that the Uyghur people are oppressed, but at the same time, whether intentionally or unintentionally, ignores this fact in the movement itself. This sort of behavior is a form of more concealed, and yet more dangerous, violence.

Many people are aware of the situation in Xinjiang and support the demands of the Uyghurs. The problem is that many Han Chinese unconsciously feel that closing the camps should be a demand made by the Uyghurs. After I had shouted several times for the closure of the camps, someone asked me if I was from Xinjiang.

The question was well-intentioned, but behind it lay a subconscious assumption: that only Xinjiang people could care about Xinjiang.

I also heard this sort of argument: that it is important to speak out for the Uyghurs because the Uyghur present is the future of the Han Chinese, and that speaking out for the Uyghurs is also speaking out for ourselves. As a political mobilization strategy, such an idea has some merit. But it is also highly problematic. The subtext here is that the Han speak for the freedom of the Han and the Uyghurs speak for the freedom of the Uyghurs — and only when the fate of the Uyghurs touches on the fate of the Han do the latter need to speak up for the former. The majority of people are still focused on speaking out against dictatorship and against the lockdowns, and the problems of the Uyghurs are actually marginalized.

I want to emphasize here that for the Han Chinese, Uyghur freedom and human rights should not be a secondary demand of this movement. Rather, it should be the main demand of this movement. In the 1970s, there was a black women’s rights organization in the United States called the Combahee River Collective, which once said: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” At the bottom of the pyramid of oppression created by imperialism is the black woman, and only when the black woman is free will all people be free. Only under such circumstances is the system of oppression completely destroyed.

Members of the Black feminist lesbian organization the Combahee River Collective marched in Boston against police brutality in 1980. Image from The History Project

Conversely, no one else’s freedom over that of black women can bring about the freedom of black women. Moreover, the freedom of white women is quite possibly based on the foundation of the oppression of black women.

By the same token, it must be recognized that in China today, with its political regime, the supposed notion of the Chinese nation (中華民族) is based on the oppression of minority groups, including the Uyghurs. If Han Chinese protesters today believe that all people should be equal and free, then they should shout the slogan, “Free the Uyghurs!”

If we stop at opposition against lockdowns or limit ourselves to fighting for the freedom of the Han Chinese, then this freedom still presupposes the oppression of minorities. In this situation, I don’t think there can be differing opinions, or seeking common ground while reserving differences — because these demands are not “differences” of equality, but rather a relationship of oppressing and being oppressed.

When the Chinese Communist Party itself began the revolution, it too set its sights on “great liberation” (大解放). But in the fact of differing demands, so-called, the Party proposed class liberation as the chief one, after which other demands, such as women’s liberation, would follow. But history and reality tell us this is not how things go. If there continues to be a predominance of the majority in these anti-totalitarian protests, or violence by the majority against minorities, then victory could only mean the replacement of one oppressive regime with another.

Never has there been such a thing as the “Chinese” (中國人), or just “us” (我們). The movement should stand not with the Chinese, but rather with the Uyghurs. It should stand all minorities in Xinjiang, with the most, with all minority groups in Xinjiang, with the people who are most oppressed.

Seeing People for Who They Are

The anger that shouts, “Step down, Communist Party! Step down, Xi Jinping!” is plain, precious and courageous. But this anger needs to go further. If all it can see is the Communist Party and Xi Jinping, then it is a cheap form of anger. Many people have voiced their emotions at rallies. I too have felt moved by the courage of the people who took to the streets in China, as I have been by supporters overseas. But in such emotions, I cannot see a future.

As a feminist, this is not the first time I have felt this way. My mind is filled with vehemence at the beating incident in Tangshan, and the woman chained in Xuzhou. Anger like that can be valuable, but what happens afterward? There are many men among those who spoke up in the case of Tangshan and Xuzhou. Do these men understand that these cases of gender violence that anger them have the same roots as the sexual harassment that is so common in our lives? Do they realize that they are the beneficiaries, and even the oppressors, of a patriarchal society? If we do not question the social and cultural structures that lie behind, how far can our anger at the perpetrators of violence really take us?

Consider for just a moment the inspiring nationalist struggles against colonialism that unfolded around the world in the early 20th century. Is the world a better place now? Are the people of the world free? Nationalism is the ghost of imperialism. For feminists, treating Xi Jinping and the Communist Party as enemies may be a short-term strategic approach, but treating Xi Jinping and the Communist Party as the ultimate enemy is short-sighted and wrong. We have bigger fish to fry.

Nationalism is the ghost of imperialism… treating Xi Jinping and the Communist Party as enemies may be a short-term strategic approach, but treating Xi Jinping and the Communist Party as the ultimate enemy is short-sighted and wrong.

So I believe that in this and possible future protests, we should no longer train our eyes only on China or the country. We should stop asking what the future of this country is. And we should stop taking the current nation-state as the foundation of our demands. We must see the people. We must see concrete human beings. We must ask ourselves what kind of movement and revolution can make people free, can make people equal. Seeing human beings for who they are is the weapon we can use to defeat dehumanizing regimes and cultures. Seeing human beings for who they are should also be the ultimate goal of the movement. Seeing human beings for who they are, and seeing the differences in people, is the basis of true solidarity.

As a Han Chinese feminist, I am well aware of the brutal tactics of this regime. Even for Han Chinese outside of China, attending any sort of commemoration event can be dangerous. This article is not meant to deny the oppression and suffering of ordinary Han Chinese. Nor is it meant to deny the courage of the ordinary people who took to the streets at home and abroad (especially at home). Nor is it meant to make everyone rush to the barricades. We have heard a great deal already about the beating of protesters in China after their arrests. Many of them have not been heard from and are still missing. I just believe it’s important that we reflect on the movement before us and as it unfolds in the future, and that we recognize the power issues that exist in the movement itself.

I hope those overseas protesters who are already bravely chanting, “Down with the Xi Communist Party!” and those social media accounts that are providing slogans for the protesters, can also add, “Close the concentration camps in Xinjiang!” to their demands. 

As for others, if there is no way for you to stand up, then please start seeing them as concrete human beings. Start by learning about the Uyghur victims in Urumqi. Learn their names and stories. Because of the powerful nature of China’s propaganda machine, many Han Chinese in China do not know or even acknowledge the existence of the concentration camps in Xinjiang. If more people come together to see specific people, perhaps they can help open this black box of information.

If you cannot speak out publicly for the Uyghurs, please at least pay attention to Xinjiang and to the Uyghurs. There have been many media reports about their stories and their hardships, and these are easily searchable. There is the Xinjiang Victims Database and the Xinjiang Documentation Project, both websites where you can see their individual stories. If a protest is being held in mourning, then truly mourn them, and invite Uyghurs and other minorities who are willing to speak to do so. This is something the rally in New York City on October 29th did really well.

Slogans, symbols, and political demands are not as important as individual experiences and stories. Please listen more to the stories and voices of Uyghurs. Pay more attention to other minority groups — and listen to their voices.

I See You Now

After I returned from the memorial service, I tried to find the names of some of the victims that I knew so far.

Kamarnisahan Abdulrahman with her children Shehide, Abdurahman and Nehdiye.

A tweet by blogger Abduweli Ayup, and a CNN report on the relatives of the deceased provided additional information about some of the victims, including the five family members who died on the 19th floor: 

  1. Kamarnisahan Abdulrahman (mother)
  2. Shehide, 13
  3. Imran, 11
  4. Abdurrahman, 9
  5. Nehdiye, 5

The father and the oldest son are currently in a concentration camp in Xinjiang. According to CNN, the father’s name is Ali Matniyaz and the son’s name is Yiliyas Abudulrahman; according to a tweet from Abduweli Ayup, the father’s name is Eli Metniyaz and the son’s name is Ilyas Eli. The family’s oldest daughter and son, Sharapat Mohamad Ali and Mohamad, who are currently living in Turkey, have spoken out through overseas media and asked people to listen to their voices.

Among the victims was also Elzat Eziz, age 14, and his 21-year-old sister, her surname unknown. And there was Gulbahar and her two children.

Humar Isaac, a Uyghur blogger now living in Sweden. 

Concerning the number of people killed in the fire, the official number is 10. But I have seen reports that as many as 40 may have died. In China’s machinery of violence, there may be very little you can do. Someone surnamed “Su” from Urumqi’s Shuimogou District was detained by authorities the day after the fire for questioning the death toll. But at the very least we can continue to pay attention — to pay attention to information about the victims, about “Su” in detention, about the voices of family members, about Uyghurs who survived the fire.

A few days ago, I read another post on the internet that called on Han Chinese to pay attention to the Xinjiang issue. Because there was no link to the article, only text, I’m unsure of the source — and apologize for that. But at the end of the post, there was a passage included from “Facing the Xinjiang Crisis, What an Ordinary Person Can Do in 2020,” an article by the Uyghur blogger Humar Issac. The passage moved me, and I share it with you here:

You don’t have to write a heartfelt confession. You don’t have to write something to thorough that no one from the extreme left to the extreme right can find any fault in what you say. All we want is to be seen. Because we’ve been invisible for so long, and because being seen can actually improve the situation of at least some of the victims. So all you have to say is, “I see, I see you now.” That’s good enough. Will we meet where there is no darkness? I don’t know. And to be honest, I don’t really care. All I care about is that today, right now, we see each other’s glow from a distance, we see each other.

I see you. I see you now.

Eight Long Hours of Silence

“At all media, there is an unwritten rule that you don’t do negative news in Beijing, and that all [media] leaders must be politically conscious,” says Wu Li (吴黎), a journalist who has worked in the profession for more than five years, focusing mainly on society news.

At around 9 PM on Tuesday this week, an official news bulletin about a fire at Beijing’s Changfeng Hospital (长峰医院) began circulating on social media from the Beijing Daily, the official organ of the city’s leadership, accompanied by the sharing on social media of a video of the fire taken by a local resident. But aside from these posts, it was difficult to track down further information about the fire online.

Seeing the news bulletin, local journalists hurried to the scene and to other hospitals where patients had been transferred. As they set to work, they were also asking a question that puzzled and shocked many city residents: How was it that the fire had broken out at 1 PM that afternoon, eight hours earlier, but there had been a complete news vacuum for that entire time?

In an era when anyone can witness and communicate information, how was it that there had been not a drop of news prior to the official bulletin?

In those first hours of catch-up, the priority was getting the story out, so this question had to wait. Before long, the first images started coming out from Caixin and other mainstream media organizations on the scene.

How was it that the fire had broken out at 1 PM that afternoon, eight hours earlier, but there had been a complete news vacuum for that entire time?

By Wednesday afternoon (April 19), a flood of reporting had emerged from such media outlets as China Youth Daily, Lifeweek, and Caijing. All of these media had worked through the night to tackle the story from different angles — focusing on the families of the victims, the issue of fire prevention at medical facilities, or background reports on the Changfeng Hospital.

On Wednesday afternoon, reporters from a number of media also told Initium there seemed to be no restrictions on reporting for the time being.

But then, late Wednesday night, about 24 hours after the initial news release from Beijing Daily, a journalist informed Initium that restrictions were now in place.

Eyewitnesses Silent

Among the 10 journalists and contacts at social media platforms reached by Initium, no one could explain why there had been an eight-hour delay in reporting the story of the Changfeng Hospital fire. However, there were various guesses based on the information they had available. Some thought it was purely accidental, while others supposed there had been a reporting ban. Others surmised that social media platforms had altered the way restrictions were applied and information censored, effectively stopping the story in its tracks.

The official news bulletin posted at 9 PM by Beijing Daily.

Like other journalists reporting this breaking story, Zhang Qing (张晴) arrived on the scene later at night on Tuesday, April 18.

When Zhang asked local residents close to the hospital whether they had known about the fire, the answer each time was “I don’t know, I was at work.” The scene of the fire, said Zhang Qing, was about two or three kilometers away from the nearest subway station at Liuli Bridge, and quite far from the nearest residential area. The fire had started sometime after noon, and people were likely at work or on their lunch breaks. Because the fire was extinguished within 30 minutes, the smoke likely did not last long enough to attract a great deal of attention.

“Another factor is the relatively strong sense of political consciousness among Beijing people,” Zhang Qing explained. “The strict security that comes along with the annual Two Sessions [in March] and the presence of police on the streets doing ID checks and so on cause everyone to internalize this sort of censorship. That might also be why there weren’t so many people filming or posting videos.”

However, Wu Li (吴黎), another journalist who visited the scene, had different information. Wu also learned of the fire from the official Beijing Daily bulletin. Like other colleagues in the media, he was “shocked and ashamed” by the situation. So even though his editors did not greenlight the idea of a story on the fire, he went to the scene to report.

In a video distributed around the same time as the Beijing Daily news release on Tuesday night, people could be seen escaping through the windows of their hospital rooms, some squatting on the air conditioning units mounted on the wall. The video, which also was posted to Twitter, showed a drone hovering outside the hospital and blaring the message: “Stay calm and wait for help!” The video was viewed more than 100,000 times on Chinese social media before it was finally deleted.

A neighborhood resident told Wu Li that a lot of people in his building had taken videos around noon on Tuesday, but these were deleted as soon as they were posted in chatrooms.

Several years ago during the National Day holiday, said Wu Li, a gruesome murder had occurred in a remote village in China and the local government had used a truck with an internet signal jammer to block all communication while they deleted the photos and videos taken by villagers. This time, a deadly fire had occurred in the capital city of Beijing, and there hadn’t been a shred of information. Perhaps this signaled the growing sophistication of the means of controlling information. “In the past, at least you could see fragments of information,” said Wu.

Seams Tightening at Social Platforms

One writer commenting through WeChat used the phrase “terrifying silence” to describe the sense of quiet on social media surrounding the Changfeng Hospital fire. Many people wondered whether the content review system on social platforms might have been silently upgraded. Andy, an employee at a video platform in China, told Initium that all content on his platform is first filtered through an automated censorship system (机器审查).

“A number of sensitive keywords will first be preset and there is also image recognition, for example for certain bloody or violent images, fires, and so on. If the machine detects these, it will not release the video or will push it on for manual review.” This step, said Andy, is what they refer to as the “bottom-line review,” which is used to determine whether something is vulgar or has to do with political or security matters.

The review process is both strict and meticulous, Andy said. He cited the example of a previously reviewed short video in which one frame, if you zoomed in several degrees, included a book on a bookshelf with a sensitive title. This sort of video, too, is routinely screened and rejected.

“In the past, at least you could see fragments of information.”

Wu Li, a local Beijing journalist.

Taking news scene material as an example, Andy explained that if someone on the manual review side noticed someone had posted a video of a fire, they would mark this to see whether there were similar videos in the backend. If videos of this kind seemed to be concentrated, a submission would be made to a higher level of review. The platform was extremely sensitive to news scene videos of this kind posted by users, he said, and would tend to be “conservative — very conservative.”

“The basic principle is to deal as little as possible with news,” Andy said. “Even if a video passes the censorship process, it will be subjected to a new round of censorship if it attracts significant traffic. “The hotter the video, the more stringent the censorship standards become.”

Regulators, he added, had previously penalized his platform for certain news events, resulting in substantial commercial losses. As a result, the platform was not eager to become the source of breaking news. Therefore, there was sure also to be direct communication between the platform’s internal censorship department and the Cyberspace Administration of China.

If a story has already become a major news topic, then the platform’s censorship process becomes relatively simple by comparison, he explained. In such cases, it is simply a matter of setting certain keyword restrictions and parameters for key images, so that when users search for information, they can see only content released by government departments and state-run media outlets — and cannot see videos from the scene posted by ordinary users.

“I’m certain that at the time people did take a video of the fire [at Changfeng Hospital] but there was no way for anyone to come across them,” said Andy.  He added that when some major society news breaks, another tactic used by the platform is to instead direct traffic to entertainment news posted by marketing accounts, which serves to distract attention away from sensitive news.

Andy’s account is corroborated by the response to the Changfeng Hospital fire on social media platforms in China.

The earliest information that can be found on Weibo was posted at 5:54 PM on Tuesday (April 18), when netizen @SKYsky93258 posted that “Changfeng Hospital is on fire” and included images of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances lining the road. To date, the post has been reposted by just one person and has received 0 comments.

The charred face of Changfeng Hospital after the blaze.

At around 6:30 PM, a video of the fire was finally posted to social media but was quickly deleted. Some local media such as BTime (@北京时间) and other local Beijing media re-posted the story, but their videos were later removed. One of these local media, Beijing Dafengfeng (北京大峰峰), is currently under suspension and prohibited from posting content, its last posts dating to April 19. The earliest thread on the fire on Weibo, “Beijing Changfeng Hospital catches fire, people escape to outside air conditioning units,” is no longer available.

The topic “29 Killed in Beijing Changfeng Hospital fire” finally trended its way to Weibo’s Hot Search list at around 12:33 PM on Wednesday, just after the Beijing government press conference. Information about the fire inundated social media such as Weibo, Douyin, and Kuaishou, but this was mostly repetitive information from official sources and it was difficult to find video from the time of the incident.

Silence Reigns Before the Ban

“In nearly all breaking incidents in the past, the government was mostly on the back foot,” Wu Li said. “It was only after the story broke through other media or through social media accounts that they passively responded and released official bulletins.”

He recalls that when he started working as a journalist his older colleagues would tell him how, 10 years earlier, it was only after reports came out that the authorities would step in and apply censorship. But this time, Wu Li was able to pitch the story to editors only after seeing the official bulletin — and still the story idea was vetoed.

Wu Li also remembers that when a fire broke out in a housing block in Beijing’s Daxing District in November 2017, a ban came down shortly afterward. But commercial media and social media accounts were able nonetheless to make a commotion before things finally quieted down. “The technology of official censorship has improved, and bans can now be applied much sooner,” he said. “This has resulted in an oddly distorted phenomenon: the authorities can block all information at the source, and only later release an authoritative official bulletin.”

In fact, in the general process of news reporting, social media is just one of a number of sources from which journalists can learn about breaking news. Human sources at hospitals and other facilities have often been the first sources of news stories and other information. But as more experienced journalists have left the profession, and as sources with the system become fearful of speaking up and “having an impact on public opinion,” these human sources have been cut off. Media with message boards and hotlines for information are also adhering tightly to “official information only” (只转官方消息) policies, which means that news increasingly relies on the official social media accounts of the government, the fire services, and the police.

And so the process has now become one in which those media with a sense of responsibility for reporting the news can only wait for disaster stories to reach the top and then be reported through official bulletins, after which they can seize on a brief window of time to produce their own content.

According to one source, the fire was reported to the fire services at noon on Wednesday, April 18. The owner of a nearby store posted about the fire in a WeChat group later that afternoon, and was puzzled that he hadn’t seen any press coverage. Finally, the news reported in the media was sourced from the official bulletin from Beijing Daily. Why had it taken so long? Perhaps it was an internal effort to tally casualty figures and rate the incident. In any case, the exact circumstances remain unconfirmed.

In addition, the haze caused by this ban may have prevented journalists from breaking through in time.

“Over the past two years there’s been the vague sense of a ban,” said Zhang Yan, a reporter for a local newspaper in a southern province. This has subliminally influenced how media react to breaking news. “The eight-hour vacuum may not necessarily be related to the ban but everyone has the ban in their minds,” says Zhang. “Can they cover Beijing news? Are they allowed to go to the scene?”

It was an hour after seeing the official bulletin and noticing public sentiment percolate that Zhang asked the editorial department if they wanted him to follow up on the story.

At first, there was no response. Only the following morning did they finally relent, noting that they hadn’t yet received an outright ban on the story. A few hours later, Zhang was advised to “pay attention to the extent” (注意尺度) — [meaning to remain within the bounds and not broach sensitive issues] — as well as the direction of reporting. He was told, for example, that he could speak with eyewitnesses, survivors, and victims’ families but was not permitted to speculate on the cause of the blaze nor to focus on why it took eight hours for an official notice to be issued. Zhang wanted to go report from the scene but his superiors shot this down, worried he may attract the attention of authorities.

Zhang says that a journalist friend in Beijing experienced similar difficulties. He missed the chance to report live on the story because he was worried about a ban and assumed the site would be cordoned off. He woke up the next morning filled with regret.

At the same time, it is clear that the threat of bans and censorship lingers at many moments in the development of the story when information breakthroughs might be possible. Some interviewees told Zhang their phones had been confiscated as soon as they escaped from the burning building. Others left their phones behind in the panic. Zhang suggests this may have been one of the reasons for the eight-hour delay. In the final draft of his news story, the detail about phones being confiscated was erased. So, too, was any mention of how people had been forced to jump from windows to escape.

Within the media, the means of censorship are legion — including the designation of “sensitive word” lists. Certain events or people are deemed untouchable if they include keywords associated with reporting bans. These bans can persist for as little as a month, or as long as several years.

“In a city of 20 million people, it’s miraculous that everyone had to wait until that night to learn about the fire from an official release,” said Lüqiu Luwei, a media scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. “This kind of strategy must have developed and matured during the pandemic.”


In the aftermath of the fire, victims and other injured parties at Changfeng were moved to other nearby hospitals, and officials said at a briefing on Wednesday that they had deployed staff to set up a special team for the 29 victims. This tactic was used in the past to deal with the families of mine disaster victims in China, and it has been used by officials around the world to deal with major emergencies. After the China Eastern Airlines crash in March 2022, a similar special team was set up to deal with victims’ families.

Zhang Yan said that the interviewees at Changfeng Hospital seemed more cautious than usual this time, and demanded three separate times to check his journalist credentials. “When checking into people before, they were never so nervous,” he said.

Outside the intensive care unit at one of the transfer hospitals, Wu Li saw staff following victims’ relatives with flowers in their hands. One family member whispered to Wu: “Our relatives are dying and they’re holding flowers to preserve stability. It’s shameless. There were other family members who didn’t want the flowers and threw them away, then the staff picked them up again and gave them to this family.”

This article originally appeared in Chinese at Initium Media. The names of all interviewees have been changed as per their request.