Ghost World

by Darren Byler

In northwest China, the state is using technology to pioneer a new form of terror capitalism.

A checkpoint in Xinjiang. Photo by Darren Byler.

In mid-2017, a Uyghur man in his twenties, whom I will call Alim, went to meet a friend for lunch at a mall in his home city, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. At a security checkpoint at the entrance, Alim scanned the photo on his government-issued identification card, and presented himself before a security camera equipped with facial recognition software. An alarm sounded. The security guards let him pass, but within a few minutes he was approached by officers from the local “convenience police station,” one of the thousands of rapid-response police stations that have been built every 200 or 300 meters in the Turkic Muslim areas of the region. The officers took him into custody.

Alim’s heart was racing. Several weeks earlier, he had returned to China from studying abroad. As soon as he landed back in the country, he was pulled off the plane by police officers responding to a nationwide warrant for his arrest. He was told his trip abroad meant that he was now under suspicion of being “unsafe.” The police then administered what they call a “health check,” which involves collecting several types of biometric data, including DNA, blood type, fingerprints, voice signature and face signature—a process which all adults in Xinjiang are expected to undergo. (According to China's official news agency, Xinhua, nearly 36 million people submitted biometric data through these “health checks,” a number which is higher than the estimated 24.5 million people who have official residency in the region.) Then they transported him to one of the hundreds of detention centers that dot northwest China.

Over the past five years, these centers have become an important node in China’s technologically driven “People’s War on Terror.” Officially launched by the Xi Jinping administration in 2014, this war supposedly began as a response to Uyghur mass protests—themselves born out of desperation over decades of discrimination, police brutality, and the confiscation of Uyghur lands—and to attacks directed against security forces and civilians who belong to the Han ethnic majority. In the intervening period, the Chinese government has come to treat almost all expressions of Uyghur Islamic faith as signs of potential religious extremism and ethnic separatism under vaguely defined anti-terrorism laws; the detention centers are the first stop for those suspected of such crimes. Since 2017 alone, more than 1 million Turkic Muslims have moved through these centers.

At the center to which he had been sent, Alim was deprived of sleep and food, and subjected to hours of interrogation and verbal abuse. “I was so weakened through this process that at one point during my interrogation I began to laugh hysterically,” he said when we spoke. Other detainees report being placed in stress positions, tortured with electric shocks, and submitted to long periods of isolation. When he wasn’t being interrogated, Alim was kept in a fourteen-square-meter cell with twenty other Uyghur men, though cells in some detention centers house more than sixty people. Former detainees have said they had to sleep in shifts because there was not enough space for everyone to stretch out at once. “They never turn out the lights,” Mihrigul Tursun, a Uyghur woman who spent several months in detention, told me.

The religious and political transgressions of these detainees were frequently discovered through social media apps on their smartphones, which Uyghurs are required to produce at thousands of checkpoints around Xinjiang. Although there was often no real evidence of a crime according to any legal standard, the digital footprint of unauthorized Islamic practice, or even an association to someone who had committed one of these vague violations, was enough to land Uyghurs in a detention center. Maybe their contact number had been in the list of WeChat followers in another detainee’s phone. Maybe they had posted, on their WeChat wall, an image of a Muslim in prayer. It could be that in years past they had sent or received audio recordings of Islamic teachings that the Public Security Bureau, which polices social life in China, deems “ideological viruses”: the sermons and lessons of so-called “wild” imams, who have not been authorized by the state. Maybe they had a relative who moved to Turkey or another Muslim-majority country and added them to their WeChat account using a foreign number. The mere fact of having a family member abroad, or of traveling outside China, as Alim had, often resulted in detention.

Not using social media could also court suspicion. So could attempting to destroy a SIM card, or not carrying a smartphone. Unsure how to avoid detention when the crackdown began, some Uyghurs buried old phones in the desert. Others hid little baggies of used SIM cards in the branches of trees, or put SD cards containing Islamic texts and teachings in dumplings and froze them, hoping they could eventually be recovered. Others gave up on preserving Islamic knowledge and burned data cards in secret. Simply throwing digital devices into the garbage was not an option; Uyghurs feared the devices would be recovered by the police and traced back to the user. Even proscribed content that was deleted before 2017 —when the Public Security Bureau operationalized software that uses artificial intelligence to scour millions of social media posts per day for religious imagery—can reportedly be unearthed.

Most Uyghurs in the detention centers are on their way to serving long prison sentences, or to indefinite captivity in a growing network of massive internment camps which the Chinese state has described as “transformation through education” facilities. These camps, which function as medium-security prisons and, in some cases, forced-labor factories, center around training Uyghurs to disavow their Islamic identity and embrace the secular and economic principles of the Chinese state. They forbid the use of the Uyghur language and instead offer drilling in Mandarin, the language of China’s Han majority, which is now referred to as “the national language.” Only a handful of detainees who are not Chinese citizens have been fully released from this “re-education” system.  

Alim was relatively lucky: he had been let out after only two weeks; he later learned that a relative had intervened in his case. But what he didn’t know until police arrested him at the mall was that he had been placed on a blacklist maintained by the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP, or 一体化联合作战平台), a regional data system that uses AI to monitor the countless checkpoints in and around Xinjiang’s cities. Any attempt to enter public institutions such as hospitals, banks, parks or shopping centers, or to cross beyond the checkpoints of the dozen city blocks that were under the jurisdiction of his local police precinct, would trigger the IJOP to alert police. The system had profiled him and predicted that he was a potential terrorist.

Officers told Alim he should “just stay at home” if he wanted to avoid detention again. Although he was officially free, his biometrics and his digital history were being used to bind him in place. “I’m so angry and afraid at the same time,” he told me. He was now haunted by his data.

Unlimited Market Potential

The surveillance and predictive profiling systems that targeted Alim and the many Uyghur Muslims he met in detention are the product of a neo-totalitarian security-industrial complex that has emerged in China over the past decade. Dozens of Chinese tech firms are building and marketing tools for a new “global war on terror,” fought in a domestic register and transposed to a technological key. In this updated version of the conflict, the war machine is more about facial recognition software and machine learning algorithms than about drones and Navy SEAL teams; the weapons are made in China rather than the United States; and the supposed terrorists are not “barbaric” foreigners but domestic minority populations who appear to threaten the dominance of authoritarian leaders and impede state-directed capitalist expansion.

In the modern history of systems of control deployed against subjugated populations, ranging from North American internment camps to the passbooks of apartheid-era South Africa, new technologies have been crucial. In China, that technological armament is now so vast that it has become difficult for observers to fully inventory. The web of surveillance in Xinjiang reaches from cameras on the wall, to the chips inside mobile devices, to Uyghurs’ very physiognomy. Face scanners and biometric checkpoints track their movements. Nanny apps record every bit that passes through their smartphones.

Other programs automate the identification of Uyghur voice signatures, transcribe, and translate Uyghur spoken language, and scan digital communications, looking for suspect patterns of social relations, and flagging religious speech or a lack of fervor in using Mandarin. Deep-learning systems search in real time through video feeds capturing millions of faces, building an archive which can help identify suspicious behavior in order to predict who will become an “unsafe” actor. The predictions generated automatically by these “computer vision” technologies are triggered by dozens of actions, from dressing in an Islamic fashion to failing to attend or fully participate in nationalistic flag raising ceremonies. All of these systems are brought together in the IJOP, which is constantly learning from the behaviors of the Uyghurs it watches.

The predictive algorithms that purport to keep Xinjiang safe by identifying terrorist threats feed on the biometric and behavioral data extracted from the bodies of Uyghurs. The power—and potential profitability—of these systems as tools of security and control derives from unfettered access to Uyghurs’ digital lives and physical movements. The justification of the war on terror thus offers companies a space in which to build, experiment with, and refine these systems. In her recent study on the rise of “surveillance capitalism,” the Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff notes that consumers are constantly off-gassing valuable data that can be captured by capital and turned into profitable predictions about our preferences and future behaviors. In the Uyghur region, this logic has been taken to an extreme: from the perspective of China’s security-industrial establishment, the principal purpose of Uyghur life is to generate data.

After being rendered compliant by this repressive surveillance, Uyghurs are fed into China’s manufacturing industries as labor. Officially, the People’s War on Terror has been framed as a “poverty alleviation” struggle. This requires retraining marginalized Muslim communities to make them politically docile yet economically productive. China enforces this social order with prisons and camps built to accommodate over ten percent of the country’s Turkic Muslim population. The training that happens in the camps leads directly to on-site factories, for textiles and other industries, where detainees are forced to work indefinitely. The government frames these low-wage jobs as “internships.”

Controlling the Uyghurs has also become a test case for marketing Chinese technological prowess to authoritarian nations around the world. A hundred government agencies and companies, from two dozen countries including the United States, France, Israel, and the Philippines, now participate in the annual China-Eurasia Security Expo in Ürümchi, the capital of the Uyghur region. Because Ürümchi is a strategic entrepôt to the Muslim world, the expo has become the most influential security tech convention across East Asia.

The ethos at the expo, and in the Chinese techno-security industry as a whole, is that Muslim populations need to be managed and made productive. This, from the perspective of Chinese industry, is one of China’s major contributions to the future of global security. As a spokesperson for Leon Technology, one of the major players in the new security industry, put it at the expo in 2017, 60 percent of the world’s Muslim-majority nations are part of China’s premier international development initiative, “One Belt, One Road,” so there is “unlimited market potential” for the type of population-control technology they are developing in Xinjiang.

Over the past five years, the People’s War on Terror has allowed Chinese tech startups such as Leon, Meiya Pico, Hikvision, Face++, Sensetime, and Dahua to achieve unprecedented levels of growth. In just the last two years, the state has invested an estimated $7.2 billion on techno-security in Xinjiang.  Some of the technologies they pioneered in Xinjiang have already found customers in authoritarian states as far away as sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, CloudWalk, a Guangzhou-based tech startup that has received more than $301 million in state funding, finalized a strategic cooperation framework agreement with the Mnangagwa administration in Zimbabwe to build a national “mass facial recognition program” in order to address “social security issues.” (CloudWalk has not revealed how much the agreement is worth.) Freedom of movement through airports, railways, and bus stations throughout Zimbabwe will now be managed through a facial database integrated with other kinds of biometric data. In effect, the Uyghur homeland has become an incubator for China’s “terror capitalism.”

A Way of Life

The Uyghur internet has not always been a space of exploitation and entrapment. When I arrived in Ürümchi in 2011 to conduct my first year of ethnographic fieldwork, the region had just been wired with 3G networks. When I returned for a second year, in 2014, it seemed as though nearly all adults in the city had a smartphone; downloads of Uyghur-language apps suggested approximately 45 percent of the Uyghur population of 12 million was using one. Many Uyghurs had begun to use WeChat to share recorded messages and video with friends and family in rural villages. They also used their phones to buy and sell products, read about what was happening in the world, and network with Uyghurs throughout the country and around the globe. Young Uyghur filmmakers could now share short films and music videos instantly with hundreds of thousands of followers. Overnight, Uyghur English teachers such as Kasim Abdurehim and pop stars such as Ablajan—cultural figures that the government subsequently labeled “unsafe”—developed followings that numbered in the millions.

Most unsettling, from the perspective of the state, unsanctioned Uyghur religious teachers based in China and Turkey developed a deep influence. Since the 1950s, when the newly founded People’s Republic of China began sending millions of Han settlers to the region, Islamic faith, Turkic identity, and the Uyghur language have been sources of resistance to Han cultural norms and Chinese secularism. Sunni Islam and Turkic identity formed the basis for the independent East Turkistan republics that predated the decades of settler colonization. Together with deep-seated attachments to the built environment of Uyghur civilization—courtyard houses, mosque communities, and Sufi shrines—they helped most Uyghurs feel distinct from their colonizers even in the teeth of Maoist campaigns to force them to assimilate.

The government has always pushed to efface these differences. Beginning with Mao’s Religious Reform Movement of 1958, the state limited Uyghurs’ access to mosques, Islamic funerary practices, religious knowledge, and other Muslim communities. There were virtually no Islamic schools outside of state control, no imams who were not approved by the state. Children under the age of eighteen were forbidden to enter mosques. As social media spread through the Uyghur homeland over the course of the last decade, it opened up a virtual space to explore what it meant to be Muslim. It reinforced a sense that the first sources of Uyghur identity were their faith and language, their claim to a native way of life, and their membership in a Turkic Muslim community stretching from Ürümchi to Istanbul.

Because of the internet, millions of Uyghurs felt called to think in new ways about the piety of their Islamic practice, while simultaneously learning about self-help strategies and entrepreneurship. They began to imagine escaping an oppressive state which curtailed many of their basic freedoms by such means as restricting access to passports, systematic job discrimination, and permitting the seizure of Uyghur land. They also began to appreciate alternative modernities to the one the Chinese state was forcing upon them. Rather than being seen as perpetually lacking Han appearance and culture, they could find in their renewed Turkic and Islamic values a cosmopolitan and contemporary identity. They could embrace the halal standards of the Muslim world, wear the latest styles from Istanbul, and keep Chinese society at arms-length. Food, movies, music and clothing, imported from Turkey and Dubai, became markers of distinction. Women began to veil themselves. Men began to pray five times a day. They stopped drinking and smoking. Some began to view music, dancing and state television as influences to be avoided.

The Han officials I met during my fieldwork referred to this rise in technologically disseminated religious piety as the “Talibanization” of the Uyghur population. Along with Han settlers, they felt increasingly unsafe traveling to the region’s Uyghur-majority areas, and uneasy in the presence of pious Turkic Muslims. The officials cited incidents that carried the hallmarks of religiously motivated violence—a knife attack carried out by a group of Uyghurs at a train station in Kunming; trucks driven by Uyghurs through crowds in Beijing and Ürümchi—as a sign that the entire Uyghur population was falling under the sway of terrorist ideologies.

But, as dangerous as the rise of Uyghur social media seemed to Han officials, it also presented them with a new means of control—one they had been working for several years to refine. On July 5, 2009, Uyghur high school and college students had used Facebook and Uyghur-language blogs to organize a protest demanding justice for Uyghur workers who were killed by their Han colleagues at a toy factory in eastern China. Thousands of Uyghurs took to the streets of Ürümchi, waving Chinese flags and demanding that the government respond to the deaths of their comrades. When they were violently confronted by armed police, many of the Uyghurs responded by turning over buses and beating Han bystanders. In the end, over 190 people were reported killed, most of them Han. Over the weeks that followed, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young Uyghurs were disappeared by the police. The internet was shut off in the region for over nine months, and Facebook and Twitter were blocked across the country.

Soon after the internet came back online in 2010—with the notable absence of Facebook, Twitter, and other non-Chinese social media applications—state security, higher education, and private industry began to collaborate on breaking Uyghur internet autonomy. Much of the Uyghur-language internet was transformed from a virtual free society into a zone where government technology could learn to predict criminal behavior. Broadly defined anti-terrorism laws, introduced in 2014, turned nearly all crimes committed by Uyghurs, from stealing a Han neighbor’s sheep to protesting land seizures, into forms of terrorism. Religious piety, which the new laws referred to as “extremism,” was conflated with religious violence. The Xinjiang security industry mushroomed from a handful of private firms to approximately 1,400 companies employing tens of thousands of workers, ranging from low-level Uyghur security guards to Han camera and telecommunications technicians to coders and designers. The Xi administration declared a state of emergency in the region, the People’s War on Terror began, and Islamophobia was institutionalized.  

Smart Terror

In 2017, after three years of operating a “hard strike” policy in Xinjiang—which involved instituting a passbook system that turned the Uyghur homeland into a what many considered an open-air prison, and deploying hundreds of thousands of security forces to monitor the families of those who had been disappeared or killed by the state—the government turned to a fresh strategy. A new regional party secretary named Chen Quanguo introduced a policy of “transforming” Uyghurs. Using the language of public health, local authorities began to describe the “three evil forces” of “religious extremism, ethnic separatism and violent terrorism” as three interrelated “ideological cancers.”

Because the digital sphere had allowed unauthorized forms of Islam to flourish, officials called for AI-enabled technology to detect and extirpate these evils. Already in 2015, Xi Jinping had announced that cybersecurity was a national priority; now Party leadership began to incentivize Chinese tech firms to build and develop technologies that could help the government control and modify Uyghur society. Billions of dollars in government contracts were awarded to build “smart” security systems across the Uyghur region.    

The turn toward “transformation” coincided with breakthroughs in the AI-assisted computer systems that the Public Security Bureau rolled out in 2017 and brought together in the IJOP. The Chinese startup Meiya Pico began to market software to local and regional governments that was developed using state-supported research and could detect Uyghur language text and Islamic symbols embedded in images. The company also developed programs to automate the transcription and translation of Uyghur voice messaging.

The company Hikvision advertised tools that could automate the identification of Uyghur faces based on physiological phenotypes. High-resolution video cameras capable of operating in low-light conditions were linked to AI-enabled software trained on an extensive image database of racially diverse faces; together, these technologies could determine the ethnicity of a person based on the shape and color of the person’s facial features—all while the person strolled down street. A Leon Technology spokesperson told one of the country’s leading technology publications that the cameras were also integrated with an AI system made by Leon that could flag suspicious behavior and individuals under special surveillance “on the scale of seconds.” Other programs performed automated searches of Uyghurs’ internet activity and then compared the data it gleaned to school, job, banking, medical, and biometric records, looking for predictors of aberrant behavior.

The rollout of this new technology required a great deal of manpower and technical training. Over 100,000 new police officers were hired. One of their jobs was to conduct the sort of health check Alim underwent, creating biometric records for almost every human being in the region. Face signatures were created by scanning individuals from a variety of different angles as they made different facial expressions; the result was a high-definition portfolio of personal emotions. All Uyghurs were required to install the Clean Net Guard app, which monitored everything they said, read, and wrote, and everyone they connected with, on their smartphones.

Higher-level officers, most of whom were Han, were given the job of conducting qualitative assessments of the Muslim population as a whole—providing more complex, interview-based survey data for IJOP’s deep-learning system. In face-to-face interviews, these neighborhood police officers assessed the more than 14 million Muslim-minority people in the province and determined if they should be given the rating of “safe,” “average,” or “unsafe.” They determined this by categorizing the person using ten or more categories: whether or not the person was Uyghur, of military age, or underemployed; whether they prayed regularly, possessed unauthorized religious knowledge, had a passport, had traveled to one of twenty-six Muslim-majority countries, had overstayed their visa, had an immediate relative living abroad, or had taught their children about Islam in their home. Those who were determined to be “unsafe” were then sent to the detention centers where they were interrogated and asked to confess their crimes and name others who were also “unsafe.” In this manner, the officers determined which individuals should be slotted for the “transformation through education” internment camps.

The assessments were iterative.  Many Muslims who passed their first assessment were subsequently detained because someone else named them as “unsafe.” In as many as tens of thousands of cases, years of WeChat history was used as evidence of the need for Uyghur suspects to be “transformed.” The state also assigned an additional 1.1 million Han and Uyghur “big brothers and sisters” to conduct week-long assessments on Uyghur families as uninvited guests in Uyghur homes. Over the course of these stays, the relatives tested the “safe” qualities of those Uyghurs that remained outside of the camp system by forcing them to participate in activities forbidden by certain forms of Islamic piety such as drinking, smoking, and dancing. As a test, they brought their Uyghur hosts food without telling them whether the meat used in the dishes was halal or not. These “big sisters and brothers” focused on the families of those who had been shot or taken away by the police over the past decade. They looked for any sign of resentment or any lack of enthusiasm in Chinese patriotic activities. They gave the children candy so that they would tell them the truth about what their parents thought. All of this information was entered into databases and then fed back into the IJOP.

The IJOP is always running in the background of Uyghur life, always learning. The government’s hope is that it will run with ever less human guidance. The goal is both to intensify securitization in the region and to free up security labor for the work of “transformation through education.”

Quantified Selves

My first encounter with the face-scanning machines was at a hotel in the Uyghur district of Ürümchi in April 2018. Speaking in Uyghur, the man at the front desk told me I did not need to scan my face to register because I had foreign identification. But when I left the city on the high-speed train, Han officers instructed me on how to scan my passport picture and stand “just so” to enable the camera to get a good read of my face. Exiting the train an hour later in Turpan, my face had to be verified manually at the local police station. The officer in charge, a Han woman, told a young Uyghur officer to scan my passport photo with her smartphone and match that image with photos she took of my face. When I asked why this was necessary, the officer in charge said, “It is to keep you safe.”

As I moved through Uyghur towns and face-recognition checkpoints, I was surprised not to find handlers following me. When the officers at one checkpoint seemed to have anticipated my arrival, I realized the reason: cameras were now capable of tracking me with nearly as much precision as undercover police. My movements were being recorded and analyzed by deep learning systems. I, too, was training the IJOP.

In order to avoid the cameras, I took unauthorized Uyghur taxis, ducked into Uyghur bookstores, and bummed hand-rolled cigarettes from Uyghur peddlers while I asked questions about the reeducation system. I hoped that slipping into the blind spots of the IJOP would help to protect the people I spoke with there. A few weeks after my trip, I heard that another American who had lived in the region for an extended period was interrogated by public security officers about my activities.

In the tech community in the United States there is some skepticism regarding the viability of AI-assisted computer vision technology in China. Many experts I’ve spoken to from the AI policy world point to an article by the scholar Jathan Sadowski called “Potemkin AI,” which highlights the failures of Chinese security technology to deliver what it promises. They frequently bring up the way a system in Shenzhen meant to identify the faces of jaywalkers and flash them on jumbotrons next to busy intersections cannot keep up with the faces of all the jaywalkers; as a result, human workers sometimes have to manually gather the data used for public shaming. They point out that Chinese tech firms and government agencies have hired hundreds of thousands of low-paid police officers to monitor internet traffic and watch banks of video monitors. As with the theater of airport security rituals in the United States, many of these experts argue that it is the threat of surveillance, rather than the surveillance itself, that causes people to modify their behavior.

Yet while there is a good deal of evidence to support this skepticism, a notable rise in the automated detection of internet-based Islamic activity, which has resulted in the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, also points to the real effects of the implementation of AI-assisted surveillance and policing in Xinjiang. Even Western experts at Google and elsewhere admit that Chinese tech companies now lead the world in these computer vision technologies, due to the way the state funds Chinese companies to collect, monitor, utilize, and report on the personal data of hundreds of millions of users across China.

In Kashgar, 1500 kilometers west of Ürümchi, I encountered dozens of Han civil servants who had been told to refer to themselves as “relatives.” Several of these “big brothers and sisters” spoke in glowing terms about the level of safety and security they felt in the Uyghur countryside. Uyghur communities, it seemed, were now safe for Han people. The IJOP tracks movements of Han people as well, but they experience this surveillance as frictionless. At railway stations, for example, they move through pre-approved “green lanes.” The same technology that restricts the movements of Uyghurs makes the movements of Han residents even freer.

“Anyone who has been to Kashgar will know that the atmosphere there was really thick and imposing,” a Leon Technology spokesperson told reporters at the China-Eurasia Security Expo in 2017. He was implying that, in the past, the city felt too Uyghur. One of the Uyghur-tracking AI projects that Leon developed made that “thick atmosphere” easier for Han settlers and officials to breathe. “Through the continuous advancement of the project, we have a network of 10,000 video access points in the surrounding rural area, which will generate massive amounts of video,” the spokesperson said. “This many images will ‘bind’ many people.”

Like the rest of the IJOP, the Leon project helps the Chinese government to bind Uyghurs in many ways—by limiting their political and cultural expression, by trapping them within checkpoints and labor camps. The effect of these restrictions, and of the spectacle of Uyghur oppression, simultaneously amplifies the sense of freedom and authority of Han settlers and state authorities.

The Han officials I spoke with during my fieldwork in Xinjiang often refused to acknowledge the way disappearances, frequent police shootings of young Uyghur men, and state seizures of Uyghur land might have motivated earlier periods of Uyghur resistance. They did not see correlations between limits on Uyghur religious education, restrictions on Uyghur travel, and widespread job discrimination on the one hand, and the rise in Uyghur desires for freedom, justice, and religiosity on the other. Because of the crackdown, Han officials have seen a profound diminishment of Islamic belief and political resistance in Uyghur social life. They’re proud of the fervor with which Uyghurs are learning the “common language” of the country, abandoning Islamic holy days, and embracing Han cultural values. From their perspective, the implementation of the new security systems has been a monumental success.

A middle-aged Uyghur businessman from Hotan, whom I will call Dawut, told me that, behind the checkpoints, the new security system has hollowed out Uyghur communities. The government officials, civil servants, and tech workers who have come to build, implement, and monitor the system don’t seem to perceive Uyghurs’ humanity. The only kind of Uyghur life that can be recognized by the state is the one that the computer sees. This makes Uyghurs like Dawut feel as though their lives only matter as data—code on a screen, numbers in camps. They have adapted their behavior, and slowly even their thoughts, to the system.  

“Uyghurs are alive, but their entire lives are behind walls,” Dawut said softly. “It is like they are ghosts living in another world.”

Darren Byler is an anthropologist at the University of Washington, where he researches Uyghur dispossession, cultural performance, and "terror capitalism" in northwest China.

This piece appears in Logic's seventh issue, "China." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.

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The New Sewer Socialists

by Evan Malmgren

A blue-collar manufacturing town in southern Appalachia offers a roadmap for reclaiming the internet’s utopian potential.

A lazy sprawl of brick and mortar straddling the Tennessee River in orange and beige: at first glance one could be forgiven for mistaking Chattanooga for any number of landlocked manufacturing towns. Like many of its postindustrial relatives, this city of 174,000 is in the midst of a protracted and irreversible economic transition. In the past two years alone, Dupont, Alstom, and MetalTek all shut down manufacturing plants that once employed thousands of people across the surrounding Hamilton County, where economic anxiety runs high and Trump won by sixteen points.

But Chattanooga doesn’t quite fit the tired narrative evoked in the president’s grim portrait of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” This is a city with a plan.

Situated in the heart of the Great Appalachian Valley, Chattanooga is widely known by a silicon-tinged moniker that sounds a bit more Santa Clara: “Gig City,” a reference to “the Gig,” the city’s municipally owned fiber-optic network. Funded in part by a $111 million federal stimulus grant and maintained by the Electric Power Board (EPB), Chattanooga’s public electric utility, the Gig’s ambitions feel more collectivist—and more fundamental—than the superficial “disruption” on offer from private-sector techno-utopians.

In 2010, the Gig became the first network in the country to offer one gigabit-per-second (Gbps) data speeds across its entire service area, which now top out at a mind-bending ten Gbps. (At ten Gbps, you can download a two-hour movie in about three seconds.) These speeds are even more impressive because they are symmetrical, which means downloading is as fast as uploading. Since it was laid across Chattanooga’s power grid, fiber-to-home internet service has been available at every home and business in the municipality for the past seven years.

This is an astounding result in the United States, where service is spotty and the average connection speed was just below nineteen megabits-per-second (Mbps) at the start of 2017—lower than the federal definition of broadband.” And Chattanooga has certainly reaped the rewards, nurturing its newfound status as a regional tech hub with numerous conventions and noteworthy startups like Skuid, a cloud-based UX platform, and Bellhops, an on-demand moving company. One economist estimated that the fiber infrastructure had generated as many as 5,200 jobs and as much as $1.3 billion in net economic and social benefits in its first five years of operation.

Another way the city has benefitted is through something called the “smart grid.” Since the EPB doubles as Chattanooga’s electric utility, and because their fiber-optic network was built on top of a pre-existing power grid, the company has been able to monitor their electrical system in real time, greatly reducing the impact of outages by rerouting power almost instantaneously. The EPB estimates that the “smart grid” has decreased the duration of outage minutes by half, resulting in a citywide economic benefit of about $50 million per year. This capability will become increasingly important as climate change accelerates the frequency of outages caused by severe weather events.

Also, while other utilities need to deploy technicians in order to inspect site-specific meters, Chattanooga’s “smart grid” reads all meters every fifteen minutes, saving money for the EPB and greatly improving the reliability of their service. As a result, J.Ed. Marston, the vice president of marketing at the EPB, notes that the fiber network benefits everyone who uses electricity in Chattanooga—not just those who buy internet.

Closing the Digital Divide

The success of Chattanooga’s municipal network is often measured in economic terms. But it has also brought substantial benefits in people’s quality of life. From helping us file taxes and sign up for healthcare benefits, to enabling us to communicate and engage with mass media, the internet is an increasingly central force in our social, economic, and civic life.

It is hardly necessary to state the value of a stable internet connection in 2017. Differing levels of access do not merely reflect pre-existing inequalities in material wealth—they reinforce them.

If you can’t use the internet to access a government service, fill out a job application, or email your grandkids—or if you need to take hours out of your day to go to a library to perform these tasks on a public computer—it’s going to set you even further behind people with easy access. Marston tells me that, as a publicly owned company, the EPB has an imperative to address economic inequality as it manifests through this divide. “As a municipal utility,” he says, “our mission is to enhance the quality of life and local economy for our entire community.”

To this end, the EPB offers a subsidized unlimited data plan called Netbridge to families on the National School Lunch Program. Since the “smart grid” connects to every home in Chattanooga, the plan is available throughout the utility’s entire service area, which Marston says has “dramatically raised the bar on people’s expectations of what the internet should be.”

This point is significant. In other parts of the country, the “digital divide”—a structural gap between those who have ready access to the internet and those who do not—is fueled in part by a practice known as “digital redlining,” where internet service providers (ISPs) refuse to invest in low-income areas because of their poor capital returns.

In many of Cleveland’s poorest census blocks, for example, one survey recently found that AT&T only offered downstream speeds of three Mbps or less. (The lowest rates on offer from the EPB are more than thirty times faster.) Rather than a simple binary division between those who can get online and those who can’t, the digital divide operates as a tiered gradient, where quality and ease of access are unevenly distributed.

In practical terms, this means that low-income residents are often required to pay full price for an internet connection that can barely load a modern web page. For this reason, Angela Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) tells me, “access to affordable broadband is not just a rural issue, but an urban issue as well.”

As demonstrated by Chattanooga’s Gig, one way to address that issue is by handing internet service off to public utilities, which are bound to serve the public good rather than profit-hungry shareholders. But accessible infrastructure alone isn’t enough. For people to take advantage of affordable broadband, they also need a base level of technical literacy, as well as an understanding of what they can do with the internet. Together, these are the building blocks of “digital equity,” a condition that the NDIA defines as one in which “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”

The digital divide persists in Chattanooga thanks to a structural gap in technical literacy, which is made even more apparent by the city’s booming tech industry. But the presence of a public broadband utility—which treats internet service the way other municipalities treat gas, water, and electricity—has radically altered the way local politicians and many ordinary Chattanoogans conceive of the internet. They have come to think of it as a right rather than a luxury.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has fully embraced the Gig since taking office in 2013, and he clearly sees deeper potential beyond the realm of techie startups. Offering a soft echo of Michael Harrington, he tells me that “the fiber network gave us a platform to talk about whether digital technology is going to exacerbate or curb inequality,” adding that, although the network leaves no house untouched, “that doesn’t mean that everything is equitable.”

Arguing that “even $5 is too much [for an internet connection] if you have no idea what you’re doing with your computer,” Berke has used the Gig as a starting point to push a comprehensive digital equity agenda. This includes initiatives like Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, a publicly funded nonprofit that provides free tech literacy training, heavily subsidized Chromebooks, and education about how to sign up for reduced-cost internet plans—important considerations in a city with a poverty rate of 22.6 percent.

Internet Access as a Human Right

Chattanooga isn’t the only city to push for universal access to affordable high-speed broadband, but such schemes more often take the form of public-private partnerships—and are usually met with mixed results. For example, in 2008, Verizon signed a deal with New York City that gave the telecom giant a citywide cable franchise on the condition that they “pass all households” with their fiber-to-premise FiOS network by 2014.

The city wanted FiOS to be available in every home. But Verizon quickly fell back on old redlining habits, arguing that they had only agreed to run their network by every household, not to physically connect them. New York is currently suing the company, claiming a breach of contract for Verizon’s failure to offer fiber-optic service to nearly a third of the city’s 3.1 million households, the majority of them in working-class neighborhoods.

Google Fiber is another popular option for cities seeking a high-speed fiber-to-premise network. Its pilot even launched the same year as Chattanooga’s municipal network, and in a similar town: Kansas City. But while Gig City is running strong after seven years, Google Fiber continues to send out unexplained cancellation emails in Kansas City, and has failed to offer fiber connections throughout its entire service area.

One significant advantage that the EPB had over these public-private partnerships was a pre-existing electrical grid. In addition to creating compounded benefits through the efficiency of the “smart grid,” this infrastructure gave the utility a reason, and a roadmap, to connect an entire service area.

But even more importantly, the EPB is a democratically regulated public provider that treats internet service as a basic right. As a municipally owned utility, it can act in the interests of its community and not simply to enrich its investors. This approach is far more in line with the FCC’s own (under-enforced) classification of broadband as a public utility, as well as the UN’s declaration that internet access constitutes a human right.

Frankly, it’s difficult to see how a serious effort at digital equity can align with a deployment strategy driven by profit. In public-private partnerships, the public sector is inevitably the junior partner, and social needs take a back seat to the corporate drive to extract as much wealth as possible. If internet access is to be treated as a basic right and regulated as a public utility, the public sector will need to build and manage the infrastructure.

The Empire Strikes Back

Chattanooga’s municipal network has attracted lots of well-funded resistance. When the FCC gave the city the green light to expand their network beyond their municipality—a popular move in the surrounding area, especially given that broadband access was not available to one in eight Tennessee residents in late 2016—AT&T lawyers hit back, eventually winning a federal court ruling that restricts the EPB to its current service area.

“I find that infuriating,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance told the magazine Next City. “Chattanooga has not only one of the best networks in the nation, but arguably one of the best on Earth and the state legislature is prohibiting them from serving people just outside of their city border.” Even more recently, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Broadband Accessibility Act, effectively a $45 million tax break for private telecoms like Comcast.

Arguments against Chattanooga’s municipal network and others like it usually take up a familiar anti-government line of attack. Critics often point to the high cost of building new broadband infrastructure, which Chattanooga partly covered with a hefty federal stimulus grant. They further argue that this level of state intervention hurts competition in the internet market, and could eventually result in poorly run public monopolies.

But there’s reason to believe that this pushback has more to do with the interests of the telecom lobby than with good-faith concerns about the efficiency of Chattanooga’s experiment. With a $330 million price tag, the Gig was certainly expensive to build—but it has yielded significant returns on that investment. According to one study, the “smart grid” generates up to $67 million per year in combined revenues and savings. And its maintenance and operation are entirely funded by subscription fees, requiring no tax funding. The utility is solidly in the black, with a 57 percent market penetration that far surpasses initial targets and continues to grow.

Rather than focus on the instructive lessons from success stories like Chattanooga, free-market critics prefer to frighten city governments with tales of municipal broadband gone awry, like the $39 million flop in Provo, Utah, which was bought by Google Fiber after years of mismanagement. But it’s hard to take this concern seriously when failed municipal projects are exactly what the private sector wants. The death of Provo’s municipal project simply became another investment opportunity for Google, while a success could have locked predatory telecoms out of the local market.

Crushing the Competition

The irony of the corporate argument against municipal broadband is that private providers hate competition. Throughout the United States, privatized internet markets have led to the exact monopolistic conditions that free-market hawks rail against: a 2016 FCC report found that only one or zero providers offered services qualifying for the federal definition of broadband in over half of the developed census blocks in the United States. Less than half of the country’s developed census blocks have access to 100 Mbps service, and less than a quarter of those have more than one provider offering service at those speeds.

The resulting lack of competition leads to inflated prices, little incentive to modernize infrastructure, and shoddy service for poorer areas. Stagnation, inefficiency, and unfair consolidation are produced by private telecoms like Comcast, not public utilities like the EPB.

Confronted with the oft-repeated argument that a publicly owned fiber network smothers competition and hurts consumers, Mayor Berke is uncharacteristically blunt: “I’ve seen no evidence of that.” Indeed, Chattanooga’s internet market is one of the most competitive in the country. The EPB isn’t the city’s only internet provider—the utility competes against four private ISPs, two of which also offer broadband-speed internet at a fraction of the national average. But in head-to-head competition, the EPB dominates. Its market share is larger than its four private counterparts combined.

Pressure from the EPB has even pushed competitors to offer fairer prices to defend their dwindling market shares. In the past two years, Comcast, AT&T, and Mobile Beacon have all targeted low-income Chattanoogans with data plans that cost around $10 per month for people living on certain forms of government assistance. These are even cheaper than the EPB’s subsidized Netbridge plan, which costs $26.99—the lowest price allowed under a Tennessee law that establishes price floors for municipal cable systems.

This kind of competitive outcome—exactly the result that critics warned the EPB would undermine—is enabled by public intervention in broadband infrastructure. In fact, the only force preventing Chattanooga’s internet costs from dropping even further is regressive, pro-corporate legislation.

Far from killing competition, the EPB competes with great success against private ISPs—and that’s exactly what scares them. If the utility were too overburdened by bureaucracy to operate successfully, there would be no need for corporate lobbyists to push for state laws that hamstring the company’s growth.

Demand for EPB service exists outside the utility’s municipal area precisely because it would provide a superior product to what is currently on offer. Absent the public pressure provided by the utility, Chattanooga’s internet market would likely tend towards monopoly, as it has in similar regions throughout the country.

Municipal Momentum

Southeastern Tennessee is hardly a bastion of big government, making Chattanooga a curious leader in the world of municipal broadband. But the Gig remains deeply popular in the city and its surrounding area, where digital equity has become a remarkably bipartisan issue thanks to support from local Republicans like Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. Given the chance to experience municipal broadband firsthand, people see it as less of a partisan issue and more one of common sense. It simply works.

The Gig also offers a proof-of-concept for communities contemplating publicly operated broadband outside of Chattanooga, where attitudes towards municipal fiber are evolving quickly. Just two years ago, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant was ridiculed for proposing a $5 million pilot program in her city. But today, municipal projects are being proposed in major urban centers like San Francisco and Minneapolis.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance counts more than 500 public networks of some kind, including communities in twenty-four states that offer public connections of at least 1 Gbps. And public broadband is widely popular: a recent Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of the public believes that local governments should be able to build their own broadband networks, including 67 percent of Republicans. This all but proves that state legislators are serving the telecom lobby rather than their actual constituents.

It is tempting to envision a national scheme to lay fiber-optic cable across the country’s electrical grids, akin to FDR’s ambitious Rural Electrification Act. At a time when the Republicans enjoy unified control of the federal government, however, such an effort is unlikely to succeed: Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, is a close ally of the telecom industry who has used his office to pursue a decidedly pro-corporate agenda. In addition to going after net neutrality rules, he has led a push to significantly reduce the federal definition of broadband, signaling complacency with an uneven distribution of internet access that disproportionately impacts working-class communities and people of color. Meanwhile, telecom lobbyists have successfully passed laws that limit the expansion of public broadband in more than twenty states, including Tennessee.

With the political climate so hostile to public broadband at the national and state level, focusing on local utilities seems like a promising path forward. An increasing number of cities are calling for resistance to Trump’s agenda. Municipal broadband offers one way for smaller governments to reclaim their autonomy.

Reclaiming the Digital Commons

The quality, reliability, and affordability of someone’s connection are all essential to determining how they can engage with the internet—and what kind of stake they will have in the world it helps create. As long as the digital divide is bound to inequalities in material wealth, the internet will remain subservient to capital and continue to reproduce old hierarchies of power.

That’s why achieving digital equity is a political project, rather than a purely technological one. And, as with all political projects, there are a range of possible outcomes. Mayor Berke understands this as well as anyone. Conceding that Chattanooga’s exact model might not be a perfect fit everywhere, he nonetheless insists that local governments can’t afford to wait. “There has to be a strategy that actually gets you there,” he says.

Kelly McCarthy, program director of Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, cautions that tackling the digital divide is “not just a problem where we can suddenly give everybody internet access and it will be solved.” Indeed, a robust digital justice agenda would also need to include tech literacy education, subsidized hardware, and offline services to ensure that people can get connected in a way that is truly equitable.

But municipal broadband is a strong start: by handing the keys to public bodies, we empower them to distribute access in a more democratic manner. Bringing the infrastructure of the internet under public control lays the groundwork for pursuing a broader vision of digital justice. And at a time when corporations increasingly dominate fundamental resources like water, reclaiming common goods sends a powerful message to the private sector.

Until digital equity becomes an urgent matter of public policy, the digital divide isn’t going anywhere.

Evan Malmgren is a researcher and fact-checker in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, Dissent, and The Nation.

This piece appears in Logic's third issue, "Justice." Purchase Justice and other back issues at our webstore, or subscribe to receive all three issues per year.

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The Chinese Burner

by Chen Qiufan

A Chinese science fiction writer goes to Burning Man.

Translated by Julian Gewirtz and Wenbin Gao.

Burning Man. Photo by Chen Qiufan.

Every year at the end of August, the Nevada desert, with its dense, corrosive, dusty air, welcomes tens of thousands of pilgrims who call themselves “burners.” They come in house cars, peculiar floats, or private jets to this “Black Rock City,” which only exists for nine days. They build hundreds of art installations, attend sexy dance parties with roaring music all night long, and take part in more than one thousand activities—from yoga and meditation to S&M and orgies to artificial intelligence (AI) exhibitions. There is no commerce here. All you can get with money is ice and coffee. Everything else must be gotten for free or shared voluntarily. A hug or a song can be payment for bread and alcohol.

This is the legendary Burning Man Festival, a utopian gathering centered around performance art. The theme for 2018 came from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi collection I, Robot, published in 1950. The choice of the novel, which discusses the various moral issues between robot and man, seems to be responding to the current worldwide fervor for AI.

Perhaps it was this theme that attracted a large group of tech entrepreneurs and investors from China. The media has reported that Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have all been seen in the playa of the Burning Man Festival, and these figures are revered by Chinese tech entrepreneurs as the heroes of the present era. Some participants from prior years even attributed the success of their projects to the inspirational power of Burning Man. Admittedly, this neat combination of worshipping totems while pursuing practical benefits is quintessentially Chinese.

This year, I also came here with a group of friends from all over the world and became a “virgin burner.” I had already learned about the so-called Ten Principles of Burning Man—but experiencing firsthand this miraculous feeling of order emerging from chaos proved to be remarkably different from the Chinese social experience of myriad rules and stringent controls. I had to spend several days slowly assimilating before I could savor the joy of this so-called “techno-hippie orgy.”

I couldn’t help but feel curious about those Chinese entrepreneurs and investors who came in private jets from thousands of miles away. There was an entrepreneur training camp organized by the internet giant T———, and seventy startup owners were brought over by their investor, a leading Chinese venture capital company, M———. They hired a company to outsource their experience; this company set up expensive air-conditioned space-capsule tents and prepared large amounts of food, drinking water, and alcohol. One camp even had karaoke. But in the first four days, these luxuries, which were too high-end for traditional burners, sat untouched. Those Chinese guests only arrived, belatedly, on the fourth day. I heard that the most expensive slot for this camp cost $20,000, whereas a regular ticket for the Burning Man Festival cost only $425.

Of course, this sort of privilege and consumerism, which runs against the ideals of Burning Man, can also be found among Silicon Valley elites, and have been harshly criticized. But the difference was this: the majority of these Chinese burners seemed to know little about the festival and had no intention of trying to understand and respect the Burning Man spirit. They either saw the festival as an exotic, lawless place, or as just another holiday getaway for business-related socializing. They brought certain habits with them from the outside world, and especially habits from China.

So we witnessed the following scenes: most people lay in air-conditioned tents, drinking cold beverages and fiddling with their smartphones (though there was no signal); many used their senior executive titles when they introduced themselves; some took photos of other people’s nude bodies without consent; there was verbal or physical harassment of burners of the opposite sex, often occurring in the form of “inviting” them to the orgy dome; some were unwilling to share food and even called other burners fuwuyuan, or “waiter”; others refused to take part in collective work and set up individual entrepreneur training classes in the camps; and there were also people littering and spitting everywhere.

However, there was another group of Chinese burners, mostly millennials—artists, documentary directors, feminist activists, and Burning Man enthusiasts—who tried to communicate to the rest of the Chinese burners the principles of the Burning Man Festival: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. But they didn’t have much success.

Looking at these tech elites who represent the new era of a rising China, I felt as if I were seeing something much larger played out in miniature. And I was forcefully reminded of several recent events that have sparked heated debates in China.

Wolf Instincts

On August 7, 2018, the founder and CEO of the Chinese search giant Baidu, Li Yanhong (also known as Robin Li), commented in a WeChat post about Google’s possible return to the Chinese market: “If Google decides to come back to China, we are highly confident that we will take them on again, and win again.” This comment triggered a vehement backlash online, with tens of thousands of people expressing discontent about the quality of Baidu's search results, especially about the deceptive ads that it promotes.

Two years ago, a college student named Wei Zexi died as a result of delayed treatment caused by the so-called “Putian Medical Group,” which posted misleading ads for an ineffective form of cancer immunotherapy that were then promoted in Baidu’s search results. In the two months after this incident, the stock value of Baidu plummeted by over 15 percent, but even today fake medical ads still appear in Baidu Search, waiting to swindle users once more.

On August 25, 2018, a twenty-five-year-old girl from Zhejiang was raped and killed by a car driver after she had used Didi Hitch (an app similar to Uber Pool or Lyft Line). Public opinion was especially incensed because this was the second instance of rape and murder on the Didi platform within the span of one hundred days. Didi is the biggest online car-hailing service provider in China, yet its product design, driver screening, and customer service all still had serious security vulnerabilities that had gone unresolved. Furthermore, a former executive was discovered to have said that Didi Hitch was designed to be a “sexy” social platform—“like a coffee shop, or a bar, a private car can become a half-open, half-private social space. It’s a very sexy application scenario”—which further fanned the outrage. Didi eventually decided to suspend and reorganize Didi Hitch in an effort to address the problem, but it could not stop users from uninstalling and boycotting the app anyway.

The third piece of explosive news happened during the Burning Man Festival. Liu Qiangdong, also known as Richard Liu, the founder of the online retailing giant, which has a stock market value of 310 billion RMB, was embroiled in a sexual assault scandal following a night of lavish eating and drinking at a Japanese restaurant in Minnesota. As a result, from August 31 to September 7, 2018,’s share price plummeted from $31.30 to $26.95 and the company’s market value evaporated by 43 billion RMB. Although the scandal was unrelated to the services of the company, it nonetheless gave rise to carnivalesque visions of the lifestyles of Chinese tech entrepreneurs as well as a significant critique of this nouveau riche class.

In the past twenty years, the Chinese tech industry has experienced explosive growth. Terms like langxing (“wolf instinct,” as in The Wolf of Wall Street), yeman shengzhang (“savage growth,” as in, “That was savage, man!”) and jiangwei gongji (meaning a blow so powerful that it flattens your opponent from three dimensions to two dimensions, from the famous sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem) have become popular among Chinese tech entrepreneurs. They act as the first generation of pioneers journeying into the virtual New World. They imagine themselves as packs of wolves in the Mongolian plains who can only survive and emerge victorious through bloody combat, incessantly stalking new territory and prey.

Objectively speaking, China’s technology companies have indeed greatly promoted technological progress in China and even around the world. According to an unpublished report by the China Development Research Center, from 1995 to 2015 nearly 80 percent of Chinese R&D expenditure came from private tech companies rather than the government, a percentage significantly higher than in developed countries such as the US, the UK, and France, where it hovers around 50 to 60 percent. In most Chinese cities, cash is seldom used, since in everyday life most consumers use mobile payment apps through their smartphones. Even street peddlers selling roasted sweet potatoes hang a card with a QR code to scan for payment. Concepts like AI, virtual reality, blockchain, and genetic editing have become deeply rooted in the public consciousness through relentless coverage in the media. Chinese people love technology, trust technology, and rely on technology. While fully (or even excessively) enjoying the convenience brought by technology, they have consciously or unconsciously forgotten about its possible negative impacts, such as infringements upon personal privacy and being misled by inaccurate data.

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi said, “One should master the external world rather than be mastered by it.” His was a sober reflection upon the power relationship between man and material civilization. But just as the traditional idea of gewu, the study of the essence of things, did not blossom into modern science, so too did the relationship between man and technology only enter Chinese people’s field of vision in the last forty years, after the start of “reform and opening up.” Important tasks like public oversight and institutional design according to the rule of law are poorly developed, and often have been done only in hasty reaction to the exponential growth of the tech industry over the last twenty years. This lack of supervision has resulted in the vast majority of Chinese tech companies falling behind with regard to the ethics of science and technology.

But Chinese tech companies are starting to pay the price for their immaturity now that the entire market has become saturated, and hundreds of millions of users have both more experience with technology and the opportunity to reflect on it. At the same time, the government is beginning to actively intervene via supervision and legislation, which has made life increasingly difficult for these companies. For instance, the stringent controls over online gaming (including restrictions on the number of regulatory approvals granted to games and limiting the time minors spend playing games) imposed in 2018 have indirectly cost Tencent a stunning 1.2 trillion HKD in market value.

Burning Better

Nevertheless, tech startups are still the hottest field. In our camp at the Burning Man Festival, there were two tech entrepreneurs, from Beijing and Hangzhou respectively, who tried to find inspiration from Burning Man to help them start new journeys. One, Mr. Miao, spoke only broken English but spent the day reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. At night, he went to electronic music parties and clumsily swung his limbs around trying to dance. Every day he discovered something new. “There is a kissing booth, and everyone can kiss strangers!” The digital platform he created was about to expand overseas into the North American market, and he was trying to find some kind of cultural affinity. The other, Mr. Yang, was an engineer from the hottest Chinese short-video platform. He imagined the Burning Man Festival as a giant TED talk but was often disappointed: “Those guys aren’t discussing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat—they just literally believe the Earth is one giant flat board!”

Although Mr. Miao and Mr. Yang might have been let down by the Burning Man Festival, I trust that this experience opened them up to new ways of thinking. Mr. Miao gradually came to accept the idea that people can walk around naked or make out with strangers if they are willing. Mr. Yang made friends with one neighbor who was sharing marijuana cookies and had a long conversation with another, who happened to be an IT engineer. I also met some founders of leading Chinese tech companies who thought more deeply about these issues after experiencing the festival. The founder of the search engine and internet company Sougou, Wang Xiaochuan, said, “In this utopian community, we can experience cultures or principles that have been discarded or distorted in the civilized world. If you take certain things back with you, they’ll make your daily life more creative and more powerful.”

During the final night, a huge nebulous wooden structure called Galaxia was burned in a spectacular fire at a place called the Temple. The tradition is that many burners put photos and objects representing deceased family members and friends together with words of remembrance into the Temple to be burned as commemoration.

People gathered around the soaring flames. We sat quietly in the desert, below the vast, starry sky, and we seemed to have returned to a time thousands of years ago, when primitive humans yearned to connect and communicate with the gods and the dead. We were no longer lonely.

Next to the flames someone shouted, “Thank you, Larry!” More people followed suit, shouting, and some people wiped tears from their eyes.

They were paying tribute to the founder of all this, Larry Harvey, who had just passed away that year. In 1998 he said in a speech, “This is the analog to cyberspace, but it’s different, because it’s not anonymous and it’s not vicarious like the internet can be. So it puts people in touch with one another . . . It turns out the world is changing fast and we’re teaching valuable survival skills out here, this is about radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.” And this is precisely what I felt over those eight days.

Then the camps and the art installations were removed. The house cars left. The desert returned to its original state, and the Milky Way reappeared in the night sky. Before departing, groups of burners voluntarily searched the sand for any trash left behind by human activity. Even a tiny shard of glass had to be found and taken away. Leaving no trace.

In the campsite where I was staying, which had become a sort of headquarters for all of the Chinese campers, a group of young people were having a heated discussion as they prepared to leave. They hoped to set up a screening mechanism next year, so that only true burners could be selected to attend. They also hoped to create art installations and campsites that would authentically represent Chinese culture so that all burners interested in China could partake and interact.

Consent. This word appeared repeatedly in their conversations. It represented a respect for others, for their communities and their cultures. Maybe Chinese tech entrepreneurs would remember this word every now and then, after they went back home. Maybe they would bring such respect to their future products and services so that technology can better serve everyone. Or maybe I am too optimistic.

Will I return next year? I ask myself.

I think I will return. The best way to change the future is to become a part of it. And I want to become a better Chinese burner.

Chen Qiufan is a Chinese science fiction writer and entrepreneur. His debut novel Waste Tide, translated by Ken Liu, will be published by Tor Books in the United States in spring 2019.

This piece appears in Logic's seventh issue, "China." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.

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Finding a Voice

by Lü Pin

A leading Chinese feminist tells her story.

Lü Pin speaking with Leta Hong Fincher at the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin, July 2017.
Photo by Anita Back.

Lü Pin is a journalist, activist, scholar, and the founder of Feminist Voices (女权之声), an online media outlet that inspired countless young women to join China’s growing feminist movement. Lü collaborated with the “Feminist Five,” a group of activists briefly jailed by the government who worked on a range of issues, including anti-domestic violence laws, gender equity, and LGBTQ rights. The Chinese government shut down Feminist Voices in 2018 after it launched a campaign against sexual harassment. Lü now lives in New York.

When I started writing this article, Feminist Voices had been deleted for six months and ten days. Yes, I have been keeping track of the time: ten days, fifteen days, thirty days, sixty days, three months, six months… The first week after it disappeared from the internet, my heart was filled with mourning; every day I lay in bed and cried. As time went by, I seemed to see a figure drifting away, but her soul was still near me. And her name will always linger in my mind.

Losing Feminist Voices was like losing a loved one, or even like having a part of myself die before my eyes. I must put this story into words, in the first person, because people should know that online censorship and persecution do not only erase information; they cause psychological and physical pain to real people. Another important reason to write this is to prevent the memory of Feminist Voices from being erased entirely. To preserve and spread the intellectual contributions that it has created—that is the real purpose of this essay.

Starting Out

In September 2009, I founded the magazine that would become Feminist Voices. At first, I called it Women's Voices—a less confrontational name. I was the only editor. I had resigned from my job as a journalist several years earlier and was working with women's NGOs. My goal was to help spread feminist activism and ideas. In the introduction to the first issue of Women's Voices, I explained that I wanted to “provide a critical gender perspective in the media and help popularize China’s feminist movement."

At the time, Women's Voices was an e-magazine in the .doc file format, which was distributed by  email and also available for download from several websites. It came out once a week. Every issue contained was a roundup of social and cultural news as well as feminist actions. The form was very rudimentary. I had no money to hire a designer, and I didn’t think design was important. Many people suggested that I convert the .doc files into PDF documents to appear more "advanced." I refused, because most readers didn't have PDF reading software on their computers. I wanted Women's Voices to be able to reach the most readers possible in the cheapest and simplest way.

I also wanted to get readers to participate in the project. At the time, I had about 1,000 subscribers, many of whom had expressed their enthusiasm for the feminist movement by reading this e-magazine. I urged them to suggest topics and opinions, published their letters and contributions, and devised simple ways to interview them and compile their insights. For instance, I used a group text to send messages on Chinese New Year's Eve to ask readers about their views on CCTV’s coverage of the upcoming Spring Festival, which many feminists thought was sexist. And I relied on readers to help disseminate the e-magazine: to forward it to their relatives, friends, classmates, and students.

The mother of one of our readers told us that she was surprised by Women's Voices. She had never read anything like it before. Before our magazine, the conversation among feminists in China was quite academic and aimed only at a small audience. For the first time, Women's Voices made many people recognize that feminist ideas could address China's current social reality and give many people new, critical ideas. Women's Voices had no intention of producing a "classic" or eternal discourse. Rather, we wanted to work with our readers to better understand contemporary  issues and events. I hoped that our efforts would help illuminate the situation of feminists in China and strengthen our movement.

It was not possible to build a women’s movement solely through electronic media, due to the simplicity and constraints of the medium. However, through Women's Voices, I got to know young people who were interested in feminism. Many of them were only children, daughters, women who had gotten higher education, and were living in big cities. They were not only reluctant to live a life of conformity; they were reluctant to tolerate gender inequality.

By 2010, social media had become widespread in China. That April, Women's Voices set up an account on the microblogging site Sina Weibo—the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Initially, we used it to publish our own original content. In April 2011, at a reader's suggestion, the Women's Voices microblog changed its name to Feminist Voices and became the first public platform on Chinese social media that had “feminist” in its name. From this time onward, our focus shifted to social media. Within the network structure of Weibo, we began to establish a feminist community online.

At that time, the word "feminism" was still taboo in China. I used to search for accounts tagged with "feminism" on Weibo, but I couldn't find any that were really oriented around feminism besides ours. So when Women's Voices began publishing the Feminist Voices microblog, my friends worried we would scare people away. However, the opposite happened. Feminist Voices began to take off. It grew as Weibo grew. At the same time, we established our own, independent channels.

Into the Streets

On Valentine's Day 2012, under the direction of Feminist Voices, a group of young activists organized a public event at the Beijing City Center. The purpose was to call for the passage of anti-domestic violence laws—there were none on the books—and the theme was “injured bride.” Dressed in white wedding gowns with fake blood smeared on the front, women walked through downtown Beijing holding signs that read "Violence Is Not Love" and “Hitting Is Not Intimacy.”

This was the first time that the new Chinese feminism appeared in public, bringing a significant strategic update of the feminist movement with youth as the subject. It was also the beginning of a new strategy at Feminist Voices: we started to coordinate online communication with offline organizations. Ten days later, feminists organized a public event called "Occupy the Men's Bathroom,” which demanded more female public toilets to make the ratio of male to female toilets equal. (A young college student began the movement when she and a group of other protesters held signs outside men's public restrooms in Beijing saying, "Men, please let women use the bathroom first,” and asking men to let women in line use the men's bathroom. The campaign spread across the country and was successful in Guangzhou, where the city government promised to build more female toilets.)

The “Occupy the Men's Bathroom” action earned sensationalist coverage from the Chinese media and quickly became one of the top ten trending topics on Weibo. However, the keyword associated with the event was quickly banned from Weibo searches. The feminist topics emerging on social media immediately ran into trouble with censorship.

More feminist actions continued in the following months. In June 2012, a public post by Shanghai Metro on their Weibo account encouraging female passengers to “dress appropriately to avoid harassment” sparked a major debate on sexual harassment. On June 24th, a group of anonymous protesters demonstrated in the Shanghai subway by holding signs that said, “It’s fine for me to be sexy, it’s not ok for you to touch” (我可以骚,你不能扰, Wo keyi sao, Ni bu neng rao, a rhyming phrase). Photos of these protesters were sent to us via text message and then posted to Weibo on the Feminist Voices account. This post made great waves—it was shared more than 2000 times—and triggered a heated online debate.

In the ensuing controversy, sexual harassment became a public issue for the first time, marking the beginning of a new wave of activism by young Chinese feminists. In the course of this media frenzy, I realized that effective activism required us to communicate with the mainstream, launching public debates to shed light on feminist issues—and that only by launching these debates would a broader audience become aware of feminist ideas. In the beginning, Women's Voices had advocated “alternative” views. But we now realized that if we wanted Feminist Voices to enter the mainstream, we had to use mainstream means of empowering ordinary people.

From 2012 to 2015, China’s young feminist activists created many news events through radical actions. These had two direct effects. The first was to force several government departments to make policy concessions. In May 2013, for instance, the Ministry of Education announced that universities cannot set separate test score cutoffs for applicants of different genders, or establish gender ratios for admission, after a months-long advocacy campaign by feminists. The second effect was to spread feminist ideas more widely. The actions raised the public awareness of feminist issues and established a core community of activists committed to those issues.

Feminist Voices became the mouthpiece for this group of young people on social media. Feminist Voices had always tried to play the role of leading and coordinating the online feminist community by posting daily discussions, but we now hoped to bring those discussions into mainstream society.

This was not an easy task, for many reasons. At the time, Weibo imitated Twitter and restricted the number of characters to 140. Within this extremely limited range, figuring out how to express ourselves thoughtfully was difficult for me and my colleagues. We had many arguments.

Another challenge we had to navigate was the emphasis that social media platforms place on getting more followers. From the beginning to the end, Feminist Voices was the most popular women’s rights platform on the Chinese internet. We were proud of this and we kept increasing our number of followers. On the other hand, popularity was not our only goal. I had told my young colleagues countless times that we shouldn’t be sensational or emotional, and that our tone should always remain resolutely cool and calm. In my opinion, sensationalism is a way of manipulating your audience. It’s a way to use your readers so that they do not think. In this way, it is anti-feminist.

Ultimately, we weren’t a media outlet. Our real goal was not to encourage more people to read us, but to encourage more people to join actions aimed at changing Chinese society. Therefore, for us, communication was only one path to a larger goal: organization and mobilization. This is the biggest difference between alternative media and mass media. Alternative media are the engines of social movements.

Closing In

In 2014, Feminist Voice reached its peak. We had popular accounts across multiple platforms, including Weibo, WeChat, and Douban (a social networking site for young people). We developed a series of video programs and independent documentaries that we distributed on those platforms. We supported a feminist community center, which was open every day, and a theater group that put on feminist plays, while keeping in touch with young feminists, NGOs, and gender researchers across the country. We also gave dozens of public lectures each year at universities and communities in cities.

At this time, however, China's social environment was becoming increasingly repressive. Liberal intellectuals no longer occupied positions as dissenters or thought leaders within mass media and social media. In 2013, after Xi Jinping took office, the government placed  new restrictions on speech. It adopted stricter censorship rules and used criminal persecutions to crack down on citizens' speech and actions. The state also intensified its control of social media by censoring organic content and creating their own social media propaganda.

In August 2013, the government staged the “Eating Bao” event in Beijing. President Xi showed up at an ordinary bao shop, pretending to be a man of the people. Many users  posted photos of Xi ordering and eating on Weibo, giving a new image to his leadership. However, this performance was a coordinated, top-down propaganda operation. The government ensured that the photos of Xi dominated the Chinese internet. Moreover, this event had far-reaching implications. The “Eating Bao” event was one of the first cases where the Chinese government directly intervened in social media for propaganda purposes, and it inaugurated a new era of stronger state regulation of online speech. Afterwards, the internet would no longer be a so-called "free zone," but would become an important site of authoritarian governance.

The space for activism was never large in China, but under Xi it has shrunk sharply. In 2014, the Chinese government arrested nearly 1,000 human rights defenders. China’s feminist movement was reaching a crossroads. On the one hand, a feminist community had taken  shape on social media by the second half of 2014. A broad debate on feminist themes no longer needed to rely on the instigation of core activists. Rather, it was happening spontaneously. On the other hand, the government was constantly harassing and threatening feminist organizers, including the editors of Feminist Voices. These two phenomena coexisted, bringing both excitement and anxiety. In early 2015, I said to a friend, "People outside the inner circle will cheer because of the progress of feminism. People inside will feel more and more anxious. The government has seen the subversiveness of the feminist movement, so some of the feminist activists have been been targeted."

Online harassment—possibly directed by the government—became increasingly common. It came in multiple forms, and the platforms did little to prevent it. Early on, Chinese social media platforms had a "free-for-all" attitude. This could be seen in the phenomenon of the "human flesh search" on Weibo, where users publicly distribute the offline details and whereabouts of people who seemingly deserve public scorn. Similar to “doxxing,” this practice straddles the line between grassroots justice and pure harassment.

Features like creating a "blocked list" on Weibo was not possible until late 2009, and even then harassers could continuously create new, anonymous accounts that let them continue attacking you. Regulations to protect users of online platforms were nonexistent, with legal means often unavailable to pursue online harassers. It wasn't until after 2015 that new laws were put into place that increased a platform's accountability for user interactions (as well as opening the door to state surveillance). Overall, however, the platforms continue to prioritize engagement and traffic over the wellbeing of the users.

More importantly, online censorship became both more stringent and more subtle. It was as if people on Weibo were gathered in a town square, but everyone was trapped in an invisible cage. The self-censorship was exhausting. Where was the boundary of permissible speech? What was the cost of crossing it? No one knew, so each of us had to try to evaluate every instance for ourselves. Looking back on that period, I’m proud that I never let the fear of censorship prevent me from saying what I wanted to say on Weibo. It’s not that I didn’t consider the risks. But I didn’t feel that we should keep silent because we were afraid of having the account deleted by the censors. For example, we thought long and hard about publishing a piece written by the scholar Ai De Ming on the feminist activist Wang Li Hong. Even if censorship did end up happening, the deletion of our account was nothing compared to what happened to the feminist activists who were thrown into prison such as Wang, who was sentenced to nine months for organizing a demonstration to defend three Fujian bloggers convicted of defamation.

From the Square to the Alley

Ultimately, however, we did become a target of state repression. During the Spring Festival of 2015, Feminist Voices launched an initiative to protest gender discrimination at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. Feminist Voices started a WeChat group for the event, where people posted critiques. Some of the critiques went viral, as people from the group wrote articles that were circulated widely. However, we paid a price. In the aftermath, Feminist Voices suffered its first large-scale review by government censors. Many of our posts were deleted or blocked.

This happened around the time that the wave of feminist actions in China was coming to a climax. On March 5, 2015, I went to New York to attend a United Nations meeting and planned to stay for two weeks. The next day, five young feminist activists were arrested in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou because they planned to organize volunteers to hand out flyers against sexual harassment in the bus stations of ten cities on the same day. This became known as the "Feminist Five" case. For the first time in its history, the Chinese Communist Party publicly suppressed a feminist action. Feminist activity was criminalized in a country where the constitution guarantees "equality between men and women." After thirty-seven days, the five sisters were released, but young feminist activists were terrified. Since then, many offline feminist activities have been cancelled, and the state-controlled mass media has reported almost no public feminist activities.

As for Feminist Voices, we survived, despite thorough investigations by the state. Still, we were forced to downsize. We closed the community center, and almost completely stopped organizing public events. But we maintained our accounts on the two most important social media platforms, Weibo and WeChat, and we continued to release original content—although many of our posts were quickly deleted by state censors. Due to continuous monitoring and threats, Feminist Voices had to become much more low-key. Continuing to exist became a struggle.

During this period, we found that our WeChat account showed better growth. WeChat is a mobile social application developed by Tencent. On WeChat, messages can be seen by your social circle, but not on the open internet. If Weibo is a town square, where everyone can see each other, then WeChat is more like an alley, where only a limited number of people can gather. That’s why WeChat is more suitable for connecting a close community.  

Feminist Voices became more active on WeChat, and our readers carried on many vibrant  feminist discussions in the comment area. On Weibo, by contrast, our influence declined. One of the reasons was that there were many other women's rights accounts. These accounts paid more attention to women's daily life, and weren’t focused on activism.  

Even as we tried to be more low-key, however, Feminist Voices remained a target of the state. In February 2017, following the US women's strike, the government banned our Weibo account for one month. (The exact reason for the ban remains unclear, but the government was presumably concerned that our coverage of the US women’s strike would help further inspire the Chinese feminist movement; at that time the government was also restricting any communications critical of President Trump, since they expected Trump to be beneficial to them.) The editorial department decided to use this month as a special period. Through WeChat, we published many articles on the history of feminist activism, along with hundreds of photos from supporters from mainland China, Hong Kong, and other countries. (The photos included women wearing pink pussyhats holding signs that said, "Sina Weibo does not care about equality,” and men in Rosie the Riveter poses with signs that said, "I need Feminist Voices!") At the end of the ban, the editorial department sent the following letter of thanks:

Feminism has gone from the periphery to the center of the public eye. As a movement, it is constantly facing new situations and challenges. We want to thank you, not only for your concern, your support and perseverance in the face of crisis and doubt cast on women’s voices, but also for your firm stand with feminism… We have always intended to persist; your choice to stand with us affirmed our mission. We know this was a choice based on your values, and not an easy choice to make.


During the following year, the pressure on feminist activists in China escalated. In May 2017, the head of the All-China Women’s Federation—the country’s official women’s rights organization with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party—made a public speech accusing feminists of spreading Western ideas. They alleged that “Western hostile forces... actively peddled Western feminism” and “female supremacy” under the banner of “poverty alleviation,” “charity,” “empowerment,”  and other labels.

The All-China Women’s Federation is basically a megaphone for government propaganda. Its conflation of feminism with “Western hostile forces” isn’t something that the organization’s leadership came up with on their own, but rather absorbed from the official state-controlled discourse. And this discourse, backed by violent suppression, was becoming increasingly anti-feminist. It was becoming okay to openly condemn feminists and even to circulate the most ridiculous rumors, such as the false claim that Saudi Arabia funded Feminist Voices. These attacks not only sapped our energy—energy we could have otherwise used to help women. They also created a malicious environment that made feminists and their supporters silent, afraid, and isolated.

In January 2018, the #MeToo movement began to rise in China, and women‘s anger that had accumulated for a long time against sexual harassment finally broke out. Almost everything happened on the internet because it was difficult to move offline. At this time, Feminist Voices only provided support by sharing articles via Weibo and WeChat. But when the “relevant departments”—China’s domestic security agencies—tried to convict the organizers of the movement, they didn’t target the young activists and students at the forefront. They targeted Feminist Voices.

In the middle of the night on March 8, 2018, Feminist Voices was shut down on Weibo because of the “posting of sensitive and illegal information.” After a few hours, the WeChat account was also banned, under the vague charge of “violating relevant laws and regulations.” On its last day, Feminist Voices had 250,000 followers on both platforms.

The next day, on March 9, 2018, the WeChat index—similar to Twitter’s trending topics—showed a significant increase in the popularity of the word "feminist," apparently related to the crackdown on Feminist Voices. Then, ten days later, a huge WeChat public account, whose daily theme was completely unrelated to feminism, issued a long article accusing Feminist Voices of being related to “criminal prostitution groups” and “outside reactionary forces.” This very sensational article quickly gained tens of millions of views online. However, when we tried to publish a rebuttal, it was removed after only 4,000 clicks. Any mentions of Feminist Voices’ legal work—such as our unsuccessful attempt to sue Weibo and WeChat in order to challenge the closure of our accounts—were banned, along with any articles or photos sent by our readers or supporters. WeChat shut down some supporters’ personal accounts, and Weibo even forbade users from using our logo as an internet avatar.

After that, the popularity of search terms related to feminism on the Chinese internet plummeted. Obviously, people had gotten the message that feminism was “unpopular” and should be taboo. This represented yet another front in the war that the state had been waging against feminism since 2015. However, this time, the means was no longer criminal investigation but online repression. Its purpose was to obliterate the social contribution of feminists, cut off our social network, abolish feminist actions’ legitimacy, and drive us out of the public spaces where we have been working hard for the past few years.

At that time, from New York, I wrote in an article:

Many people may not understand why feminism is a "sensitive" topic, and I have always felt the same way. Regardless of the personal views of its participants, China’s feminist movement does not oppose the government agenda, and it has always paid more attention to economic, social, and cultural rights than civil and political rights. The policies and reforms advocated by the feminist movement do not touch the core of political power. However, we do not make the rules. I have gradually come to understand that there are three other factors that had to be considered. The first is that feminism is ultimately critical and serves to ask, “Who is responsible?” Second, any force that shows social organization and mobilization will be taboo, no matter what its claims are. Third, when the public space collapses, feminism cannot escape that kind of disaster. When dissenting thoughts and opinions are removed, feminist thought is also removed. In the future, we can go underground, but we will become isolated. Feminists cannot publicly preach and advocate for our cause…

At that time, I said, "We have no choice but to resist." But how were we supposed to resist? Even though I was free, in the United States, I felt like a person who was being held captive.

In the most painful period, I was grateful for the companionship and dedication of my friends.  I had never met many of them. They were our readers, and they created pictures, articles, and comics for Feminist Voices. Their contributions that were now deleted by the online platforms, their accounts that were canceled and no longer existed—all that they had sacrificed became part of a precious friendship.

I have come to realize that it is not the wisdom of leaders, but the contributions of the many “ordinary” feminists that keep the feminist movement alive. The rank and file contribute a large amount of unpaid work, and broadcast the work of Feminist Voices by relaying articles and working around censorship. It is through them that I had realized more deeply than ever that Feminist Voices was so important to everyone. They remembered how they used to find Women's Voices in the past when it consisted of .doc files, starting from the era of desktop computers, starting in high school, reading every day, saving the articles.

Some people said that our magazine was their best friend. Some people said that our magazine was alive. Some people said that the death of Feminist Voices felt like the death of a famous singer. Of course, I didn’t make that comparison myself. It was only until after Feminist Voices was gone that I realized that the purpose of creating feminist knowledge was to share and disseminate that knowledge.

When one part of our life dies, we take what we are left with and work hard to move on. This is the responsibility of social activists. I will always mourn Feminist Voices. It is such a beautiful name. It carries the enthusiasm, persistence, faith, and love of so many people, and I am proud and sad for it. I will also guard the intellectual riches created by Feminist Voices and strive to ensure that its history is not forgotten.  

But I can't end on that note. The government may have blocked Feminist Voices, but they cannot block the feminist movement. About a month after the closing of Feminist Voices, the Chinese #MeToo movement set off a new wave of conversation and activism. By August 2018, an unprecedented, shocking tide of feminist activity had taken off —even if participants were not foregrounding the term "women’s rights." (In fact, some people online used emoji to avoid censorship. Instead of posting “#MeToo,” they used the emoji for a bowl of rice (mi) and a rabbit (tu), which together sound the same as “me too.”)

In 2012, I thought that we were starting a campaign. In 2015, I feared that the campaign was about to fail—I was wrong. In 2018, I finally realized that our campaign was just beginning. The movement is vast and networked: it has no central  leadership. But this does not mean that it doesn’t need competent communicators, organizers, and trainers. As I write this article, we have begun to pursue the next stage of our campaign.

This piece appears in Logic's seventh issue, "China." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.

< Back to the Table of Contents

Issue 7: China 中国

Our seventh issue, "China 中国", is now available in print and digital formats.

The “world’s factory” has long been patronized as a place of copying, rather than creativity. But in fact, since its founding, the People’s Republic has been driven by dreams of rapid modernization and innovation, with engineers turned politicians drafting policy at Zhongnanhai. Apps in China now operate at scales American entrepreneurs only dream of. Our China issue explores the situation on the ground, from biometric surveillance of Muslims in Xinjiang to the new global map that Chinese tech is drawing.

You can find the table of contents and excerpts below.


"Code Red" by The Editors (full piece)
The Chinese internet is coming for you. Or so we often hear.


“A Brief History of the Chinese Internet” by Graham Webster
The internet has transformed China, but not in the ways that American observers expected.

“QR is King” by Chenxin Jiang
A report from the frontier of a cashless future.

“Leninism 2.0” by Nick Frisch
A genealogy of the Chinese Communist Party’s relationship to technology.

“The Chinese Burner” by Chen Qiufan (full piece)
A Chinese perspective on Burning Man.

Command and Control

"Finding a Voice" by Lü Pin (full piece)
How feminist voices were silenced on the Chinese internet.

“Ghost World” by Darren Byler (full piece)
The Uyghur lives that power China's new security tech.

“The Messy Truth About Social Credit” by Shazeda Ahmed (full piece)
Separating the fact from the fiction of China’s social credit system.

“Pepe the Sad Frog Coloring Book and Chinese Language Guide” by Fei Liu
A meme mutation has made Pepe the Frog into an online Chinese sensation.

Social Webs

“Bullet Time” by Christina Xu (full piece)
An inquiry into how young people are hanging out on the internet.

“Another Country” by Hatty Liu
A report on digital life beyond the megacity.

“Chinese Pastoral” by Pu Yan
What happens when town and country collide.

“Disappearing City” by Ting Guo
A meditation on sex, love, and commerce in Hong Kong.

Chain Reactions

“Crypto with Chinese Characteristics: Eric Meltzer on The New New Thing (full piece)
A conversation about the booming world of Chinese blockchain.

“Bubbles and Opportunities,” by Chuanwei Zou
An analysis from China’s leading cryptocurrency expert.

“Busker from an Alternate Future” by Jason Li and Susan Lin
Imagining the future with objects available today.


“Let There Be Light” by Chen Qiufan
An excerpt from the science-fiction novel Waste Tide.

“Uneven and Combined Development: Hao Jingfang on Building the Future”
A conversation about picturing different possibilities.

“Paper Animals: Ken Liu on Writing and Translating Science Fiction”
How do you make a world?