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Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’

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Yaxue Cao  |  China Change

This article was first published in China Change website on November 11, 2018

Around 10:10 pm eastern time on Nov. 8, as I was browsing my Twitter timeline and taking a breaking from editing a website post, a tweet by Wu Gan (吴淦) jumped into my vision. Even though he has gone for three years and a half, his avatar immediately stood out. It’s an auto-generated tweet that reads: “I just activated @Tweet_Delete on my account to automatically delete my old tweets (is.gd/delete)!” Instinctively, I pressed the “prt src” key:

It was 11 am on Nov. 9, Beijing Time. Wu Gan, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” is serving an eight-year sentence in a prison somewhere in the mountains on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. He was detained on May 20, 2015, outside the Jiangxi High People’s Court where he had been protesting the court’s denial of lawyers’ access to case files in the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case.” In December 2017 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subversion of state power” following secret detention, torture, and his refusal to admit guilt in exchange for lenient punishment.

I clicked on his account. It was emptied out – all 30,277 tweets from Nov. 2009 to May 2015 were gone. The tweet announcing the deletion soon disappeared as well. The circumstances of the deletion are shocking to many Chinese Twitter users because of the scale of the loss.

Wu Gan’s Twitter feed is not just anybody’s feed. In late 2008 he began to actively surf the Internet and frequent a vibrant forum called “Cat Eye Forum” (猫眼论坛) at www.tianya.cn, one of China’s earliest Internet portals. He wrote: “I learned of the earthquakes, the shoddy school buildings [that killed thousands of students]; I learned Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the school deaths. I was rather stirred. I began to write articles, and in 2009, I became an activist.”

In a remote town in western Hubei in May 2009, three township officials asked 21-year-old hotel waitress Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for “special services” and attempted to force themselves on her. Yujiao defended herself using a fruit knife, stabbing one of her would-be rapists to death and wounding another. She turned herself into the local public security authorities and was charged with intentional homicide.

The incident found instant resonance with netizens around the country. Compared to today, that time was still something of a “golden age” for online free speech, as the Great Fire Wall was not as fully developed as it is today and the Chinese government had yet to introduce a mechanism of effectively and thoroughly curbing public opinion on the internet.

The way the authorities handled Deng Yujiao’s case stirred outcry among masses of ordinary Chinese. They did not want to see a young girl be imprisoned as a murderess and possibly receive the death sentence for standing her ground against abusive officials. But help could only come from the people and the forces of public opinion.

Wu Gan, a 37-year-old Fujianese businessman who had served in the southern border troops, called upon fellow frequenters of the Cat Eye Forum to “take action to help this young lady who had defended her dignity with a fruit knife.”

A few days later, Wu Gan went to Hubei, spoke with Deng Yujiao’s family, and managed to meet Yujiao in hospital. A photo of the two together went viral. He persuaded the Deng family to engage lawyers for Yujiao and made arrangements with two lawyers in Beijing. A month later, the local court held a public hearing for Deng Yujiao’s case and handed down a verdict exempting her from punishment.

The Deng Yujiao incident was seen as an encouraging example of how public opinion could lead to justice; at the same time, it became the starting point for Wu Gan to enter the public sphere and conduct online and offline activism. Next, Wu Gan got involved in the case of Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), who had killed two chengguans (城管) officers (note: chengguan are Chinese urban enforcers infamous for using violence and intimidation) in self-defense. Wu Gan traveled to Shenyang to help Xia’s wife and son get legal help, and rallied public opinion on social media and at the same time recorded his activities and reflections.

Sadly, Wu Gan and thousands of concerned netizens were unsuccessful this time. Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death and executed in 2013. Over the next six years, Wu Gan helped with hundreds of rights defense cases across China by mobilizing public opinion online and working directly with victims on the ground. Most of the people he helped were the socially disadvantaged, such as Deng Yujiao and Xia Junfeng, who had suffered humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the powers-that-be.

Wu Gan’s activism, which he styled “butchering pigs,” aimed to pressure local officials using public opinion, the law, and his unique performance art to pursue social justice in places where the rule of law did not exist. In order to popularize his experiences, Wu Gan, who lacked university education, wrote three handbooks: “Guide to Butchering Pigs”, “Guide to Drinking Tea”, and the “Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes”. In these pamphlets, Wu taught fellow activists how to protect their rights by resisting the government and dealing with police interrogation and intimidation.

In China’s rights struggle over the last decade, Wu Gan occupies a unique position of seminal importance. He was the first detainee during the 709 crackdown; his steadfast resolve to expose torture and refusal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence is awe-inspiring.

In an editorial, the Washington Post quoted Wu Gan’s statement to the court: “For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights.”

Social media revolutionized Chinese citizen resistance, and Wu Gan was one of the most creative users of it. Not surprisingly, he quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Chinese communist party’s censorship organ and was barred from domestic platforms like Weibo, so Twitter became a safe haven for him and other human rights activists. There, they didn’t have to worry about their accounts being deleted, and they expressed their thoughts freely and left a record of their activities and thoughts – Twitter was their open diary.

Wu Gan’s Twitter account was such a diary.

At the beginning of this year, when I was doing research for an article, I was able to download his tweets from May 19, 2015, going back to the same date in 2014, reaching apparently the limit Twitter set for retrieving archives.

Take May and June, 2014, as an example: in May, Wu Gan and lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were in the county of Mayang in Huaihua, Hunan Province (湖南怀化麻阳县), where they were assisting a family that had been expropriated of their land, had their house demolished, and relatives in detention. In June, Wu Gan organized a few dozen people to observe the trial of a political prisoner in Hunan, as well as paying attention to the sentencing of Jiangxi’s Liu Ping (刘萍) and the detention of three civil disobedience activists in Guangzhou. That month, Wu Gan also went to Jingdezhen (景德镇) and met with a group of lawyers to work on overturning the the death sentence against four peasants who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. There, he talked to the relatives of the accused about how to use and weaponize the internet. At the same time, he had followed the development of practically all political cases, including those of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and Gao Yu (高瑜). Wu Gan also released information about donations he had received for completed activities, as well as his experiences, for instance in the Jiansanjiang case[involving rights lawyers beaten up for defending Falun Gong practitioners].

Wu Gan had some rather big ideas: he hoped that Chinese democracy activists overseas could set up a mock voting system for Chinese citizens to elect a Chinese president, as well as judges, legislators, and local officials.

As for current events, his views were often direct and insightful. He said, “If Taiwan still cannot take a hint from today’s situation in Hong Kong and continues to flirt with the Communist Party thinking that trade will lead to a good and risk-free future and think the wolf’s milk they’re drinking is free, one day the Chicoms are going to take back everything when they have an epileptic attack. No good can come of making a deal with the devil.”

In June that year, he also said he was occupied with his marriage, fixing up his house, and family matters in his hometown. He said he had to deal with his family life and that [his work on] justice would have to take a back seat for the time being. But afterward, it seems that he had forgotten about this statement.

One of my favorite Wu Gan tweets is: “Some people fancy that after Xi Jinping finishes the anti-corruption campaign and consolidates power, he will return back to the right path. How many times were these people kicked in the head by donkeys to come up with this kind of idea?”

As you can see, due to his extensive contacts with various groups and his involvement in many incidents, his Twitter served as a veritable history of China’s human rights struggle between 2009 to 2015. Today, while he finds himself behind bars, cut off from any means of communication with the outside world, his tens of thousands of tweets have been deleted with just a single click.

This goes beyond Wu Gan’s personal loss; it is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society.

What happened to Wu Gan’s tweets isn’t unique. In 2016, Sichuan human rights activist Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) not only had his Twitter posts deleted, but his entire account was closed and erased without any trace. There may well be more political prisoners who have been liquidated from online existence — it embarrasses me to admit that I have not paid the matter enough attention thus far.

The internet age has made information easier to produce and more convenient to circulate. However, It has also made it convenient for a highly sophisticated dictatorship, like the one in China, to wipe out the memories and records of people and even entire communities in an instant. They have been doing this all along, but in the last two or three years, the censorship has reached unprecedented heights in its scale and intensity.

For the Chinese government, it’s not enough to delete domestic social media content. They have been trying to extend their control to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China.

Like me, a scholar who studies the Chinese resistance movement was shocked and concerned about the erasure of Wu Gan’s Twitter record. She proposed the concept of “data ownership.” Chinese netizens are not only deprived of data ownership inside the Great Fire Wall; political prisoners and currently active Twitter users face threats to their data security as well.

The researcher urged me and my fellow human rights advocators to study methods of protecting Chinese netizens’ “data ownership” in foreign social media. The data security of those political prisoners who are in prison, or “sensitive people” who are not in prison but are strictly monitored and threatened by the government, is particularly urgent. Seeing the deletion of Twitter content belonging to Wu Gan and Chen Yunfei and the recent round of censorship targeting Chinese Twitter users (I will report on this in a separate article), we sense that the Chinese government will stop at no means to delete more content that they disagree with.

Large companies like Twitter should be held responsible for protecting the data security of political dissidents in authoritarian states. The researcher suggested that human rights organizations should negotiate with Twitter to develop a third-party mechanism to protect the social account data for Chinese political prisoners based on CECC’s relatively complete and constantly updated database(http://ppdcecc.gov/) of Chinese incarcerated for their dissident activities. This system could provide regular backups and prevent the prisoners’ account from being modified.

Right now, what is most urgent is that Twitter needs to know the shocking attacks on free speech that are quietly taking place. We ask Twitter to restore Wu Gan’s Twitter content and Chen Yunfei’s account from its backup database.

Ms. Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), another noted human rights activist and a close friend of Wu Gan, tweeted, “Can someone go talk with Twitter about this? We’re not in jail, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t even protect the Twitter account of a prisoner of conscience?”

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