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As the Internet disappears in China, 'we lose parts of our collective memory'| GuyWhoKnowsThings

The Chinese know that the Internet in their country is different. There is no Google, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. They use euphemisms online to communicate things they are not supposed to mention. When their publications and accounts are censored, they accept it with resignation.

They live in a parallel online universe. They know it and even joke about it.

Now they are discovering that, under a facade full of short videos, live streaming and e-commerce, their Internet (and their collective online memory) is disappearing in pieces.

TO mail on WeChat on May 22 that was widely shared reported that almost all information published on Chinese news portals, blogs, forums and social networking sites between 1995 and 2005 was no longer available.

“The Chinese Internet is collapsing at a rapid pace,” the headline read. Unsurprisingly, the post itself was soon censored.

“We used to believe that the Internet had a memory,” He Jiayan, a blogger who writes about successful entrepreneurs, wrote in the post. “But we didn't realize that this memory is like that of a goldfish.”

It is impossible to determine exactly how much and what content has disappeared. But I did a test. I used China's main search engine, Baidu, to search for some of the examples cited in Mr. He's post, focusing on roughly the same time period between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.

I started with Alibaba's Jack Ma and Tencent's Pony Ma, two of China's most successful internet entrepreneurs, whom He had sought out. I also looked up Liu Chuanzhi, known as the godfather of Chinese entrepreneurs: he made headlines when his company, Lenovo, acquired IBM's personal computer business in 2005.

I also looked up results for China's top leader, Xi Jinping, who during that period was governor of two large provinces. Search results for senior Chinese leaders are always tightly controlled. I wanted to see what people could find if they were curious about what Xi was like before he became national leader.

I got no results when I searched ma yun, which is Jack Ma's name in Chinese. I found three entries for Ma Huatengwhich is the name of Pony Ma. a search for Liu Chuanzhi Seven entries appeared.

There were no results for Mr. Xi.

Then I looked up one of the biggest tragedies in China in recent decades: the Great Sichuan Earthquake on May 12, 2008, which killed more than 69,000 people. It occurred during a brief period when Chinese journalists had more freedom than the Communist Party would normally allow them and produced a lot of high-quality journalism.

When I narrowed the period from May 12, 2008 to May 12, 2009, Baidu returned nine pages of search results, most of which consisted of articles on the websites of the central government or state broadcaster Central Television from China. A word of caution: If you know the names of the journalists and their organizations, you can find more.

Each results page had about 10 headlines. My search found what must have been a small fraction of the coverage at the time, much of which was published on the sites of newspapers and magazines that sent journalists to the earthquake's epicenter. I didn't find any of the high-profile news coverage or online displays of grief that I remembered.

In addition to the disappearance of content, there is a broader problem: the Internet in China is shrinking. There were 3.9 million websites in China in 2023, more than a third fewer than the 5.3 million in 2017, according to the country's internet regulator.

China has one billion Internet users, or nearly a fifth of the world's online population. However, the number of websites using the Chinese language represents only 1.3 percent of the global total, down from 4.3 percent in 2013, a drop of 70 percent in a decade, according to Web Technology Surveyswhich tracks online usage of major content languages.

The number of Chinese websites is now only slightly higher than those in Indonesian and Vietnamese, and fewer than those in Polish and Persian. It is half of the sites in Italian and just over a quarter of those in Japanese.

One of the reasons for this decline is that websites find it technically difficult and expensive to archive old content, and not only in China. But in China the other reason is political.

Internet publishers, especially news portals and social media platforms, have faced increased pressure to censor as the country has taken an authoritarian and nationalist turn under Xi's leadership. Keeping China's cyberspace politically and culturally pure is one of the main orders of the Communist Party. Internet companies have more incentive to censor excessively and let old content disappear by not archiving it.

Many people have had their online existence erased.

Two weeks ago, Nanfu Wang discovered that an entry about her on a site similar to Wikipedia had disappeared. Ms. Wang, a documentary filmmaker, searched for her name on the movie review site Douban and found nothing. Same with WeChat.

“Some of the films I directed were removed and banned on the Chinese Internet,” he said. “But this time I feel like, as part of history, I have been erased.” She doesn't know what triggered it.

Zhang Ping, better known by his pseudonym, Chang Ping, was one of China's most famous journalists in the 2000s. His articles were everywhere. Then, in 2011, his writings drew the ire of censors.

“My presence in public discourse has been stifled much more severely than I anticipated, and that represents a significant loss of my personal life,” he told me. “My life has been denied.”

When my Weibo account was deleted in March 2021, I was sad and angry. I had over three million followers and thousands of posts chronicling my life and thoughts for a decade. Many of the posts were about current affairs, history or politics, but some were personal reflections. I felt like a part of my life had been taken away from me.

Many people intentionally hide their online posts because the party or its representatives could use them against them. In a trend called “grave digging,” nationalist “little roses” are spilling over the past online writings of intellectuals, artists and influencers.

For Chinese, our online memories, even the most frivolous ones, can become baggage we must get rid of.

“While we tend to think of the Internet as superficial,” said Ian Johnson, author and longtime China correspondent, “without many of these sites and things, we lose parts of our collective memory.”

In “sparks,” a book by Mr. Johnson about brave historians in China working underground, cited the Internet Archive for online Chinese sources in the endnotes because, he said, he knew they would all eventually disappear.

“History matters in every country, but it really matters to the CCP,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “It is history that justifies the continuity of the party's government.”

Mr. Johnson founded the China Unofficial Archives website, which seeks to preserve blogs, films and documents outside the Chinese Internet.

There are other projects to save Chinese memory and history from falling into the void. Greatfire.org It has several websites that provide access to censored content. China Digital Times, a nonprofit anti-censorship organization, archives works that have been or are in danger of being blocked. Mr. Zhang, the journalist, is its executive editor.

He, the author of the WeChat post that went viral, is deeply pessimistic that China's deletion of the story can be reversed.

“If any early information can still be seen on the Chinese Internet,” he wrote, “it is just the last ray of the setting sun.”

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