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As China’s Internet Disappears, ‘We Lose Parts of Our Collective Memory’

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Chinese people know their country’s internet is different. There is no Google, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. They use euphemisms online to communicate the things they are not supposed to mention. When their posts 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, beneath a facade bustling with short videos, livestreaming and e-commerce, their internet — and collective online memory — is disappearing in chunks.

A post on WeChat on May 22 that was widely shared reported that nearly all information posted on Chinese news portals, blogs, forums, social media sites between 1995 and 2005 was no longer available.

“The Chinese internet is collapsing at an accelerating pace,” the headline said. Predictably, the post itself was soon censored.

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

It’s impossible to determine exactly how much and what content has disappeared. But I did a test. I used China’s top search engine, Baidu, to look up some of the examples cited in Mr. He’s post, focusing on about the same time frame 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, both of whom Mr. He had searched for. I also searched for 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 looked, too, for results for China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who during the period was the governor of two big provinces. Search results of senior Chinese leaders are always closely controlled. I wanted to see what people could find if they were curious about what Mr. Xi was like before he became a national leader.

I got no results when I searched for Ma Yun, which is Jack Ma’s name in Chinese. I found three entries for Ma Huateng, which is Pony Ma’s name. A search for Liu Chuanzhi turned up seven entries.

There were zero results for Mr. Xi.

Then I searched for one of the most consequential tragedies in China in the past few decades: the Great Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008, which killed over 69,000 people. It happened during a brief period when Chinese journalists had more freedom than the Communist Party would usually allow, and they produced a lot of high-quality journalism.

When I narrowed the time frame to May 12, 2008, to May 12, 2009, Baidu came up with nine pages of search results, most of which consisted of articles on the websites of the central government or the state broadcaster China Central Television. One caveat: 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 had to have been a small fraction of the coverage at that time, much of which was published on the sites of newspapers and magazines that sent journalists to the epicenter of the earthquake. I didn’t find any of the outstanding news coverage or outpouring of online grief that I remembered.

In addition to disappearing content, there’s a broader problem: China’s internet is shrinking. There were 3.9 million websites in China in 2023, down more than a third from 5.3 million in 2017, according to the country’s internet regulator.

China has one billion internet users, or nearly one-fifth of the world’s online population. Yet the number of websites using Chinese language make up only 1.3 percent of the global total, down from 4.3 percent in 2013 — a 70 percent plunge over a decade, according to Web Technology Surveys, which tracks online use of top content languages.

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

One reason for the decline is that it is technically difficult and costly for websites to archive older content, and not just in China. But in China, the other reason is political.

Internet publishers, especially news portals and social media platforms, have faced heightened pressure to censor as the country has made an authoritarian and nationalistic turn under Mr. Xi’s leadership. Keeping China’s cyberspace politically and culturally pure is a top order of the Communist Party. Internet companies have more incentive to over-censor and let older content disappear by not archiving.

Many people have had their online existences erased.

Two weeks ago, Nanfu Wang found that an entry about her on a Wikipedia-like site was gone. Ms. Wang, a documentary filmmaker, searched her name on the film review site Douban and came up with nothing. Same with WeChat.

“Some of the films I directed had been deleted and banned on the Chinese internet,” she said. “But this time, I feel that I, as a part of history, have been erased.” She doesn’t know what triggered it.

Zhang Ping, better known by his pen name, Chang Ping, was one of China’s most famous journalists in the 2000s. His articles were everywhere. Then in 2011, his writing provoked the wrath of the 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 negated.”

When my Weibo account was deleted in March 2021, I was saddened and angered. It had more than three million followers and thousands of posts recording my life and thoughts over a decade. Many of the posts were about current affairs, history or politics, but some were personal musings. I felt a part of my life had been carved away.

Many people intentionally hide their online posts because they could be used against them by the party or its proxies. In a trend called “grave digging,” nationalistic “little pinks” pour over past online writings of intellectuals, entertainers and influencers.

For Chinese, our online memories, even frivolous ones, can become baggage we need to unload.

“Even though we tend to think of the internet as somewhat superficial,” said Ian Johnson, a longtime China correspondent and author, “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 who work underground, he cited the Internet Archive for Chinese online 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 C.C.P.,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “It’s history that justifies the party’s continued rule.”

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

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

Mr. He, author of the WeChat post that went viral, is deeply pessimistic that China’s erasure of history can be reversed.

“If you can still see some early information on the Chinese internet now,” he wrote, “it is just the last ray of the setting sun.”



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