One rainy – very stormy – night in Hong Kong last September 2019, my boyfriend and I were trying to figure out what to do. Going out seemed unwise, but it was Friday night and we had exhausted our Netflix options.
Instead we decided to test the limits of censorship on the Chinese app WeChat.
We decided to do this after reading some news in a forum on how WeChat blocks slogans linked to the Hong Kong protests immediately after they are posted. We thought it would be funny. Whether it was smart is another question.
Therefore, I set as my status the official chant from the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – something like Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times. After an hour, nothing had happened, thus we forgot about it. While it did not reach Chinese censorship directly, this small gesture would trigger a series of consequences for me and my academic future that I didn’t expect.
To begin with, I must give you some context. I am a double-degree master’s student from CBS and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences under the Sino-Danish Center. This means that I am enrolled as a student at both universities, and the main campus is in Northern Beijing.
I was always aware that studying in China would have some implications in terms of censorship involving topics we could/couldn’t discuss at school, but I was not aware it would affect my personal life.
We decided to test the limits of censorship on the Chinese app WeChat
A week went by and suddenly I was receiving unfriendly messages from Chinese students from the Sino-Danish Center whom I didn’t know. Messages that would lead to fruitless discussions between two different irreconcilable political stances and thus, I decided to delete the status as I realized it had been a mistake to put such things on a Chinese-censored media platform.
However, when I thought the matter was over, I received an unexpected message I couldn’t ignore: a Chinese officer from the center asked me where I was and whether I was doing my internship at the embassy.
I felt it was a strange thing to ask, given she has no relation to my program in itself, but I limited myself to just saying no, that I was at the UN in Bangkok, to which she replied: So that is why you support Hong Kong? You should go over there and see it for yourself.
I don’t understand the relation between the United Nations and supporting Hong Kong, I was confused, and I only answered that, as a matter of fact, I had been in Hong Kong just the previous week. The rest of the conversation resulted in a rather hostile conversation informing me that some classmates – that I have never heard of – felt attacked by my actions and finally, she threatened me that if I did not issue a statement of apology about this issue, I could be expelled, as the matter would be transferred to the university board.
I admit it was a mistake trying to test the censorship of an app by posting the slogan, but I never thought it could lead to expulsion.
Freedom of speech 0 – China 1
I asked the Danish side of the SDC office for advice. The guy whom I talked to was incredibly understanding and talked to the director of the Sino-Danish Center and all he could say was that he was glad I was not in China as this could have led to deportation.
Just that. I did not receive any support; of course, I did not expect everyone to just stop whatever they were doing for me, but a bit of understanding and empathy – and above all, advice – could have been in order since Denmark preaches freedom of press and freedom of speech.
I understand that there are certain topics I could not discuss in class and therefore I never did, but this was out of an academic context. I would never even consider going to a board, teacher or any other staff from a university when a classmate shares something on Facebook that I disagree with; but on a positive note, we can say that I was able to learn through experience how these things work in China.
In the end, I issued a statement apologizing for the distress my actions caused my classmates. And I was genuinely sorry if any Chinese student who didn’t know me felt they had to bring my personal opinions to the board because they disagreed.
I am also sorry that standing up for my values and beliefs almost cost me my master’s program.
But above all, I am sorry I didn’t delete the status on time as, since then, I haven’t been able to write anything without being scared of censorship and its consequences, including in other western media platforms such as Facebook. Needless to say, I deleted my WeChat profile out of fear for future consequences.
Freedom of speech 0 – China 1