With the disappearance of the Internet in China, “we lose parts of our collective memory”

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 shouldn't 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 finding that, beneath a facade full of short videos, livestreaming and e-commerce, their internet – and collective online memory – is disappearing in pieces.

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

“Chinese Internet is collapsing at an accelerating pace,” reads the headline. Predictably, the post itself was soon censored.

“We believed the Internet had a memory,” He Jiayan, a blogger who writes about successful businessmen, 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 gave it a try. I used China's major 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, both of whom Mr. He 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 for results related to China's top leader, Xi Jinping, who was governor of two major provinces during that period. The research results of senior Chinese leaders are always strictly controlled. I wanted to see what people curious about what Mr. Xi was like before he became national leader might find.

I didn't get any results when I searched But Yun, which is Jack Ma's name in Chinese. I found three entries for But Huatengwhich is Pony Ma's name. A search for Liu Chuanzhi seven entries appeared.

There were no results for Mr. Xi.

Then I looked up one of the most important tragedies experienced in China in recent decades: the great Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, which killed over 69,000 people. It happened during a brief period in which Chinese journalists had more freedom than normally afforded by the Communist Party and produced much high-quality journalism.

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

Each results page had about 10 headlines. My research found what must have been a small portion of coverage at the time, much of which was published on newspaper and magazine sites that sent reporters to the earthquake's epicenter. I didn't find any of the great news or outpouring of grief online that I remembered.

Beyond disappearing content, there's a larger problem: China's internet is shrinking. There were 3.9 million websites in China as of 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 a fifth of the world's online population. However, the number of websites using the Chinese language represents just 1.3% of the global total, down from 4.3% in 2013 – a 70% decline in a decade, according to Web Technology Surveys, which monitor online use of the most important content languages.

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

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

Internet publishers, particularly news portals and social media platforms, have faced increased censorship pressure as the country has taken an authoritarian and nationalistic turn under Xi's leadership. Keeping China's cyberspace politically and culturally pure is a fundamental task of the Communist Party. Internet companies have more incentive to over-censor and let older 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 Wikipedia-like site had disappeared. Ms. Wang, a documentary filmmaker, searched for her name on the film review site Douban and found nothing. Same with WeChat.

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

Zhang Ping, better known by his pen name, Chang Ping, was one of the most famous Chinese journalists of the 2000s. His articles were everywhere. Then, in 2011, his writings provoked the ire of censors.

“My presence in public discourse has been stifled much more severely than I expected, and this 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 saddened and angry. It had more than three million followers and thousands of posts recording my life and thoughts over a decade. Many posts were about current events, history or politics, but some were personal reflections. I felt like a part of my life had been taken 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” pore over the past online writings of intellectuals, entertainers and influencers.

For Chinese people, online memories, even frivolous ones, can become baggage to unload.

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

In “Sparks,” a book by Johnson about courageous historians in China working clandestinely, he cited the Internet Archive for Chinese online sources in the endnotes because, he said, he knew they would all disappear sooner or later.

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

Johnson founded the China Unofficial Archives website, which seeks to preserve blogs, films and documents off the Chinese internet.

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

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

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

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