How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine

A protester in Istanbul holding a portrait of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, days after her death in police custody in Tehran. PHOTO: OZAN KOSE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
A protester in Istanbul holding a portrait of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, days after her death in police custody in Tehran. PHOTO: OZAN KOSE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

A letter purportedly about Iran’s police turned out to be an account of a Chinese interrogation, and it eluded Beijing’s internet censors for weeks.

China’s vaunted internet censors are capable of sifting an ocean of information and eradicating sensitive content within seconds. One young woman managed to hoodwink them for weeks.

The text of a letter purportedly sent from a Tehran prison began to circulate on the Chinese internet last year around Lunar New Year. Its author, writing under the name Mahsa, described how Iranian secret police snatched her during a crackdown on anti-headscarf protests and interrogated her about her feminist beliefs.

“When he pushed me to admit that all our work vilified the Supreme Leader, he didn’t even dare to say his name himself," read one passage. “What a joke!"

Over the following days, the letter reached thousands of Chinese readers, many of whom marveled at its familiar descriptions of state control. “Is this a strange land?" wrote one user on the popular social-media platform Weibo. “Or is this the homeland?"

The answer arrived weeks later when a new version appeared on overseas websites. It had footnotes and an epilogue revealing that “Mahsa" was a Chinese writer who had adopted the persona of an Iranian protester to tell the story of her own detention and interrogation. That writer would turn out to be Wu Qin, a former editor at a state-run media outlet.

Recently translated into English, Wu’s letter is a rare example of subversive writing in China that has managed to have enduring impact. Barriers to communication have soared to new heights as leader Xi Jinping gives priority to security above all else. In reaching for a roundabout way to tell her story, Chinese observers say, Wu has opened a new window into the challenges activists in China now wrestle with, and the links they have with others laboring under authoritarian rule around the globe.

Chinese government censorship, already some of the most suffocating in the world, has grown more intense in recent years. Authorities have rolled out digital filters that are exponentially faster than humans at finding and zapping sensitive content. Those systems are operated by a police force that has broadened its list of targets to include people who demonstrate even mild political defiance. That has all but eradicated the space for dissenting voices to spread and for political activists to communicate.

"As the wall gets higher and higher, the flow of information requires more creativity," said Jiang Xue, a prominent Chinese journalist. “The Letter from a Tehran Prison is a great inspiration."

Chinese observers said a dialing up of political controls in China began after a lone protester unfurled banners on a bridge in Beijing in the fall of 2022 calling for Xi to be deposed. The incident occurred as Xi was set to claim his norm-breaking third term as leader of the Communist Party. Wu, in her mid-30s, was caught up in the ensuing crackdown.

Based in Beijing, Wu often attended private gatherings of artists, activists and other intellectuals, many of whom were targeted by authorities after the bridge protest. That November, police from Beijing traveled to the southern city of Guangzhou, where Wu was staying with friends, and detained her along with three others, Wu said in an interview.

The police interrogated them overnight, then issued Wu 15 days of administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a vague offense the government often uses to round up activists. Pandemic travel restrictions prevented the police from transporting her back to Beijing, so they decided to let her off with a warning. They downloaded data from her devices before letting her go, she said.

Wu said she worried that authorities would find something in the data to justify arresting her again. Friends urged her to consider fleeing the country and to write a testimony in case she was taken into custody again.

She had paid close attention to the protests in Iran against headscarves. To give herself some distance from her experiences, she came up with the idea of writing about them as if they had taken place there instead. Cloaking her story in foreign clothing had the secondary benefit of helping it slip past censors, she said.

She gave Persian names to her friends and some prominent Chinese dissidents, and switched Chinese place names for places in Iran, which she had visited twice before. She said she named herself Mahsa in tribute to Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old whose 2022 death in police custody in Tehran sparked the Iranian protests.

“In the car, they incessantly berated me," she wrote. She described how irritated the police were at being dispatched from the capital to fetch her in the middle of the pandemic. “No one knew whether they would be able to make it back safely to their cozy nest in Tehran."

She described being taken to the basement of a police station and having male officers stand guard over her when she used the toilet. She wrote about feeling shame at giving up her device passwords almost immediately after her interrogation began.

After being released, she wrote, she struggled with the fractured memory that comes with living under constant censorship and surveillance, which often means communicating with loved ones by means of disappearing messages. “I reluctantly watch as messages full of warmth disappear after 10 seconds, 30 seconds, or one hour," she wrote in the letter, which was addressed to the author’s mother. “I don’t dare take screenshots because anything can become evidence."

The original version of the letter was published in January 2023, in a public account dedicated to the arts on the popular do-everything app WeChat. At the time, police were tracking down participants in nationwide protests against Covid restrictions that had broken out late the prior year. The letter’s portrayal of young dissidents being hounded by security officials struck a chord with liberal-minded readers, who shared it in their own social media feeds.

Parts of the letter contain minor details that are unlikely to be set in Iran, such as the crime of “picking quarrels," which only exists in China. Wu said she hoped those hints would be picked up by her readers, but not the censors.

Initially, few saw through the camouflage. An acclaimed online literature magazine, taking it as a work of translation, recommended it in an introduction to the hijab revolution.

A few days after the letter was published, Wu sat down at a restaurant at China’s border with Laos, and planned to make a run for freedom. She added footnotes to the letter that made explicit the connection to China, and shared it with friends. She told them to release the footnoted version if she was arrested attempting to leave.

Wu eventually settled in Germany. In March, feeling disconnected from her community in China, she decided to reveal herself as the author of the letter in a message on WeChat.

Within hours, the original version of the letter attracted tens of thousands more views—pushing its total readership above 100,000, according to the WeChat account that published it—before censors blocked it. All of Wu’s Chinese social-media accounts were subsequently suspended.

The storytelling power of Wu’s letter is a departure from the writings of previous, mostly male Chinese dissidents, which tended to be less personal, said Zeng Jinyan, a Sweden-based Chinese scholar on gender and social activism. She said it reflects the changing face of Chinese activism, which is increasingly being driven by women.

Now living in Berlin, Wu has resumed writing for a Chinese audience about dispossessed groups in other countries, such as Burmese people living in exile after the 2021 military coup in Myanmar.

Restriction of speech in China has made coherent expression all but impossible for activists there, Wu said.

“It’s a triumph if the activists can just take care of themselves, and a bonus if they can still find the energy and creativity to speak out," she said. “Resilience is crucial."

Write to Wenxin Fan at wenxin.fan@wsj.com

How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine
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How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine
How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine
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How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine
How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine
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How One Woman Duped China’s Censorship Machine
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