China’s Week-long Debate over Censorship, Literature, and AO3

By: Cheryl

Archive of Our Own, or AO3, is a non-profit publishing platform run by the Organization for Transformative Works to support creative freedom. It supports over 70 languages including English, French, German, Arabic, Hebrew, Esperanto, Korean and Chinese. On Aug. 19, 2019, AO3 won a Hugo Award in the category of Best Related Work for its contribution to literature. On Feb. 29, 2020, China banned access to the website.

Here is an insider’s view of exactly how it happened and (still not) ended.

The banning of the famous award-winning fanfiction database Archive of Our Own (AO3) recently provoked a heated discussion over freedom of speech (which eventually evolved into an uncontrolled cyber mob) that involved millions of internet users in China.

It all started with one piece of fan work.

The butterfly fluttered its wings

On Feb. 26, a fanfiction named 下坠 (Falling) went viral amongst fans of The Untamed (陈情令), one of the most viewed online drama series in 2019 and a revolutionary production carrying a gay undertone that survived China’s strict broadcast policy (think Sherlock in the U.K.). The fanfiction, originally published on AO3, wrote about the love story between the show’s two main actors, and its hyperlink was crazily shared on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent.

It was an all happy and festive moment, with only one small issue lying ahead: Falling belonged to the RPS genre, which means it wrote about the real actors, instead of the characters they played. The actor Sean Xiao (肖战), whose name and image were appropriated into the realism story, was written by the author to be a drag queen and a prostitute.

The fans of Sean expressed their rage. They didn’t like the idea of their heartthrob being portrayed as in a romance with another male from the beginning, let alone this dressing style and profession he practiced in Falling. “Insulting” was their comment. Many expressed their concern over if the feminization over Sean’s screen image will impede with his acting career, which just went on the right track in 2019.

However, holding the belief that “freedom of speech should have boundaries,” their actions didn’t stop at merely expressing objections. The same day that Falling was widely shared, Sean’s fans bombarded the writer’s social media accounts with hundreds and thousands of abusive comments. Rather than bashing, they were attacking. “狙” was the verb often used to describe this sort of action, which translates as “to snipe.” Under “sniping,” the writer deleted all content in her account and left the site.

Then the “snipers” escalated this fandom matter to a political level.

How it lost control

Feeling encouraged by their victory, the “snipers” reported more writers to the police and other government agencies to help remove content they didn’t like. Fan leaders even wrote guidelines for effective report. The key words were “public platform, underage, prostitution and obscene content. It’s a severely negative influence to kids’ mental health and pollution to our online environment.” wrote a fan leader. “This is what you should say when you make the call. Do not mention names of the actors.”

Because China doesn’t have a classification system and all online content are required to be kids-friendly, their reporting was very successful.

As more and more writers’ accounts were inspected, screened and deleted due to reporting, the topic moved on to AO3, where Falling was originally published. Chinese netizens started to fear that the website would eventually be firewalled in favour of social stability, just like YouTube, Twitter and Google. “If AO3 gets banned, Sean and his fans will be pinned on the wall of shame forever,” so wrote a user in a half-hidden anonymous forum, commonly known as “Division II (二区).”

Because AO3 has an enormously large user group in China comprised of fans of all TV shows, movies, fictions, comics, animations and games, the scope of this discussion soon expanded from “bickering between fans of the show and fans of the actor” to a heated national online debate over freedom of speech.

“AO3 represents creative freedom,” wrote a verified user of Weibo. “Not-for-profit creative work shouldn’t be limited by copyright or funding, nor should there be too much restrictions for its topic or plot.” “The fact that such a website won the Hugo Award shows a signal.” His post had over a million shares.

“When the gunshot’s fired, there is no winner,” another user with over 10,000 followers voiced.

“We can’t remove all negativities from our literature and broadcast just because we’re too lazy to educate (people), because they do exist in real life,” wrote a verified entertainment news journalist.

The writers who were muted by the “snipers” voiced their anger too. “I’m not going to spoil these fandom idiots;” “Those who use the law as a weapon to clear out ‘the others’ are both stupid and evil;” “The fire will eventually burn on its own setter.”

In defence of their snitching behaviour, fan leaders argued that the writers broke the law, and that their works didn’t carry as much literary value to be called “literature.”

In a cultural/historical context

In fact, censorship and self-censorship in the fandom has been a long-existing problem in mainland China. The word “sniping” was created especially for the “fandom police” due to the lack of freedom of speech and the universality of cyberbullying. In a most extreme fandom, every commercial post about the celebrity will have fans preaching under the comment section, and criticizing will be strictly forbidden. These rules apply to not only the fans who wish to be accepted by their little circles, but to other internet users as well. Those who dare to publish anything negative about the celebrities will be “sniped” by the fans, which is seen as the most typical “fan behaviour” by Chinese netizens.

In defence of the fanfiction writers (and long-oppressed netizens), many online users compared this incident to the notorious Cultural Revolution, a historical incident in the 1960s that featured similar social movements like the silencing of different voices with violence, the widely encouraged and practiced snitching on family members, the ideology of putting one’s standpoint over their opinion, and the political persecutions that took moral high grounds as excuses. The details of the historical movement were never incorporated into history textbooks, but many still heard about the widespread white terror 50 years ago from various sources.

“They’re exactly like the Red Guards,” they say.

A war declared

On Feb. 27, all Chinese internet fandoms, regular AO3 users and people who empathized with them rallied into a crusade towards Sean’s fandom. The hashtags  #肖战粉丝饭圈耻辱 (Sean Xiao’s Fans Shame of Fandom) and #227大团结 (227 Great Rally) were used and had over 600 million views.

On Feb. 29, AO3 was officially banned.

Same day, Chinese netizens vented their anger on not only the fans who caused the banning, but the actor Sean Xiao himself too. People blamed Sean for not setting proper moral guidance to his fans. More hashtags like #不买肖战代言产品 (Anti Sean Xiao’s Product Endorsements), #抵制肖战 (Boycott Sean Xiao) emerged, and all the brands and companies still collaborating with Sean were listed and boycotted, which took the situation to an economic level.

Rational fans who were disapproval of snitching and censorship urged the fan leaders and the Fan Club to take responsibility and apologize, which the latter refused.

On March 1, Sean Xiao’s studio took initiative to apologize. An hour later, the Fan Club finally apologized, but it was too late, the netizens were not impressed.

Same day, Vox published an English article on the matter.

By the end of the day, professionals in the film industry took actions.

“I’m against all factors that impede with creative freedom,” wrote screen writer Zhang Xiaobei.

“Literature and art are the media of communications,” wrote director Ha Wen.

Meanwhile, regardless of consequences and in all the ways they could think of, netizens tried to force the actor himself to respond. Hashtag #肖战滚出娱乐圈 (Sean Xiao Get Out of the Entertainment Industry) had over 8.5 million views. Defenders of Sean were bashed using the same methods as “sniping.” In the name of democracy, the “Great Rally” finally took the approaches they once protested against.

In China, there has been a widely-shared discontent towards celebrities who voluntarily lose their voices for being over prudent on speaking about social issues and practicing self-censorship, and now this fermented anger finally found its exit on Sean Xiao.

Radical actions from protesters were taken. Some pretended to be Sean’s fans and left provoking comments, some blamed the censorship of many other websites and apps on Sean too without fact-checking, and some spread rumours about Sean’s personal life. Violent and abusive comments were left. A few attempted suicides from both sides were reported.

Conspiracy theories soared through the internet. “It’s the capital behind him that (incited fans and) stepped onto our rights to make profit,” said one user. “(Sean) should flop, go jobless and die on the street, so that other studios won’t dare to copy (their strategy).” This post was shared over 3000 times.

Up until March 4, a week after Falling was taken down, boycotting, “sniping” and hate-commenting were still ongoing.

The actor, who had been in a semi self-quarantine since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, still hasn’t voiced a word, only responded to the world with utmost silence.

How far, no one seemed to still care to ask, is freedom of expression too far. Writers, Sean Xiao’s fans, AO3’s defenders, all acted under freedom of expression; yet only led to creativity martyred, AO3 censored, and the career of a person who has done nothing taken to the guillotine.

Was the price worth it?