When then-22–year-old Kang Xia founded the Cenci Journalism Project in 2011, he called it cenci — meaning “diversity” in Chinese — because he liked this quote by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Diversity is essential to happiness, and in Utopia there is hardly any. This is a defect of all planned social systems.”
Over the next three years, Kang built his nonprofit monument to diversity into a respected niche website, delivering Chinese translations of articles in more than 14 languages sourced from around the web. Pieces came from ProPublica, the New Yorker, Asahi Shimbun, Oil of Russia magazine, and Le Figaro. The slogan: “Reporting another dimension of the world.” Cenci is part of a wave of independent citizen journalism that has sprung up in China in recent years with help from the Internet and social media platforms such as WeChat and Sina Weibo. The Chinese government, which heavily censors all official news media and doesn’t tolerate much independent reporting, regularly cracks down on these mushrooming news outlets. But many flourish before they fall. By March 2014, Cenci had about 400 volunteer translators who provided content, free of charge, and had attracted some 140,000 subscribers.
Then on July 14, down came the hammer. Cenci’s accounts were deleted across Chinese social media platforms, including Sina Weibo, Tencent’s WeChat, and film and literature criticism site Douban. On July 15, the icenci.com website, which is hosted overseas, was blocked in China. Cenci, for all intents and purposes, was dead. For Kang, 25, a former Bloomberg Businessweek reporter now studying for his graduate school examination, it was a devastating blow. He posted a grieving essay online that was widely shared and doggedly deleted by censors. (A copy of the essay, saved as an image to make it harder for censors to find it with a keyword search, can still be found online.)
In the piece, Kang described how Chinese search engine Baidu no longer even delivered links to various media interviews he’d done. “All of this was cleanly erased from the planet; it was as if I never existed,” he wrote. Sitting at home in his apartment in Beijing, Kang said he was stunned. “I don’t want to eat, don’t want to cry, don’t want to speak.”
Cenci’s 28-year-old executive editor, Yang Chu, told Foreign Policy via email that she cried after reading Kang’s obituary and messages from friends and volunteers. She wrote in her email: “I feel pretty calm now. Profoundly powerless, however. I feel guilty that there is nothing I can do to protect Cenci.” Yang said it isn’t yet clear why authorities targeted the project or whether there was any specific content that triggered the action. “We haven’t officially heard anything,” said Yang, a former reporter for Caijing, one of China’s leading financial news magazines. She said she and Kang heard only that China’s Internet surveillance department requested that Sina Weibo, WeChat, Douban, and others shut down the Cenci service. “But we don’t know who gave them the order.” Yang said she suspects that the government wasn’t happy with how the site was generated by hundreds of people spread out across China and, in some cases, the globe. That was potentially unmanageable for authorities, who have shown themselves to be very jumpy at the Internet’s power to unite netizens across provincial boundaries.
Cenci’s content was sometimes lightly provocative, but not overtly daring. In May, it published a Chinese version of an article from the Atlantic about Associated Press reporter Edward Kennedy’s decision to break a military-mandated embargo on news that Germany had surrendered in 1945. His action infuriated U.S. wartime censors and his fellow journalists, but the crux of the story, which probably rang bells in the minds of many Chinese readers, was this line: “What, exactly, does the public have a right to know? And who gets to decide?”
Kang founded Cenci along with several classmates from Beijing Foreign Studies University. It retained an undergraduate-type enthusiasm but had high digital polish and appears to have been particularly popular among young people.
For many Cenci readers and contributors, the site’s shuttering was their first personal experience with censorship.
For many Cenci readers and contributors, the site’s shuttering was their first personal experience with censorship. One young woman in Xi’an, the capital of the central province of Shaanxi, wrote on her Sina Weibo page in response to news of the site’s demise: “Many people say that doing media in China is hard; I didn’t feel it before but this time I am sincerely convinced.”
A 24-year-old Cenci fan named Selina who works for Baidu in Beijing told FP via a WeChat interview that she found the news deeply upsetting. She described herself as “angry and hurt” that her country “doesn’t allow its young people to think freely, doesn’t allow young people to spontaneously do something they find meaningful, and responds instead with threats, fear, and coercion.” (She asked to be identified only by her chosen English name for fear that speaking out might impact her job.)
For Kang and Yang, the next step is still uncertain. They won’t revive Cenci, Yang said. Both are currently planning to get graduate degrees outside China. As for media, they will wait and see whether to re-engage. “In a country where only entertainment and light news could survive, we really don’t know what we could do,” Yang wrote. “We want to write what we like, but it is so hard.”