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Chinese writer’s information disappears from her homeland’s internet

hong kong — A Chinese American writer living in Germany is delighted that a dance-drama adaptation of one of her novels is set to be performed on stage in China this month. Yet she can’t help noticing that the homeland she left 35 years ago seems to have mixed feelings about her and her work.

Many of Yan Geling’s achievements that were documented across the Chinese internet over the past 10 to 15 years on digital news outlets and social media platforms seem to be gone or difficult to find, she told VOA Mandarin this week.

The Flowers of War was published first as a novella in 2007 and then expanded into a novel in 2011. It depicts a group of young women in 1937 taking shelter in a church and attempting to resist the Japanese occupation in Nanking. She approved the book’s adaptation for a dance-drama, which was written by Feng Shuangbai. The theatrical show is directed by Lang Kun.

Their two names appear on the Chinese internet and are credited in conjunction with the upcoming Chengdu performance, but Yan’s name is not included.

Yan said she first noticed about two years ago that large swaths of information about her life and her work were no longer accessible on the Chinese internet. This followed her online WeChat criticism of Chinese authorities’ pandemic response and a broadcast interview in which she questioned Xi Jinping’s leadership. During a high-profile 2022 incident, a mentally disturbed woman was photographed unlawfully detained and chained in a semiderelict building in Xuzhou city.

She said that before 2022, much information about her and her work could be found on the Chinese internet on popular platforms such as Baidu Baike, the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia.

“Since I criticized Xi Jinping, it is as if I don’t exist,” Yan told VOA by phone this week from Berlin. “I’m completely removed from all search engines, and my name no longer exists. I think this whole thing is ridiculous.”

VOA reached out to the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment. The embassy declined to comment, saying it was not “aware of the specifics.”

The dance-drama is scheduled to be performed June 21 in Chengdu city at the CDHT CPAA Grand Theater, according to the city’s culture office. The play was first performed in China in March 2023 in Yangzhou city, according to the culture office of Yangzhou.

Hengqing Henry Li, a U.S.-based independent economist who was a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in China, told VOA Mandarin that he noticed about 10 years ago that basic and nonpolitical information previously available about him on the Chinese internet was no longer there.

For example, 10 years ago, he could find and read news accounts about a scientific paper he wrote as a high school student that won a top prize in Beijing. In recent years, he hasn’t been able to find those news articles.

“I just disappeared from the Chinese ordinary people’s world,” Li said.

The New York Times reported this week that a recent review of content published and posted on the Chinese internet from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s showed much material previously available was gone.

Searching the popular site Baidu Baike recently for information posted during that time frame about well-known tycoons Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, and Pony Ma, chief executive officer of Tencent, turned up little compared with searches in recent years.

Previously, information about the early career work of Xi in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, before he became China’s top leader, was available on Baidu Baike, but the paper said that was not the case now.

Frank Tian Xie, a professor of business at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, told VOA it’s likely that the Cyberspace Administration of China has asked and instructed internet service providers in China to erase and reduce access to information about Xi that is related to and was posted before he rose to top power in the nation.

This indicates that the authorities’ online internet supervision has been tightened, Xie said.

“Some information was acceptable to Xi before he came to power, but now the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want people to see it again. The CCP authorities are now unwilling to admit and accept some of the practices and statements they made in the past. Some domestic and foreign policies might not have been a problem before, but now they feel embarrassed about them,” he said.

Two other examples of inconsistent national policy that authorities apparently are seeking to minimize public access to, Xie said, are related to childbirth and elder care. China now encourages childbirth, contrary to years ago when it promoted a one-child policy. China for decades touted its state-sponsored elder care services, but now encourages children to care for their elderly parents and family members. Xie said that if citizens had historical data, they could easily find inconsistencies in Chinese national policies.

Yan said her livelihood has been harmed by her lower profile on the internet because it makes it more difficult to collect royalties for original writing and creative work. Yet she said she has no regrets about sharing her views publicly to, she hopes, help inform citizens.

Working and writing without censorship is an important principle, she said.

“I have to say it,” Yan told VOA. “Otherwise, I feel that, in the last stage of my life, I will regret not saying what I wanted and feel ashamed.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.