A Most Chinese Public Disappearance on Twitter: @airmovingdevice

Big Data-style analysis of Chinese media treatment of high officials, references to 1989 political massacres and other sensitive matters apparently got the anonymous person with the Twitter name @airmovingdevice silenced.

@airmovingdevice deleted his/her cyber analytic insights into Chinese society and leaving only this message to his three-thousand odd followers on Twitter. It was followed by an update 18 hours later.

Skillfully scraping and analyzing publicly available Chinese data as wekk as data from the website of the “tongue of the Party” the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper People’s Daily, @airmovingdevice made intriguing points about Chinese society and the presentation of China’s leaders in official propaganda. This won him/her a rapidly growing following on Twitter.

We have lost, at least for now, Air-Moving Device’s cheerful, cyber-analytic, poetry-loving voice. @airmovingdevice identified with the exiled Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (aka Su Dongpo) and quoted him several times.

A favorite verse from Su Shi appears just below Air-Moving Device’s ID line at the top left of the Twitter account. Translated into English, it would be something like “A magnanimous person of high integrity can adjust and maintain a positive attitude towards whatever life throws at him.” 一点浩然气,千里快哉风。

I should add that translating Chinese can be tricky, since the poems are steeped, many layers deep, in historical, philosophical and literary references. This can be hard for Chinese people too, so I take advantage of the great discussions of Chinese poetry I find on Chinese websites. The verse above is discussed at “一点浩然气,千里快哉风。”的意思及全词翻译赏析.

In the second message @airmovingdevice left readers with two favorite verses, the first, another Su Shi poem 莫听穿林打叶声,何妨吟啸且徐行。竹杖芒鞋轻胜马,谁怕?一蓑烟雨任平生 and the other, the signature box verse we have already seen.

The first verse of the update was Su Shi’s thinking back to his days of exile and how he had found inner peace there despite all that he had suffered.

So silent that not even the wind rustling through the leaves can be heard, why then should we not happily sing as we stroll wherever we like.

A bamboo walking stick and grass sandals are better than riding horseback. What is there to fear?

I would happily spend my life wearing the peasant’s humble rain gear.

@airmovingdevice’s short articles presented mash-ups and visualizations of publicly available data. Lively discussions with readers ensued on how to improve analysis of the data presented. Caches of publicly-available data shared with readers, were instructive examples of how data analytic techniques applied to the increasing floods of data available — mashing together different data sets — can give us new insights.

This sort of work is inevitably filled with pitfalls as analysts adjust for shortcomings and limitations of their data. @airmovingdevice had positive interactions with some critical comments, cheerfully focusing in on shortcomings and finding ways to correct for them. @airmovingdevice did a service to readers in providing these insights. Even as @airmovingdevice’s was closed down, apparently by the authorities — his closing statement announced he had no intention of subverting the state — his readers were left with some positive thoughts. Perhaps a result of being ‘harmonized’ but just as likely of a piece with @airmovingdevice’s determination to stay in for the long haul.

In the shutdown of this enlightening Twitter account, we see how the Internet, the proliferation of online resources, and China’s determination to be a modern country comes into conflict with the Chinese Communist Party’s need to control every aspect of Chinese society. Not necessarily an active assertion of control in all places and circumstances but one that can quickly snap into place in every cell of Chinese society — actually a handy short definition of totalitarianism.

One may try to control the facts put out there but there are many factlets out there — seemingly insignificant — that can be assembled into a pattern that reveals a more nearly true perspective upon reality and Chinese society that the censors don’t want the public to have. Many Chinese read the controlled press attentively to pick out not just the latest twist in the official line but also for revealing bits and pieces that can tell them something. What they see is not just what the press says but what it stops saying. Party media control workers are at every level of Chinese government (or more accurately every level of Communist Party committee for state and party organs overlap with the Party always in the lead) — central propaganda people, provincial

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propaganda people and county propaganda people. Propaganda is so pervasive in China that the Chinese Communist Party set up a parallel, confidential press system with distribution limited to middle and higher ranking officials so that they will not be blinded by their own censorship!

Many Xinhua journalists both at home and on assignment in foreign countries write press reports too sensitive for the general press for this internal confidential news channel. For more details, see Chapter Four “Internal (neibu) Documents” and the Secrecy System” in He Qinglian’s book on Chinese media control downloadable free of charge from the Human Rights in China website The Fog of Censorship: Media Control in China.

Chinese censorship is coordinated imperfectly, so often the best way to know what is going on in province B is to read the paper from province A and vice versa. The propaganda committee of province A is much less sensitive to what might embarrass the party leaders B than is their own propaganda committee and vice versa. They all would rather keep news of their dirty laundry out of Beijing — but then Beijing often knows through its own multiple independent domestic intelligence reporting channels. Some of these redundant channels would be State Security, Public Security, Xinhua and the Zhongnanhai Guards Bureau my Chengdu former Party member-turned-dissident friend Yin Shuping told me. Probably the Party leaders in Beijing prefer to pretend not to know about what is hard to fix in the short term to avoid giving the appearance of impotence.

When I worked at U.S. Embassy Beijing for five years in the 1990s, I used to read lots of Chinese press including out of town newspapers, especially the various digest papers 文摘报纸 that reprinted highlights from the provincial press — some of my translation summaries of PRC Press Clippings are still available online thanks to the Internet Archive’s preservation in cyber amber of the old U.S. Embassy Beijing website as it existed during the late 1990s.

Today the Internet and on-line data sources not only suffer censorship but still offer chances to mash together freely available data to construct a picture the censors don’t want us to see. Journalists who reveal too much — sometimes these are journalist who have been writing for the internal, confidential press who suddenly break a story in the public press — can be fired or jailed. Can be. Usually a more gentle approach is favored. There is a finely graded menu of pressure and reprisal from a phone call from the authorities, a friendly cup of tea with the police (maybe the Public Security Bureau National Security Detachment), to pressure from your boss, from your co-workers, and from your relatives and friends suffering serious disadvantages on account of your misbehavior before jail looms.

Now-imprisoned Autumn Rain congregation pastor Wang Yi, a law professor, told me ten years ago when I worked at the U.S. Chengdu Consulate General that his university refused to allow him to resign from the university. Keep your enemies close, bound up in a known network of relationships all the better to bring pressure on them, seems to be part of the Communist Party’s approach to social control.

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Smart totalitarianism avoids breaking the china. No need for enforcement to cause more of a stir than necessary or for social stabilization work to become in itself a cause for social instability! People may be very brave on their own account but still reluctant for their families to suffer on their account and to stand up from great pressure from family, relatives and co-workers — “You really should learn to shut up.” During my ten years working as a U.S. diplomat in the PRC, I met many brave people who faced reprisals from the authorities and 360 degree press from society to shut up. Professor Stein Ringen’s book “The Perfect Dictatorship” gives a good account of the organization and effectiveness of China’s totalitarian political system.

People don’t like the word ‘totalitarian’ because it brings to mind Stalin and Hitler. Stalin and Hitler did not exhaust the possibilities of totalitarianism however, as I write elsewhere on this blog — Is China Totalitarian or Authoritarian?

Liu Xiaobo famously wrote, The Internet is God’s present to China.  It provided the best tool for the Chinese people in their project to cast off slavery and strive for freedom.”

The Chinese authorities make good use of their own high tech information technology gifts as well, so the war between freedom of information and censorship continues as a high tech arms race and seesaw battle. Sometimes, as the suppression of @airmovingdevice’s efforts to use data analytics to mash together small factlets to reach towards greater, suppressed truths are themselves suppressed. @airmovingdevice reaches back to China’s own traditional culture to the example of a Chinese poet who managed to hold on to his truth despite the rigors of exile, apparently seeing living in China today under the PRC regime to be a sort of internal exile.

Fortunately, data caches of @airmovingdevice’s research still persist in search engines such as Google.com and Bing.com . You can find them by clicking on the upside-down triangle after the URL and then clicking on cache.

I have appended several of @airmovingdevice’s Party-disappeared/harmonized tweets rescued from search engine data caches. Fascinating examples of what can be done by combining factlets from many sources to gain insights and to visualize information.



Airmovingdevice had considerable technical back-and-forth on Twitter on technical aspects of research. Some data was saved to Github for sharing but now has disappeared.

I found a cache of a top page of @airmovingdevice’s Chinese language blog. Also disappeared, it seemed to cover the same ground as the Twitter account.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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