A million-word novel got censored before it was even shared. After a writer was locked out of her novel, before it was published, for including illegal content, Chinese web users are asking questions about just how far the state’s censorship reaches.
Imagine you are working on your novel on your home computer. It’s nearly finished; you have already written approximately one million words. All of a sudden, the online word processing software tells you that you can no longer open the draft because it contains illegal information. Within an instant, all your words are lost.
This is what happened in June to a Chinese novelist writing under the alias Mitu. She had been working with WPS, a domestic version of cloud-based word processing software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365. In the Chinese literature forum Lkong on 25 June, Mitu accused WPS of “spying on and locking my draft,” citing the presence of illegal content. Several other novelists say they have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past.
The news blew up on social media on July 11 after a few prominent influencer accounts belatedly picked it up. It became the top trending topic on Weibo that day, with users questioning whether WPS is infringing on their privacy. Since then, The Economic Observer, a Chinese publication, has reported that several other online novelists have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past.
Mitu’s complaint triggered a social media discussion in China about censorship and tech platform responsibility. It has also highlighted the tension between Chinese users’ increasing awareness of privacy and tech companies’ obligation to censor on behalf of the government.
Even for Chinese internet users, used to tough censorship laws, this seems like a step too far. Until this month, most Chinese users believed that their own files, circulated only among friends and family, wouldn’t receive the same attention and monitoring as long as they remained obscure.