“We feel like cyber-refugees”: The decline of the last online sanctuary for China’s liberals

Spiritual corner.
Spiritual corner.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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It’s not easy to be a liberal on China’s internet, but for years alternative thinkers found a refuge on a platform dedicated to film and book reviews that appeared to pass under the radar because of its relatively small size. Now its users fear its days are numbered.

Users last week found that Douban’s “broadcast” function—a way for users to follow one another directly, similar to Facebook’s news feed—had been disabled. The site now automatically turns user updates into private posts, which can’t be seen by anyone else. Users described the change in terms of a disaster: an “earthquake,” “massive power outage,” or the “collapse of a building.” 

“I feel like I’ve been thrown into outer space, none of my thoughts can be heard by others,” wrote Douban user Huo Niao (link in Chinese) on Matters, a Medium-like Chinese website. “The whole internet is now covered in darkness. Why have we suddenly become cyber refugees? Why couldn’t we have this little corner even online?”

Users can still post reviews, or leave comments in Douban’s user-generated online forums, and the company said the Oct. 6 suspension was part of an upgrade of its website—but many are skeptical. Under Chinese president Xi Jinping, the ruling Communist Party’s control over the internet has tightened, and there have been reports of people being questioned, warned, or jailed for public posts, or even private chats. This year, protests in Hong Kong have triggered even more scrutiny, amid an outpouring of nationalism from both state-run media and regular users. Despite Douban’s promise to resume the broadcast function on Oct. 20, users say they’re worried about the site’s future.

“Lots of things we once thought were impossible became reality, and too many things online disappeared in the wink of an eye in recent years,” Jade Chen, a 27-year-old who’s been using Douban for a decade, told Quartz.

A “spiritual corner” for Chinese hipsters

Unlike the decade-old microblog platform Weibo, which has more than 460 million monthly active users and is seen by both the government and China watchers as a thermometer for China’s mainstream opinions, Douban, with just 160 million (link in Chinese) registered users, has been dubbed a “slow” (link in Chinese) tech company. Its revenues, mostly from ads, have sputtered, and it has only raised $59 million in three funding rounds, most recently in 2011. But the website is beloved by users, who treat it as their “spiritual corner,” (link in Chinese) as Douban billed itself after it launched in 2005.

A typical Douban user is well-educated, in their early 30s, lives in one of the more cosmopolitan Chinese cities, loves pets, and supports LGBT rights, according to an analysis published last year by on a website for Chinese tech product managers. Or, as prominent film critic Mu Weier described them (link in Chinese) in an piece published on the day of the shutdown, “similar to the neurotic, mean intellectuals in Woody Allen’s films. They are very cautious about collectivism, or any kind of extreme authority.”

Though it started as a simple movie review site, Douban now has more than 600,000 forums, some with hundreds of thousands of members. Several groups question China’s more mainstream values, such as the”Anti-Parents” group. Seen by many of its 120,000 members as a place for people who had unhappy childhoods to air troubling memories and comfort each other, the group was blasted two years ago for “promoting twisted values” (link in Chinese) by China’s Communist Youth League. In recent years, Beijing has taken to promoting more traditional Confucian norms, including the importance of family and filial piety, as it grapples with demographic challenges like dropping fertility, and an aging population that will need care. Shortly after the criticism, Douban barred the group from adding new members.

Mu, the film critic, also noted that users “don’t require other ‘corners’ [of Douban] to look exactly the same as theirs.” That attitude of “agreeing to disagree” is rare online now, as the country increasingly requires its residents to have one united voice that is in line with Beijing’s narrative, continually shrinking the space for contrary views.

In January, Douban user Bonnae was detained for 10 days for sharing a 2018 report (link in Chinese) on a Uyghur woman’s account of being tortured (link in Chinese) by Chinese authorities, which was published by Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily. The user later posted that police said the arrest was for “sharing a report by overseas media that contains racial discrimination and terrorism content,” according to a screenshot shared by a Twitter user, marking the first high-profile case of a Douban user getting punished by authorities for a post on the website.

The arrival of patriotic fans

Ironically, last week’s suspension might not have been triggered by its typical users, but by China’s “fan girls,” a new breed of Chinese patriots who adore China in the same way they worship movie stars and who have taken to Douban in recent years.

“The news feeds and those fan girl groups have always been two universes,” wrote a user named Palefire (link in Chinese) on Pincong, an outspoken Chinese website hosted overseas that is blocked in China. “Douban groups are more open to the public for anyone to join, whereas broadcast is a more closed circle, leaving room for liberals like me to only follow users who have similar values.”

Douban’s “Goose Group,” which has over 600,000 members and started as a celebrity gossip spot, is now filled with patriotic exchanges about topics such as the China-US trade war, Hong Kong’s protests, and the recent NBA controversy over a now-deleted tweet supporting protests in Hong Kong. After fans turned up at the sports league’s exhibition games in China last week despite the controversy, some in the group said that they felt “ashamed” (link in Chinese) of such citizens.

In recent weeks, which saw China mark its National Day on Oct. 1, fans nicknamed China’s top leaders with emojis such as 🐻 for current president Xi Jinping and 🐸 for Xi’s predecessor Jiang Zemin. Xi has been compared with Disney character Winnie the Pooh since 2013, when a photo of him and former US president Barack Obama triggered comparisons to the portly bear, making the character unwelcome in China. Following that, the group was made invisible by Douban to non-members. Two days later the broadcast function was suspended, leading to speculation (link in Chinese) that the fan girls were the reason.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of views Douban users have. What really matters is the act of them talking about politics itself is highly sensitive,” commented (link in Chinese) Douban user Zi Wendong under a report on the suspension published by Hong Kong-based news website the Initium. “Previously, discussions about the government were scattered among different Douban users, but now, with the emergence of those fan girls who are highly concentrated [in certain groups], coupled with the relatively weak censorship on Douban, the regulators might have finally noticed.”


In the absence of the broadcast function, Douban users are trying to stay close by building new groups. A few have flocked to Twitter, likely by using VPN tools, since the site is blocked in China. Under the hashtag #DoubanRefugee, or #豆瓣难民, hundreds of people shared the feeling of being displaced.

“Let’s follow each other! If Douban is really shut down in the future, let’s reconnect here! My dear Douban friends, I don’t want to lose you!” wrote one such Douban user on Twitter.

On the new Douban group “Temporary Shelter for Sad Doubaners,” user Cherry it up  described the feeling of trying to connect with familiar handles.

“It feels like the summer when I was little, when there was a massive power outage. After a brief moment of panic, we all ran to the square, and I ran so fast that I lost one of my sandals,” said the user. “I was eager to look for people I knew, but when I found them I was not in a rush to talk to them—I just felt safe as long as I saw they were also in the square.”