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Humans and technology

How to live-tweet the Cultural Revolution, 50 years later

Niche accounts like @GPCR50 keep us glued to Twitter, even as chaos on the platform continues.

December 14, 2022
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Stephanie Arnett/MITTR; AP Photo

China Report is MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The big news in China this week is how the country is reacting to a surge of coronavirus infections as it abandons most of its zero-covid measures. There are spiking infections in Beijing, fever relief medicine is out of stock, and people are eagerly sharing their covid symptoms to inform and educate the 1.4 billion people living in China, most of whom haven’t contracted the virus yet.

But we’ve spent the past few weeks at China Report talking about zero covid, so I thought we could take a break to talk about the other ticking time bomb in the room: Twitter.

I confess, I’m deeply addicted to Twitter, and amid all the speculation about whether it would collapse under Elon Musk’s leadership, I found myself thinking about what’s made this platform special. It’s not just about talking to celebrities and politicians as if we were in the same room, but also about connecting with strangers because you’re both interested in the same random thing.

That’s why I recently talked to Jacob Saxton, the 30-year-old logistics analyst in Southampton, UK, who is behind a pretty niche Twitter account: Cultural Revolution OTD 1972 (@GPCR50). The account pretends to live-tweet what happened during the devastating political movement from 1966 to 1976 in China—except, of course, it’s 50 years late. 

Some of the tweets gained traction because they draw parallels to our present—like on July 24, 1972, when Mao Zedong said that “the State should deliver free contraceptives to people's homes because many are too embarrassed to go out and buy them.” Others offer peculiar anecdotes, historical pretext for modern issues, or snippets of profound violence and tragedy.

I’m fascinated by the combination of historical records and the idea of retroactive “live-tweeting,” particularly in this case because it’s being done by someone with no background in Chinese history. Meanwhile, I grew up in China, yet the history of the Cultural Revolution was seldom taught in schools. Reading Jacob’s feed actually makes me feel I’m living through that history—like it’s no different from the tweet threads unpacking major news happening right now in China, Iran, or Ukraine.

But that’s the magic of Twitter! And as it turns out, there are at least 6,700 other people who are the same kind of weird as I am, either looking for contemporary echoes of history or just brushing up on their knowledge of China. 

I called Jacob in late November to talk about how Twitter has changed in the six years he’s been doing this, the personal nature of this project, and the account’s future if Twitter is shut down. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

When did you start this account, and what motivated you to do it?

At the start of 2016, so [50 years after] February ’66. Initially, I just wondered if somebody else was going to do it, like an actual historian, because back then there were lots of “on this day” things and it was quite fashionable. But then nobody did it, so I thought, I’ve got it.

How did you become interested in Chinese history in the first place?

At one point I was like: I don’t know anything about history. And in particular, I thought: Well, I don’t know anything about America, China, or France. So I just bought some secondhand books. But of all of them, the one about 20th-century Chinese history is just the one that I found incredibly interesting. I’m pretty sure the American history book is still on my shelf, unread. 

I’m not a historian at all. I’m always a bit embarrassed, [because] I feel a proper historian would have done a much better job with this whole thing.

What's your workflow like to schedule the tweets? And how has it changed over the years?

In the last week or so, I’ve been doing tweets for December. I just go through my big, door-stopper books and try to sketch out the main things that happened in the month, and then I’ll just gradually, like in an evening, [sort out] a few days of [events]—just reading around and trying to put stuff in. 

The big difference is that less is happening “now,” in 1972. Things were almost back to normal, whereas in ’66, ’67, [writing tweets about those years] took a lot of time. I had to take time off work and I was trying to plan everything out meticulously. I was really struggling with the fast-moving bits within a big unit of time. 

Were there times when you found out about a historical event after its 50-year mark? What did you do then?

Sometimes I fudge it a bit and [will write], “look back on it …,” or I'll find some echo [of the original event], which is a bit of a cop-out, isn't it? 

I plan it all in a spreadsheet, and if I missed something, I’ll put it in the spreadsheet, so then at least I feel, on some level, not so bad. 

How big is this spreadsheet right now?

5,880 rows.

Wow, that’s a lot.

A few years ago, I’d have to break a lot of things down into multiple rows. [Because] when I started, Twitter had a hard 140-character cap, which is a little bit too short. When you have to say the factions at a university, like Beijing Aeronautics Institute Red Flag [editor’s note: That’s one of the most prominent student Red Guard groups in Beijing], you are already 75% of the way through before you even get a verb in. 

I guess it really helped when Twitter expanded the length limit to 280 characters?

Yeah. But I’ve only allowed myself like 150 characters. I gotta keep them short. But 140 was too short.

What was Twitter like back when you started the account in 2016?

Before the US election and Trump, I felt less sure that Twitter was going to survive until 2026, whereas I feel now it’s sort of indispensable. I know people talk about how there might be some technical collapse, which I don’t really know about, but back then it felt like it probably wasn’t going to last as a platform.

But Twitter became almost part of the way the most important country is governed. I guess it’s not anymore now. 

When will you stop posting on this account?

You know, there were a number of times that would have been quite good off-ramps. They’d have been quite neat times to finish, whereas now there aren’t any more neat times. So I have to just follow it through and carry on to the end [of the Cultural Revolution]. Or when Twitter disappears, you know. The two options.

If Twitter disappears tomorrow, would you move on to a different platform?

I think I wouldn’t move to another platform. The art of it is that [the tweets] are all in one big, long, unbroken [sequence]. I guess I just wouldn’t publish any more, but I’d still fill in my spreadsheet. By the standards of these “war on this day” accounts [which have larger followings], I’m basically just talking to myself anyway. So it’s only a little step more to literally only doing that with myself.

I wouldn’t change platforms, but maybe I’d start the whole thing again somewhere else, and try to do the whole 10-and-a-half years in one unbroken thread. Maybe I’ll start again in 50 years.

What’s your favorite niche Twitter account? Or which accounts would you be sad to see disappear? Email me at zeyi@technologyreview.com

Catch up with China

1. China is set to have a difficult winter battling a massive wave of covid infections. Cold medicine, fever relief, and at-home antigen tests are quickly selling out across the country. (Reuters $)

  • China’s grassroots pandemic workers, best known by their white hazmat suits, have turned from heroes to villains as the government abandons its zero-covid policy and eliminates their jobs. (Nikkei Asia $)
  • Chinese people are also rushing to buy domestic flight and train tickets now that the government has ended the lockdowns that made traveling so difficult. (Caixin $)
  • And in a win for privacy, the country announced it would retire one pillar of the health code tracking system, which gathers an individual’s geolocation data from telecom operators. (CNN)

2. Both the Netherlands and Japan, two countries with significant weight in the semiconductor supply chain, have agreed to the US government’s request to adopt more measures to contain China’s development of chips. (Bloomberg $)

3. The Taiwanese semiconductor giant TSMC will invest $40 billion in a new factory in Arizona. During the announcement, founder Morris Chang also left us with this all-too-revealing quote: “Globalization is almost dead, and free trade is almost dead. A lot of people still wish they would come back, but I don’t think they will be back.” (Fast Company)

4. As censorship grows in Hong Kong, even financial analysts can’t speak freely. According to some analysts, Tencent Meeting, the Chinese equivalent of Zoom, will cut off abruptly if it detects certain words. (Bloomberg $)

  • Jimmy Lai, the media tycoon behind Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for fraud. (AP)

5. Hillhouse, one of the most successful venture capital funds from China and an investor behind Tencent, ByteDance, JD.com, and Didi, is shifting its focus outside the country. (The Information $)

6. Eight percent of FTX’s users are based in mainland China, even though the country doesn’t recognize cryptocurrencies. They’re now scrambling to get their money back. (South China Morning Post $)

Lost in translation

China’s covid containment measures were often built without considering the needs of people with disabilities, as were many of the technological systems that have sustained people during the pandemic. As the Chinese publication Connecting reports, visually impaired residents in Shanghai have had a hard time navigating the difficulties brought by strict lockdowns and frequent covid testing. 

During the two-month lockdown earlier this year, many people were relying on grocery delivery apps to keep themselves fed. But for visually impaired people, using screen readers to place an order added time to the process, and by the time they were done, everything on the app would be sold out. Later, to log into the local system that recorded covid testing results, Shanghai residents were required to blink their eyes at facial recognition cameras. That could take hours for people who’d had their eyeballs surgically removed. 

At the same time, some disabled individuals also benefited from certain tech developments. As lockdowns devastated local businesses, the traditional practice of “blind massages” (in which hundreds of thousands of blind and visually impaired Chinese people work as massage therapists) found a new advertising channel through viral short videos. Now platforms like Douyin bring in one-third of blind-massage customers.

One more thing

One photo shows Jars of yellow peaches being displayed in supermarkets as a covid special sale. Another photo shows similar products are sold out online.

What’s Chinese people’s favorite snack of the past week? I’m sure you were about to guess canned or jarred yellow peaches. 

As covid spreads through major cities, people are bulk-buying yellow peaches because, apparently, some families in northern China keep the tradition of eating them when kids get sick. Obviously, this canned fruit has no real effect in fighting covid symptoms, but people are joking online that they should be added to health insurance coverage. Also, they are just generally really tasty, according to me, your canned-peach connoisseur. 

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