China’s fugitive writers find a home online

Matters wants to be free from the trolling, doxxing, and personal attacks that have come to dominate Chinese forums amid rising nationalism and censorship.

Two weeks after 1 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong last June, Qin, a Chinese writer and feminist activist, published an 8,000-word essay on her WeChat blog. The protests in the city had evolved from demonstrations against a law allowing criminal suspects to be deported to the mainland into a broader call for democracy and opposition to centralized control by Beijing. Qin, who is based in New York and writes under the pename 米米亚娜 (Mimiyana), was conflicted, feeling she no longer fit in on either side of the growing political divide.

Her piece, headlined “I didn’t know I could feel like a stray dog in my life,” was viewed around 25,000 times within 24 hours of its posting — but was then removed from WeChat, which is often censored. Soon afterward, a staff member from Matters, a new platform hosting writing for Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, approached Qin and encouraged her to repost the piece. “After my first visit [to the website], I felt like I had finally found a sanctuary,” Qin, who asked to be identified only by her family name, tells Rest of World .

Matters was launched in 2018 by Zhang Jieping, a journalist who began her career in newsrooms in Hong Kong, before leaving in 2015 to establish Initium , a successful digital magazine. Yet even at her own outlet, she felt that the Hong Kong media was struggling to understand the profound political changes happening on its doorstep. The city’s unique freedoms and character were being eroded by Beijing in, she says, a “vortex” of political pressures and resistance, but the press coverage, she felt, was inward-looking.

“But journalists are not the only people in the vortex,” Zhang says. “Everyone is in it together. It would be much better if everyone, instead of only the media, had a voice.”

Around the time that she was considering her next move, a new way of funding and building newsrooms was emerging in the West. In 2016, startups like Civil and Steemit had begun proposing using blockchain to build self-funded, decentralized content platforms. Zhang found the idea compelling — a decentralized platform would be both easy for anyone to use and hard for authorities to censor or delete, while a cryptocurrency would allow readers to support writers the world over.

The blockchain media mania has since subsided. (Civil closed down in June 2020.) But Matters remains in operation, continuing to give a platform to prominent writers and public intellectuals. With the space for free speech rapidly diminishing in China, and particularly in Hong Kong, where a new national security law has had a chilling effect on media, Matters is one of the few remaining online venues where users from across the political spectrum can engage in discussion and debate.

“I started [Matters] because I knew it would be needed at a time like this,” Zhang says.

Not long ago, the Chinese internet allowed for a far more diverse range of political expression. In the early 2000s, Reddit-like forums hosted frank political discussions. Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site that launched in 2009, along with homegrown platforms like Zhihu and Douban, was known for its role in shaping the public discourse around social justice. But under its current president, Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has taken an authoritarian and nationalist turn.
Matters founder Zhang Jieping. Courtesy of Matters

“There were serious, sincere, and valuable discussions happening on [these platforms], and the vibe was relatively friendly. But those are long gone,” says Humar Isaac, a Uighur human rights activist born in Xinjiang, China, who now lives in exile in Sweden. Isaac joined Matters in June 2019. Her first article was about her parents, who were victims of China’s “reeducation camps.”

Lately, the polarization on Chinese-language platforms has become more pronounced than ever. Users tend to reflexively rally behind their identities — nationalist, pro–Hong Kong, pro-Taiwan — with little space for compromise. Trolling, doxxing, and personal attacks are common.

Matters, in contrast, takes pride in showcasing a diverse range of voices and promoting less-represented writers from Singapore and Malaysia. While most of the site’s users are from mainland China and Taiwan, many Hong Kongers also read it regularly. In recent months, it has been dominated by conversations about the Hong Kong protests and national identity, issues controversial across the Chinese-speaking world. Unlike most other platforms, Matters has sought to build bridges between ideological factions who would otherwise be wary of talking to one another, at the risk of being villainized by all of them.

Since September, the U.S. government–funded, Chinese-language news site WhyNot has been publishing on Matters. Zhang says that the platform would be equally prepared to allow Communist Party–backed publications to post.

Matters opened up for public registration in May 2019, as Hong Kong’s protests gathered momentum. The platform carried writing from the perspectives of a mainland Chinese student, a Hong Kong professor, and someone who had found out her crush was a Chinese nationalist.

The fallout from those protests has meant a riskier climate for writers who address sensitive topics — and for the platforms hosting them. In August, Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily , was arrested under a new national-security law, a vaguely worded piece of legislation that seems to criminalize all criticism of the government. Matters has since registered as a U.S. company, but it is unclear how much protection that will offer it, since the wording of the national security law suggests it can be applied to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Matters users have also noticed the emergence of “little pinks” — Chinese nationalists who troll and attack people online with opposing views. Some writers have felt compelled to take on aliases. Since last year, Matters has also uncovered numerous bots on the site. For Qin, the writer from China, the abuse is a reminder that her sanctuary is fragile. “When the larger Chinese-language environment is deteriorating, it’s pretty naive to assume you can retain a small safe space,” she says.

For her first article on Matters, Qin wrote about her wrestling between the urge to return to China and the fear of censorship and other consequences.米米亚娜 的创作空间站 - Matters

While writers have come to value the space that Matters provides for discussion, the financial side of the platform has never really taken off. When Matters first launched, it promised to release a blockchain-backed token to pay writers wherever they lived, free from foreign-exchange restrictions, a serious issue for mainlanders because of China’s tight control of capital outflows.

But because the value of cryptocurrencies is notoriously volatile, Zhang soon realized that Matters risked spending all its effort stabilizing the token price, rather than building a community of readers and writers. So Zhang teamed up with LikeCoin, creator of a third-party token developed by Kin Ko, a Hong Kong entrepreneur. LikeCoin was designed as an infrastructure for decision making, rather than a form of payment — buyers are paying for a say in what qualifies as quality content. And yet, while readers can “tip” writers with LikeCoin to show their support, the current value of the token is less than 1 cent. (In late 2019, Matters changed its slogan from “Writing pays” to “Writing is the easiest route to freedom.”)

Despite the setbacks, Zhang still sees blockchain as the heart of the platform. The leaderless, distributed protest movement in Hong Kong shows that it is possible to build something both decentralized and organized. She believes that blockchain will allow the Matters users to collectively determine its rules, and to decide what content has value.

This distinguishes Matters from mainstream social media platforms, which have been accused from many quarters of fueling political and social division. Facebook and TikTok may look like democratic spaces where people can organize freely, but users’ interactions are guided by opaque corporate decisions and algorithms, Zhang says.

“For me, users of Facebook are the same as people living in authoritarian states. It looks like everyone is allowed a bit of freedom, but the person-to-person network is disbanded,” she says.

Zhang believes that it is inevitable — and necessary — that independent Chinese language media, despite the failures of its predecessors, will shift toward decentralized platforms like Matters, as the state, and compliant technology platforms, exerts ever greater influence over what users see and how they write.

“We need to explore [decentralization] more actively before how we live and how information spreads are redefined, unbeknownst to us, by big powers like states or commercial platforms,” Zhang says. “That’s what I really believe in.”