Chinese Cyber Legend Vanishes, Raising Concerns

“I hope Program-Think was merely hit by a car and hospitalized or something,” said a Chinese netizen. One normally wouldn’t wish for such a tragedy, but to many Chinese netizens, this would still be better than being detained by the Chinese authorities for criticizing the government.

Program-Think (编程随想) is the pseudonym of a blogger known for posts on the know-hows of circumventing China’s Great Firewall and commentaries critical of the Chinese government. For over 12 years they flourished online, seemingly able to escape identification and arrest in one of the world’s most repressive surveillance states. In 2019, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their blog, Program-Think published a post titled “Why the Authorities Can’t Catch Me,” documenting their experiences evading the internet police.

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Netizens have hailed Program-Think as a “hero,” “legend,” and a “godfather of anti-censorship.”

To use just one pseudonym to consistently publish a large quantity of information banned by Beijing is to “challenge and mock” the government on “both the technical and ideological fronts,” wrote Xiao Qiang, founder of the US-based anti-censorship organization China Digital Times. “This, China’s autocrats absolutely won’t tolerate.”

Program-Think has said in the past that netizens shouldn’t worry about their safety if the blog stopped updating for two weeks. But it has now been two months since the last post was published. Rumors about Program-Think’s arrest emerged and were debunked, and then reemerged. Some fear Program-Think will one day resurface on Chinese state TV “confessing” to crimes, like many other activists and bloggers have been forced to do.

Some also expressed concern that if a cyber master like Program-Think can be captured, “Can we be far behind?”

Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed many extraordinarily talented Chinese netizens suddenly disappear from online spaces. Some stopped updating their social media accounts; some deleted all their tweets; some vanished from my messaging app contacts. I could only guess why. But few have lasted for as long as Program-Think.

“I’m pretty optimistic. Maybe [Program-Think] is just too busy,” one netizen said. I certainly hope so, too.