Ghost in the Machine: A Faceless, Famous Chinese Blogger Goes Silent

ghost in the machine a faceless famous chinese blogger goes silent

The figure known only as “Program-Think” (编程随想) started blogging in 2009. Twelve years later, they have 712 posts to their (assumed) name on topics ranging from coding to self-development, but mostly on state repression and elite privilege in China. Their tech expertise allowed them to advise readers on circumventing the “Great Firewall.” They derided the ruling Communist Party as the Zhao clan, referencing the aristocratic family in a novella, “The True Story of Ah Q” by Lu Xun.

In late May, some of Program-Think’s followers noticed they had not posted since May 9, an unusually long interlude between updates. Nor were their GitHub, Twitter, or any other social media accounts active, leading many to believe the blogger must have been arrested.

Political blogging in China is the target of ever stricter clampdowns. Chinese-born Australian blogger Yang Hengjun was detained in 2019 and put on trial in May in a Beijing court facing charges of espionage. A far-reaching campaign in February lowered the threshold for intolerance of sensitive content on blogs and social media sites such as Weibo.

Given their wide influence and anti-CCP stance, it stands to reason that Program-Think would be a prominent target for China’s intelligence agencies, protected only by their skill in covering their digital tracks.

Thousands of comments on Program-Think’s blog and in the Twittersphere have fueled a debate on whether the writer is lying low, has been incapacitated by accident or illness, or has been tracked down and detained. No concrete information has emerged.

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ghost in the machine a faceless famous chinese blogger goes silent 1

Screenshot of the Princeling Party Relationship Network, as found on Program-Think’s GitHub database.

Beside their blogs, Program-Think was perhaps most famous for building a database of over 700 individuals connected to the core leadership of the CCP. This expanded on a 2012 New York Times exposé of the Wen family’s wealth, a fortune amassed through Wen Jiabao’s premiership. The red lineages of the “princeling” class and their lucrative connections to businesses such as Ping An Insurance and Wanda Group are laid out meticulously in Program-Think’s “Zhao” repository. It prompted a takedown request to GitHub from China’s state security apparatus, the first such request to GitHub issued by China.

GitHub is a cloud platform for software developers. Its accessibility is a vexed question for the CCP: while GitHub allows the circulation of subversive content, a block would arguably hamstring the domestic IT industry. GitHub is currently available in China minus a selection of repositories, including those by Program-Think.

Alternating their choice of avatar between pictures of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and a Guy Fawkes mask, the blogger wrote eclectically and could be both cerebral and bombastic. They mixed philosophical musings and economic theory with irreverent diatribes.

In a 2019 post on the IT industry culture in China of long working hours (“996” – 9 am. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week), Program-Think argued that the state condoned almost anything that would increase labor productivity and social security fund revenue.

In a July 2020 post, they examined the impact of Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May 1989 on the military crackdown the following month. This was the 34th post by Program-Think in a series about “June 4,” as the Tiananmen crackdown is known in Chinese. In another, they drew from The Tiananmen Papers to highlight the schism over the response to the student protests that pitted hardliners against moderates within the Chinese Communist Party.

Program-Think’s last post, on May 9, was a list of book recommendations.

Speculation over the writer’s disappearance has been feverish. In early June, many observers posited arrest was the most likely explanation. Online rumors – such as those in a tweet claiming “inside information” the blogger was undergoing interrogation – attracted attention and appeared in reports on Radio Free Asia and other outlets.

But one netizen who goes by the moniker “Co-Memory” reasoned, “If the blog and the Zhao project which reveals the wealth of Princelings is injurious to the Party, and if Program-Think’s arrest is genuine, then doubtless it would have been taken down.”

On June 18, another user wrote on the blog’s discussion board: “I have information! This is real! Everybody please spread! The blogger died on 11 May in Beijing Third Hospital, His Real Name is Li Yo, and he was born in 1967.”

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This commenter (“Anonymous”) went on to claim that Li Yo was “an old cadre” who had been ill since 2011 and originally worked as a cyber specialist within an intelligence agency. “Whether his blog will be erased is hard to say, I’m not too familiar with cryptography, but there are state information technology employees hard at work on it,” the poster added.

An 8,000-character analysis piece by Co-Memory, published first on hackmd.io and republished on China Digital Times, correlates the blogger’s ill health with the drop in his posting frequency over the last year. The “inside revelations” of the blogger being detained in Shanghai are less plausible and internally consistent than the “old cadre died from illness” thesis, according to the article.

Still, writes Co-Memory, “There can be no knowing for sure what happened to Program-Think.”

The Diplomat

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