As the Internet in China disappears, “we have lost parts of our collective memory”

Chinese people know that their country’s Internet is different. There is no Google, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. They use euphemisms online to communicate things they shouldn’t mention. When their posts and accounts are censored, they accept it with resignation.

They live in a parallel online universe. They know this and even joke about it.

Now they are discovering that, beneath a facade full of short videos, live streams and e-commerce, their Internet – and their collective online memory – is disappearing into pieces.

A May 22 WeChat post, which was widely shared, reported that almost all information published on Chinese news portals, blogs, forums and social media sites between 1995 and 2005 was no longer available.

“The Chinese Internet is collapsing at an accelerating rate,” read the headline. Predictably, the post itself was soon censored.

“We used to believe the Internet had memory,” wrote He Jiayan, a blogger who writes about successful entrepreneurs, in the post. “But we don’t realize that this memory is like that of a goldfish.”

It is impossible to determine exactly how much and what content has disappeared. But I did a test. I used China’s leading search engine, Baidu, to look for some of the examples cited in Mr. He’s post, focusing on roughly the same period between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.

I started with Jack Ma of Alibaba and Pony Ma of Tencent, two of China’s most successful internet entrepreneurs, both of whom were approached by He. I also reached out to Liu Chuanzhi, known as the godfather of Chinese entrepreneurs: he made headlines when his company, Lenovo, acquired IBM’s personal computer business in 2005.

I also looked for results for China’s main leader, Xi Jinping, who during the period was governor of two large provinces. Survey results of senior Chinese leaders are always closely controlled. I wanted to see what people could discover if they were curious about what Mr. Xi was like before he became a national leader.

I didn’t get any results when I searched Ma Yun, which is Jack Ma’s name in Chinese. I found three entries for Ma Huatengwhich is the name of Pony Ma. A search for Liu Chuanzhi seven entries appeared.

There were no results for Mr. Xi.

Then I looked for one of the most important tragedies in China in recent decades: the Great Sichuan earthquake, on May 12, 2008, which killed more than 69 thousand people. It happened during a brief period when Chinese journalists had more freedom than the Communist Party would normally allow, and produced a lot of high-quality journalism.

When I narrowed the period from May 12, 2008, to May 12, 2009, Baidu returned nine pages of search results, most of which consisted of articles on the websites of the central government or state broadcaster China Central Television. One caveat: If you know the names of journalists and their organizations, you might be able to find more.

Each results page had about 10 titles. My research found what must have been a small fraction of the coverage at that time, much of which was published on the websites of newspapers and magazines that sent journalists to the earthquake’s epicenter. I didn’t find any notable news coverage or outpouring of grief online that I remembered.

In addition to disappearing content, there is a broader problem: China’s Internet is shrinking. There were 3.9 million websites in China in 2023, less than a third of the 5.3 million in 2017, according to the country’s internet regulator.

China has one billion Internet users, or almost a fifth of the world’s online population. However, the number of websites using the Chinese language represents just 1.3% of the global total, down from 4.3% in 2013 – a 70% drop over a decade, according to Web Technology Surveys. which monitors online usage of key content languages.

The number of Chinese-language websites is now only slightly higher than that of Indonesian and Vietnamese websites, and lower than that of Polish and Persian-language websites. That’s half the number of sites in Italian and just over a quarter of those in Japanese.

One reason for the decline is that it is technically difficult and expensive for websites to archive older content, and not just in China. But in China, the other reason is political.

Internet publishers, especially news portals and social media platforms, have faced increasing pressure to censor as the country takes an authoritarian and nationalist turn under Xi’s leadership. Keeping China’s cyberspace politically and culturally pure is a higher order of the Communist Party. Internet companies have more incentive to over-censor and allow older content to disappear by not archiving it.

Many people have had their online existence erased.

Two weeks ago, Nanfu Wang discovered that an entry about her on a Wikipedia-like website had disappeared. Ms. Wang, a documentary filmmaker, searched her name on the film review website Douban and found nothing. The same happens with WeChat.

“Some of the films I directed were deleted and banned from the Chinese internet,” she said. “But this time, I feel like, as part of history, I’ve been erased.” She doesn’t know what triggered it.

Zhang Ping, better known by his pen name, Chang Ping, was one of China’s most famous journalists in the 2000s. His articles were everywhere. Then, in 2011, his writing drew the ire of censors.

“My presence in public discourse has been suppressed much more severely than I expected, and this represents a significant loss of my personal life,” he told me. “I was denied my life.”

When my Weibo account was deleted in March 2021, I was sad and angry. I had more than three million followers and thousands of posts recording my life and thoughts over a decade. Many of the posts were about current affairs, history or politics, but some were personal reflections. I felt like a part of my life had been destroyed.

Many people intentionally hide their online posts because they could be used against them by the party or its representatives. In a trend called “grave digging,” nationalist “roses” spill over previous online writings by intellectuals, artists, and influencers.

For the Chinese, our online memories, even frivolous ones, can become baggage that we need to unload.

“While we tend to think of the Internet as superficial,” said Ian Johnson, a longtime China correspondent and author, “without many of these sites and things, we lose parts of our collective memory.”

In “Sparks,” a book by Johnson about courageous historians in China who work underground, he cited the Internet Archive for Chinese online sources in the endnotes because, he said, he knew they would all eventually disappear.

“History is important in every country, but it is really important for the CCP,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. “It is history that justifies the continuity of the party’s government.”

Johnson founded the China Unofficial Archives website, which seeks to preserve blogs, films and documents outside of the Chinese Internet.

There are other projects to prevent Chinese memories and history from falling into the void. has several websites that provide access to censored content. The China Digital Times, a non-profit organization that fights censorship, archives works that have been or are at risk of being blocked. Mr. Zhang, the journalist, is the executive editor.

He, the author of the WeChat post that went viral, is deeply pessimistic that the erasure of China’s history can be reversed.

“If you can still see some old information on the Chinese Internet now,” he wrote, “it’s just the last ray of the setting sun.”