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[Interview] “Teacher Li”, the mythical figure who documents Chinese protests on Twitter

The Twitter account of “Teacher Li”


Photo: Radio-Canada / Twitter/@whyyoutouzhele

Yan Liang

“I’m honoured that I’m helping to write history. I strive to be a good recordkeeper.”

His Twitter handle loosely translates as Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher. Sincethe start of China’s white paper revolution, also known as the A4 revolution,[Ed.: the protesters hold up blank sheets of paper to symbolize censorship], the@whyyoutouzhele account has quickly become an information hub—adestination for videos, images and audio recordings sent by Chinese protestersto bypass their country’s censors. It took only two weeks for Teacher Li to amassover 800,000 subscribers, and that number continues to grow.

Radio Canada International (RCI) interviewed Li via video conference [Ed.: Li currently lives in Italy where he studies painting]. He uses his last name only in order to protect his anonymity.

Question: Some say you’re outperforming every major international media outlet all on your own. What’s your reaction?

Answer: I think they’re overestimating me. Traditional media outlets need time toverify information and provide in-depth reporting. I’m what’s known as “self-media,” so I have more flexibility. I can post an image or video as-is. That said, people put a lot of trust in me when they send me their material. I never expected this but I feel very fortunate.

I started documenting this revolution during the Foxconn protest. Those young workers are very savvy when it comes to social media. They threw stones at the police while recording the confrontations. Some of them were on Twitter and theysent me the videos. I only got three hours’ sleep that night.

When the people of Urumqi took to the streets, I realized the situation hadbecome very serious. That’s when I made the decision to create an objective, accurate and timely record of what was happening. I think the Chinese Twitter community was ready for an account like mine, one that simply documents what’s going on and conveys information to the outside world.

My account provides a factual chronicle of events. In the future, if someone wants to study and understand the situation, they’ll be able to find accurate information. It’s a valuable resource.

For many people, my account serves as a storage space for their videos that have been deleted by Chinese censors.

But I have no influence on these events. People aren’t able to send me theirmaterial in real time. They need to get to safety first. I’m just a record keeper. The videos posted on my account are reaching a wide audience. But what people choose to do after seeing them is beyond my control.

Question: Do you and your family feel unsafe these days?

Answer: Mostly I feel the pressure. I’ve been receiving messages since the very beginning. I don’t know where these people are from, but they’ve threatened me. They threaten to report me.The police have questioned my parents. I realize it’s become a big deal. A lotof people are investigating Teacher Li.No one has shown up at my door and threatened me in person yet. But I definitely feel the pressure after reading all the stories.Right now, the most important thing is to avoid getting overwhelmed. It’s notover yet. A lot of people rely on this account. That’s my main concern. I‘m nottoo worried for myself. I’m not afraid.

Question: Do you have a plan for the future?

Answer: Honestly, no. I didn’t think about myself or my future, or what could happen to my family if I posted certain information. Everything happened so fast. I didn’t have time to think about it.When I see people taking to the streets and shouting their slogans, I think, ifthey’re not afraid, why should a record keeper like me be scared?It’s true that my life has been turned upside down. Before, I had fairly simplelife goals. My plan was to return to China and teach painting at university. Now, I’m not sure where I’ll go or what I’ll do in the future. Sometimes I get abit frustrated because there are so many influencers and accounts talkingabout this revolution. But somehow, the responsibility for this work fell to me.In hindsight, it seems that at certain times, people are chosen by history. Nowthat I’m a part of this, I have to do my best.

Note: a longer version of this interview is also available in traditional Chinese and in simplified Chinese. This English version is based on a French translation by Wei Wu.

Yan Liang