Summer Shorts: Censor

From inside the machine – by Alicia Lui


It started simply, with those words, “Just hold me.” Normally he wouldn’t have taken a second look; after all, those words were harmless. As a censor at the largest social network in China, it was his job to scan thousands of messages daily to make sure “sensitive” messages didn’t get out. All the new hardware and algorithms his employers invested in made his job easier, but users were finding creative ways to bypass automated filters. Luckily so, or he’d be out of a job.

Every now and then, to alleviate boredom, he would read entire conversations: couples planning the weekend, company executives scouting apartments, teenage girls gossiping about cute boys, all manners of debates, jokes and puns. Most of them weren’t that exciting, or original. He wasn’t supposed to read un-flagged conversations, but he’d always taken an interest in other people’s lives. His own was mundane, and lonely. No girlfriend, no family, no money, no passions… sometimes he wondered how he ever trudged through 25 years of life. At least by reading other’s messages he could imagine their lives; no matter what, it was going to be more interesting than his. 

There was something different about this message. He couldn’t quite explain it: there was nothing odd or eye-catching about how “Just hold me” was written, and nothing particularly revealing from the IDs; nonetheless he was riveted. He felt his throat tightening, so he swallowed. Why did the room suddenly feel so stuffy? His instincts told him to keep reading, to dig up past correspondences; he had to keep following their conversations. But how? It was expressly forbidden for him to reach out in any way; that would be career suicide.

It was almost midnight. Eight hours until his shift’s end. He got up, told a colleague he needed some fresh air, and darted out before he could hear the reply. Up the elevator to the top floor, through a door to a stairwell and onto the roof. He stared down onto the streets. Emptiness. He imagined hundreds of people streaming out of their workplaces toward their cars and bus stations and subway. All he actually saw were the drab moons of streetlamps. He felt small and insignificant. A nobody. How many people did Beijing have? Twenty-one million, officials said, but as somewhat of an official himself he knew official stats weren’t to be trusted: surely there were more.

Were the people whose messages he read every day among those who had, hours before, walked the streets below? Was the girl with the long black hair and fair white skin and pretty eyes and vanilla scent who’d written “Just hold me” also there? Was she another nobody like him, lost, walking not because she wanted to but because the people behind her would knock her over, needing space to breathe but enjoying none because the purpose of living is to keep moving? He leaned against the ledge and closed his eyes in the heat of the summer night.

He woke with a jolt. The sun was already above him.

“SHIT,” he screamed. His voice reverberated. His phone said 7:40 am. He stood up and looked around. Emptiness still. The echo of his voice seemed to rouse him, a useful reminder that he needed to be back at his seat for the end of his shift: his manager always walked in just before eight. 

He woke his computer. The words “Just hold me” had long disappeared, replaced by messages that looked like hieroglyphics to his bleary eyes. Ten minutes. That’s all he needed to wait out. His colleague had already left, maybe because there hadn’t been much work. But was that possible? He scrolled and scrolled: the messages seemed endless.

“Time to go home, isn’t it?" 

That was the manager, right on time.


And then he was outside, walking against the crowd in a magically filled-up Zhongguancun subway station, a fish swimming upstream.

It was only on the train, his mind drifting between day and night dreams, that it occurred to him to wonder what messages he had let slip through. Maybe something important. Maybe something that would change the very sun rising this very moment above his world.

Alicia Lui lives in Beijing and founded Prep Beijing! while co-captaining Big Brother, an Ultimate Frisbee club team

This story was a runner up for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition, and is part of our "summer shorts" season