The Archive of Our Own (AO3), the Hugo-winning fanfiction website, is the latest casualty of Chinese censorship, amid a continued crackdown in the country on queer content, sexually explicit content, and websites based abroad.
Reports surfaced on February 29 that AO3 was no longer accessible through the national Chinese web, and the site appears to be blocked from view within the country, according to Comparitech, a service that allows users to check whether China has blocked a website. In a tweet confirming the ban, the Organization for Transformative Works, the non-profit group that runs AO3, seemed surprised. It’s unclear whether the OTW was contacted by Chinese authorities before the site was blocked. (Vox has reached out to the OTW for comment.)
Unfortunately, the Archive of Our Own is currently inaccessible in China. We’ve investigated, and it is not due to anything on our end. We’re keeping Chinese users updated on our Weibo: https://t.co/B4r3IEj0fU
— AO3 Status (@AO3_Status) February 29, 2020
The news immediately spawned unverified rumors that one of China’s biggest recent fandoms had inspired the ban. The Untamed is an internationally popular 2019 Chinese web series based on a queer romance novel originally published online. And there are more than 14,000 fanfics related to The Untamed on AO3. The rumors, which surfaced from within the Chinese internet, involved the large adjacent fandom for The Untamed’s main actor, Xiao Zhan, and focused on unsubstantiated reports of a harassment campaign launched by critics of Xiao Zhan against AO3 fanfic writers who wrote about him.
The Untamed premiered on Netflix in October and has only grown its following since then, while Xiao Zhan has become a huge celebrity since the show’s release. So the idea that fanfiction about the actor had led to the reported censorship of AO3 within China brought widespread alarm, finger-pointing, and outcry, with fans issuing calls to “protect Xiao Zhan” from further harassment. On March 1, after a day of online outrage, Xiao’s studio reportedly issued a public apology for “occupying public resources.”
#Trending! #XiaoZhan‘s studio apologizes for occupying public resources following recent controversy involving fans. Rumors allege that Xiao’s fans reported fanfiction site AO3, leading to its subsequent shutdown in China and drawing the ire of many of the site’s users.#肖战 pic.twitter.com/Hm0tC9P763
— Trending Weibo (@TrendingWeibo) March 1, 2020
But although the rumors wreaked havoc within The Untamed’s fandom (amid simultaneous attempts to halt the spread of misinformation) it seems very likely that the timing was purely coincidental. It’s more likely that AO3 became a target of China’s ongoing attempts to suppress queer and explicit media content, as a part of its larger dedicated pattern of internet censorship.