But we’ve spent the last few weeks on China Report talking about zero covid, so I thought we might take a break to talk about it the other time bomb in the room: Twitter.
I confess to being deeply addicted to Twitter, and amid all the speculation about whether it would collapse under Elon Musk’s leadership, I found myself thinking about what made this platform special. It’s not just about talking to celebrities and politicians like we’re in the same room, it’s about connecting with strangers because you’re both interested in the same random thing.
That’s why I recently spoke with Jacob Saxton, the 30-year-old logistics analyst in Southampton, UK, who is behind a rather niche Twitter account: Cultural Revolution OTD 1972 (@GPCR50). The account aims to live-tweet what happened during China’s devastating 1966-1976 political upheaval, except, of course, 50 years behind schedule.
Some of the tweets gained traction because they draw parallels with our present, like now on July 24, 1972, when Mao Zedong said that “the State should deliver free contraceptives to people’s homes because many are too embarrassed to go out and buy them.” Others offer peculiar anecdotes, historical pretext for modern problemsor fragments of profound violence and tragedy.
I’m fascinated by the combination of historical records and the idea of retroactive “live tweeting”, especially in this case because it’s done by someone with no background in Chinese history. Meanwhile, I grew up in China, but the history of the Cultural Revolution was rarely taught in schools. Reading Jacob’s feed makes me feel like I am alive through this story—as if it were no different from the threads of tweets unpacking important news happening right now in China, Iran or Ukraine.
But that’s the magic of Twitter! And as a result, there are at least 6,700 other people who are the same kind of weirdo as me, whether they’re looking for contemporary echoes of history or just brushing up on their knowledge of China.
I called Jacob at the end of November to talk about how Twitter has changed in the six years he’s been doing this, the personal nature of this project, and the future of the account if Twitter shuts down. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
When did you start this account and what motivated you to do it?