The chaotic Chinese social network Douban never looked for fame; it was designed for people with niche obsessions and an urge to talk about them. It was founded in Beijing in 2005, the same year that two University of Virginia roommates were busily coding the system that would become Reddit, a year before Jack Dorsey would launch a little-known microblogging service, “twttr.”
Douban began as a review site for books, film, and music: the interests of its charismatic founder, Ah Bei. It quickly grew into a social network of millions of users. The site’s bulletin board system accelerated into an unpredictable, ever-expanding space for gossipy discussions on everything from life advice — gay dating, dealing with gaslighting parents — to wild eccentricities, like a page where users talk as if they were ants or mushrooms. And while its Chinese and global rivals chased ad-driven monetization, Douban shrugged off profit-making and propaganda, instead playing for survival on the fringes of the Chinese internet.
“The company is run by a group of idealistic tech workers. That’s extremely rare in an age when traffic numbers mean everything,” said Oscar Zhou, a media studies lecturer with the University of Hertfordshire who has studied Douban communities.
Against the odds, Douban has survived for 17 years. But its users’ time there appears to be running out. In March, a government censorship task force was set up at the company’s headquarters. Over the past year, some of its most popular groups have shut down, its app was scrubbed from major Chinese stores, and on April 14, Douban froze a significant traffic driver, the gossip forum Goose Group, though it’s unclear whether each of those actions were the decisions of the website or government regulators.
As China’s tech crackdown seeps into all parts of online life, the ability to organize around something as mild as shared interests is being throttled by Beijing’s censors. Rest of World spoke to more than a dozen early Douban employees, prominent group admins, and current users, most of whom requested anonymity in order to freely discuss Chinese censorship. For them, the reining-in of Douban signals that its creative, tight-knit communities have become an unacceptable political risk, as the Chinese government grows increasingly vigilant about any form of civil gathering.
“The government does not want people to get together and talk about one thing, no matter if that’s about public policy or gossip,” Zhou said. “It’s impossible for Douban to always have that space for users. This is the reality in China.”
Rumors of Douban’s death have swirled since at least 2019. Over 2021, Chinese authorities slapped the company with a total of 10.5 million yuan ($1.65 million) of fines for insufficient censorship, and, in December that year, its app was removed from major Android stores in China. And over the past year, Douban has shut down dozens of pop-culture forums against the background of the government’s national campaign against so-called “fan circle chaos,” a vague phrase that encompasses almost any fan-driven discussion.
In March, the Cyberspace Administration of China deployed a special task force to Douban’s office in Beijing, to oversee its “rectification,” the common term for bringing a group into line. Douban declined to comment on whether the closure of Goose Group was permanent, and the government’s internet watchdog hasn’t announced if its taskforce has left Douban’s offices.
This pressure is new for Douban. With its bare-bones website, Douban hasn’t had to chase profit or visitors in order to fund expensive running costs and could afford to shrug off brash advertisements and propaganda. As other social networks try to prove they can help the state reach a mass audience, Douban is a rare corner where the Communist Youth League, People’s Daily, and the Foreign Ministry still do not hold propaganda accounts. Today, Douban’s revenue is largely made up of advertisements that live on less-controversial forums and its widely trusted movie and book review section.
Some of Douban’s unique attitude can be traced back to founder Ah Bei’s free-internet idealism. The platform was supposed to be simple to use, and through that, draw an inclusive and diverse audience. An early employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Rest of World that by the mid-2010s, Douban was making just enough money to pay for hardware and staff salaries. The company was going against the tide of the entire Chinese internet industry, refusing to join others in chasing higher traffic numbers for increased advertising income, said the person, who left in 2014. “Ah Bei is obsessed with how clean things are,” they observed. “He doesn’t just want to do business but also wants to make sure the business reflects his values.”
“Douban wanted to make money, but people were not willing to compromise their ideals,” said another early employee, Qingfeng, who asked to use his screen name due to privacy concerns. “Money was seen as too dirty.” Management had the intention of hiring more down-to-earth employees, Qingfeng said, but it was book lovers with lofty dreams who ended up passing the interviews. Douban declined to comment to Rest of World on government scrutiny and its financial situation.
Douban’s management held a principle of noninterference, say former employees: it both allowed its unusual, passionate groups to flourish and created the laissez-faire environment that eventually drew the censors’ attention. Ah Bei decided early on that the rights to these forums belonged to their admins, and Douban’s job was to match users with communities that shared their interests, according to a former product manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Goose Group is among the groups that accidentally shot to fame in Douban’s freewheeling environment. Liuwuma, a former admin who asked Rest of World to use her screen name because of privacy concerns, was a freelance writer in her 20s when she co-founded the group’s predecessor, “Gossip is coming,” in 2010. Early members of the forum, mostly fans of a viral Taiwanese talk show, began dishing dirt on celebrities around the world, from Faye Wong to Justin Bieber. “There was no place for gossip on Douban, so a few friends and I built one,” she said. “We wanted people to come and have some fun here.”
As the group grew, attracting a new horde of Gen Z pop fans, it took on a life of its own. The mostly female members shamed celebrities accused of sexual misconduct and initiated boycott campaigns against companies they deemed misogynistic. Sometimes, members posted veiled criticisms of the government. Liuwuma would remove politically inflected posts unrelated to gossip, but things often went beyond her control. “It was all spontaneous,” she explained.
Goose Group couldn’t quite escape the nationalist voices pervading the Chinese internet. Around 2020, its members began to mix feminism with hyper-patriotism, trying to silence anyone who disagreed. In 2021, Goose Group posts criticizing Western companies’ refusal to source cotton from Xinjiang fueled a massive consumer boycott movement against Nike, Adidas, and H&M.
Patriotic displays weren’t enough to prevent its shutdown. Even if a fandom group is largely nationalistic, the state might find its resources, ability to mobilize, and sheer size “potentially threatening,” said Chenchen Zhang, a political science lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. “Closure of these groups means a further shrinking of public space for discussing anything beyond the cultural agenda set by party authorities,” she added.
Goose Group isn’t alone; other Douban groups are running out of road after years of dodging the censors. Qingfeng, who was the 36th employee at Douban, ran one of the network’s earliest boards: a tech-bro meetup that evolved into a sprawling hookup group of nearly 450,000 members with the innocuous name “Eat, drink, play, and have fun in Beijing.” During its peak, members posted artistically crafted dating profiles, reviews of their lovers’ skills, and lengthy stories. “You would want to hook up with someone who, after you mentioned Haruki Murakami, could tell you which book is their favorite,” Qingfeng explained to Rest of World. “You would not want the person to say: ‘Who is Haruki Murakami?’”
In 2019, after regulators found the group’s discussions vulgar, Douban restricted viewing to members only. On April 18, like Goose Group, it was abruptly shut down.
The future looks ominous for other underground groups, which include everything from Douban’s biggest lesbian forum to a space for children to complain about their gaslighting parents, which turned private in 2017 after it was attacked by the party for violating filial piety. “The entire cyberspace is under tighter control,” said Shangchen, a 43-year-old lesbian user in the eastern province of Jiangsu. “No one would be so naïve as to think that Douban could always shelter lonely minorities.”
Goose Group’s members have been trying to regroup in other Douban forums. Outside of China’s censored internet, Goose now has spin-offs on Reddit, Telegram, and Discord, all bearing its signature white goose profile picture. (The members, mostly hardcore feminists, call themselves the “wandering geese.”) China’s biggest tech companies, including Alibaba, ByteDance, and Weibo are building their own interest-oriented communities, but users are unconvinced that they’ll have the same tolerance.
“I never quit the groups that were closed,” said Melody Cheng, a 23-year-old user in the eastern province of Shandong, who used to visit Goose Group every day. “I always feel when the restrictions are lifted one day, Ah Bei might open them up again. Without Douban, we would lose a place for equal and free discussions.”
The specter of Ah Bei hangs over Douban. As someone who created the social network in his image, his ideals still infuse the chatter on the boards. Mourning the death of their communities, users leave pleading messages on his profile.
“Ah Bei, can’t you just pull some strings?” “If you run out of money, we will make donations.” “Bei, promise me, don’t give up on Douban.” His profile has been inactive since 2019.