May 30, 2024


The Techno Universe

How to live-tweet the Cultural Revolution, 50 years later

But we’ve spent the past few weeks at China Report talking about zero covid, so I thought we could take a break to talk about the other ticking time bomb in the room: Twitter.

I confess, I’m 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’s made this platform special. It’s not just about talking to celebrities and politicians as if we were in the same room, but also about connecting with strangers because you’re both interested in the same random thing.

That’s why I recently talked to Jacob Saxton, the 30-year-old logistics analyst in Southampton, UK, who is behind a pretty niche Twitter account: Cultural Revolution OTD 1972 (@GPCR50). The account pretends to live-tweet what happened during the devastating political movement from 1966 to 1976 in China—except, of course, it’s 50 years late. 

Some of the tweets gained traction because they draw parallels to our present—like 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 issues, or snippets of profound violence and tragedy.

I’m fascinated by the combination of historical records and the idea of retroactive “live-tweeting,” particularly in this case because it’s being done by someone with no background in Chinese history. Meanwhile, I grew up in China, yet the history of the Cultural Revolution was seldom taught in schools. Reading Jacob’s feed actually makes me feel I’m living through that history—like it’s no different from the tweet threads unpacking major news happening right now in China, Iran, or Ukraine.

But that’s the magic of Twitter! And as it turns out, there are at least 6,700 other people who are the same kind of weird as I am, either looking for contemporary echoes of history or just brushing up on their knowledge of China. 

I called Jacob in late 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 account’s future if Twitter is shut down. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

When did you start this account, and what motivated you to do it?