Chinese netizens play cat-and-mouse with censorship amid protests

HONG KONG (AP) — Videos of hundreds of people protesting in Shanghai began appearing on WeChat late Saturday. They would only last a few minutes before being censored, chanting slogans about lifting the COVID-19 restrictions and demanding freedom.

Elliot Wang, 26, who lives in Beijing, was amazed.

“I started refreshing constantly, saving videos and taking screenshots of everything I could before they were censored,” Wang said, saying he only agreed to be quoted in English for fear of government retaliation. “Many of my friends shared videos of the protests in Shanghai. I shared them too, but they were quickly taken down.”

It highlights the cat-and-mouse game between China’s millions of internet users and the country’s massive censorship machine, where Wang was able to look into the unusual complaints.

Chinese authorities tightly control the country’s internet through a complex, multi-layered censorship operation that blocks access to nearly all foreign news and social media, and blocks topics and keywords deemed politically sensitive or harmful to Chinese Communist Party rule. Videos or appeals are usually deleted immediately.

But images of the protests began to circulate on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social network used by more than 1 billion people, after a deadly fire northwest of Urumqi on Nov. 24. Many suspected the lockdown measures were preventing residents from fleeing the flames, something the government denied.


According to Associate Professor Han Rongbin, the number of disgruntled Chinese users who took to the Chinese Internet to vent their frustrations, along with the methods they used to evade censorship, led to a brief period of crackdowns by government censors. at the Faculty of International Relations of the University of Georgia.

“Censors need some time to learn what’s going on and add it to their portfolio in terms of censorship, so it’s a learning process for the government on how to effectively implement censorship,” Han said.

In 2020, the death from COVID-19 of doctor Li Wenliang, who was arrested for allegedly spreading rumors after trying to warn others about the “SARS-like” virus, sparked widespread outrage and anger against China’s censorship system. . Users posted criticism hours before censors moved to remove the posts.

As censors removed posts about the fire, Chinese netizens often used humor and metaphor to spread critical messages.

“Chinese internet users have always been very creative because every idea that is used successfully will be discovered by censors the next time,” said Liu Lipeng, a critic of China’s censorship practices.

Chinese users began posting pictures of blank white sheets of paper, Liu said, silently recalling the words they were not allowed to post.

Others posted sarcastic messages such as “Ok ok ok I’m sure right right yes yes yes” or calls for President Xi Jinping to step down using Chinese homonyms such as “shrimp moss” which sounds like the words “go to pie” and Xi. “banana peel” with the same initials as the name of .

But within days, the censors switched to containing white paper images. They would use a number of tools, said Chauncey Jung, a policy analyst who previously worked for several Chinese Internet companies based in Beijing.

Jung said most content censorship is not done by the state, but outsourced to content moderation operations on private social media platforms that use a mix of humans and artificial intelligence. Some censored posts are not deleted, but may be visible only to the author or may be removed from search results. In some cases, posts with sensitive keywords may be published after review.

A search on Weibo on Thursday for the term “white paper” turned up mostly posts criticizing the protests, without images of a blank sheet of paper or people holding white paper at protests.

It is possible to access the global internet from China using virtual private networks that hide internet traffic, but these systems are illegal and many Chinese internet users only access the local internet. Wang does not use a VPN.

“I think I can say for all mainlanders in my generation that we are really excited,” Wang said. “But we’re also really disappointed because we can’t do anything… They just keep censoring, deleting and even putting up fake accounts to praise the police.”

But the system works well enough that many users don’t see them. When protests broke out in China over the weekend, Beijing resident Carmen Ou didn’t notice at first.

Ou found out about the protests only later, after using a VPN service to access Instagram.

“I tried to look at my feed on WeChat, but there was no objection,” he said. “Without VPN and access to Instagram, I wouldn’t have known such a great event was happening.”

Han, a professor of international relations, said censorship “doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective.”

“Censorship can operate to prevent a sufficiently large portion of the population from accessing critical information to be mobilized,” he said.

China’s opaque approach to preventing the spread of dissent online also makes it difficult to distinguish government campaigns from ordinary spam.

A Twitter search using Chinese words for Shanghai or other Chinese cities reveals an almost constant flood of new posts showing protest videos, but also revealing photos of young women. Some researchers have suggested that a state-sponsored campaign could try to stifle news of protests with “unsafe for work” content.

An initial analysis by the Stanford Internet Observatory found a lot of spam, but no “compelling evidence” that it was specifically designed to suppress information or dissent, said David Thiel, a Stanford data architect.

“I am skeptical of anyone who claims clear evidence of government involvement,” Thiel said in an email.

Twitter searches for more specific protest-related terms, such as “Urumqi Middle Road, Shanghai”, mainly producing posts about protests.

Israeli data analysis firm Cyabra and another research group that shared the analysis with the AP said it was difficult to distinguish between a deliberate attempt to suppress protest information sought by the Chinese diaspora and a widespread commercial spam campaign.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. He did not respond to media inquiries after billionaire Elon Musk took over the platform in late October and laid off much of its workforce, including many tasked with managing spam and other content. Musk frequently tweets on Twitter about how he is adopting or implementing new content rules, but has not commented on the recent protests in China.

AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan in London and AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island contributed to this story.

This story corrects that the Urumqi fire happened on November 24, not Friday.

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