In late November 2022, the Chinese internet was abuzz with expressions of anger, sadness and disbelief. The catalyst was an apartment block fire in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang province, which killed at least 10 people after strict COVID-19 regulations restricted the movement of both victims and rescuers. Residents of Xinjiang, including ethnic Uyghurs, took to the streets to protest.
Many internet users have bypassed China’s official censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, to share information on banned platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Across the country, people have joined a decentralized movement with overlapping goals to mourn the victims of Urumqi, lift strict restrictions on the regime’s zero-COVID policy, and protest strict political control. The result was one of the most outspoken challenges to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in decades.
The developments came as a shock in part because the space for discussing politically sensitive topics on Chinese platforms is small and shrinking — a result of the regime’s multi-year strategy to deepen its control over domestic Internet companies. As CCP authorities work to close loopholes and prevent a repeat of the latest explosion, the international community must do everything possible to ensure that the global Internet remains a space where the Chinese people can raise their dissenting voices.
Fighting Online Censors
After the Urumqi fire, public outrage erupted and spread widely on social media despite the Chinese government’s deep crackdown on the internet. Restricted information or users who criticize the authorities are usually censored, harassed and intimidated. But Chinese platforms he struggled at first As the public response to the death of Dr. Li Wenliang in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, to cope with the many videos and messages about the fire.
Chinese users also used creative means to evade censorship as the movement spread. For example, people on the microblogging platform Weibo expressed solidarity through hashtags such as “A4” and “white paper exercise” — both references to the blank sheets of paper protesters held up to show the extent of the government’s restrictions on free speech.
Even as China grapples with censorship on platforms, people inside the country have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) — tools that can bypass the Great Firewall and are heavily regulated in China — to view and share uncensored content related to the protests. High-profile Twitter accounts run by overseas Chinese served as a stage for videos and photos to spread to the wider internet. Pages on Instagram, previously dedicated to posting memes, have become important repositories for crowdsourced information about the movement.
Finally, the internet censors caught on. Weibo and other platforms have started blocking users’ cleverly coded hashtags. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet regulator, has ordered social media companies to employ more censorship, focus on stopping discussion of zero-Covid protests and remove any references to VPNs from content posted by users.
Tightening the Screws in China’s Internet Companies
While the recent outcry has caught officials by surprise, the CCP has worked tirelessly to strengthen its censorship system against longstanding challenges. Recently, the CAC and other regulators have increasingly reined in Chinese technology companies whose vast wealth and influence are seen as a potential threat to the CCP’s concentration of power. Using financial and antitrust controls, authorities have imposed hefty fines or taken applications from online stores to punish companies for failing to toe the government line. This crackdown will make online mobilizations like zero-covid protests more difficult than ever.
The CCP has also demonstrated its commitment to ensuring that its censorship regime can keep pace with technological progress. For example, rules introduced in 2021 and 2022 targeted automated systems that distribute content or advertising to social media users. They require Chinese platforms to develop content-recommendation systems that exclude “illegal and unwanted” material, adhere to “core values” and promote “positive energy” and “socialist core” principles. Now, algorithmic systems will be created to prevent just that, sometimes exposing users to critical content they wouldn’t have discovered on their own.
Other rules aim to break anonymity and prevent critical speech. To comply with the 2021 regulation, Chinese social media platforms now display the city or province of users based in China at the bottom of their posts, and users based outside of China are tagged with their country. In a post explaining the change, Weibo claimed that some users were impersonating locals when discussing controversial topics.
New rules that went into effect last month could further restrict online discussion by limiting people from commenting on others’ posts. Platforms must now implement real-name registration for users with commenting privileges and implement new content-moderation controls on comment headers. Non-compliance may ultimately result in the platform being shut down. Comment threads used to offer a rare niche for Chinese to exchange ideas or criticism, but that opportunity may be diminishing.
Protecting Chinese Dissent on the Global Internet
In support of the Chinese protesters who have bravely raised their voices to share their views, democratic governments and international technology companies must take steps to protect access to a free and open global internet.
First, governments around the world should expand support for the development of tools that can be used to bypass censorship systems like the Great Firewall, especially tools that are user-friendly and designed for high-risk environments. Appropriate programs should enable civil society organizations to distribute these tools to people in need.
Second, democracies must oppose the CCP’s campaign to destroy the global internet internationally, as detailed in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2022 report. Chinese diplomats and state-owned companies have tried to promote their digital authoritarian control model to other governments. They have lobbied to enshrine this model within multilateral bodies that set technical and other standards for the Internet, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), led by China’s Houlin Zhao.
At the very least, democratic governments should develop common approaches to check digital-authoritarian influences in multilateral institutions. The Freedom Online Coalition, which brings together like-minded governments to protect human rights online, can coordinate diplomatically against the Chinese government’s efforts to fragment the global Internet. Now under the leadership of US Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the ITU can also resist such policies. Of particular concern, if Huawei’s New IP proposal and its successors are adopted, are policies that undermine how networks around the world interconnect to create a global internet.
Third, international tech companies must be prepared to defend the Chinese people’s right to self-expression and to seek and receive reliable information, especially when protests occur. During the zero-covid protests, networks of automated Chinese-language “bot” accounts on Twitter flooded protest-related hashtags with advertisements for pornography and escort services. Although these tactics echo previous state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, no clear evidence of a government link has so far emerged. Twitter has been slow to respond to the deluge, as the company’s recent massive layoffs have weakened its ability to fight content manipulation more broadly.
For tech companies that serve a global audience, it is critical to ensure adequate capabilities to address threats to platform integrity, including a full staff dedicated to trust and security, human rights, and regional needs. Companies must invest further in the internal infrastructure required to coordinate and respond to the CCP manipulation efforts of such teams. Companies must also innovate to ensure that users in closed countries can access their products safely and securely, such as by incorporating end-to-end encryption and deploying proxy servers.
The zero-covid protests demonstrated to millions of Chinese the power of their collective voice online and indoors. Under public pressure in December, the government eased many of its draconian pandemic restrictions despite its close relationship with President Xi Jinping. As Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor found, collective expressions of discontent are not uncommon in China, but they rarely take the form of direct appeals to the central government, and even more rarely major concessions by senior CCP leaders.
By protecting the freedom and accessibility of the global Internet, the international community will provide the Chinese people and others living behind authoritarian firewalls with the means to build solidarity and movements that challenge the mechanisms that deny them basic freedoms.