How Chinese netizens undermined China’s Internet control

To enlarge / Demonstrators cover their faces with blank sheets of paper as they protest against China’s zero COVID policy in Hong Kong on November 28, 2022.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

A week ago, demonstrators took to the streets of the northwestern city of Urumqi to protest China’s strict zero-Covid policy. That night, an even bigger wave of protests broke out on Chinese social media, especially on the super app WeChat. Users shared videos of the demonstrators and songs such as “Can You Hear the People Sing?” Les Miserables“Get Up, Get Up” by Bob Marley and “Power to the People” by Patti Smith.

In the following days, protests spread. In Beijing’s Liangmaqiao district, a mostly masked crowd held up blank sheets of paper calling for an end to strict COVID policies. Across the city at the elite Tsinghua University, protesters held up a printout of a physics formula. The Friedman equation because his name sounds like “free man”. Similar scenes played out across China’s cities and college campuses in a wave of protests that have been compared to the 1989 student movement that ended in a bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square.

Unlike previous protests, the demonstrations that have angered China in the past week have been linked and spread by smartphones and social media. The country’s government has created extensive censorship and surveillance powers, trying to strike a balance between embracing technology and limiting citizens’ ability to use it to protest or organize. But last weekend, the momentum of China’s digitally savvy population and their frustration, bravado and anger seemed to have escaped government control. It took days for Chinese censors and police to crack down on dissent online and on city streets. At the time, images and videos of the protests spread around the world, and Chinese citizens proved they could maneuver around the Great Firewall and other controls.

“The atmosphere on WeChat was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” says a British national who has lived in Beijing for more than a decade and who asked not to be named to avoid the attention of Chinese officials. “There was a sense of recklessness and excitement in the air as people became bolder and bolder with each entry, each new person testing the limits of the government and their own.” He saw posts, unlike anything he had seen before on China’s tightly controlled Internet, such as a photo of a Xinjiang official with the caption “Fuck off” in plain sight.

Chinese Internet users have developed ideas about what censors will and will not allow, and many know how to bypass some Internet controls. But as the protests spread, young WeChat users didn’t care about the consequences of their posts, a tech worker in Guangzhou told Wired after calling the encrypted app. Like the other Chinese nationals quoted, he did not want to be named because of the risk of attracting government attention. More experienced organizers used encrypted apps like Telegram or shared on Western platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

Anti-siege demonstrations in Urumqi, the capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang province, began as informal vigils for victims of a deadly fire. The city has been under COVID lockdown restrictions for more than 100 days, which some observers say have hindered victims trying to escape and slowed emergency response. Most, if not all, of the victims were members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, which was subjected to a campaign of forced assimilation that sent an estimated 1 to 2 million people to re-education camps.

The tragedy comes at a time when frustrations over zero-Covid policies have begun to mount. A violent confrontation broke out between workers and security at Foxconn’s iPhone factory in Zhengzhou. Scott Kennedy of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says that when he visited Beijing and Shanghai in September and October, it was clear that people were “tired” of measures like routine PCR testing. Scanning QR “health codes” to go anywhere and the constant dream of a new lock. “I’m not surprised that it’s going down the drain,” says Kennedy. In early November, the government hinted that some restrictions would soon be eased, but the Urumqi fire and news of a resurgence in COVID cases “pushed people over the edge,” he said.

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