Taipei, Taiwan – Chinese internet users and government censors are engaging in a cat-and-mouse game to control the narrative surrounding the country’s “zero COVID” protests.
The protests began in Urumqi, the capital of the remote western Xinjiang region, on Friday following the deaths of 10 people in an earlier apartment fire. spread over the weekend to citiesincluding Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and Chengdu.
Protests in Urumqi broke out after video was posted on social media showing fire trucks spraying water from too far away to reach the apartment building, with internet users claiming authorities could not come. closer due to the pandemic barrier and the cars left behind by people. isolation.
Videos and photos of the protests quickly went viral on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, where they received tens of thousands of views before being deleted by government censors. .
Actions of defiance shared online included footage of people breaking down barricades, calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down and holding up blank pieces of paper as a protest symbol.
By Monday, Chinese social media appeared to have eliminated searches for protest hotspots like “Xinjiang” and “Beijing,” while posts with oblique phrases like “I already seen” – referring to an internet user who viewed a recently deleted post – was also deleted. censorship.
David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, told Al Jazeera: “As the gap between lies and truth widens, even what cannot be said or seen becomes extremely symbolic.
“It can punch through veneers. And here’s what we’ve seen over the past few days. The words, ‘I saw it’, which mark the void after a protest video is removed, can be powerful. Or students protesting on campus can hold up blank sheets of paper and they talk a lot.”
Many posts documenting the protests have passed the Great Firewall of China with the help of virtual private networks (VPNs) and have been shared on popular Western platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. , which is officially banned in China.
“Beijing seems to be using the same tactic of censoring Chinese social media based on keywords – however, the amount of information passing through the Great Firewall is certainly remarkable,” said Stevie Zhang, deputy director editor-in-chief of First Draft News, an NGO. profit dedicated to fighting misinformation online, told Al Jazeera.
Zhang said internet users have evaded censorship by taking screenshots of posts before they are deleted and then sharing them with each other or posting them on Western social networks. In some cases, the posts made their way back to China via Twitter screenshots.
Other users, Zhang said, used seemingly unrelated and uncensored phrases to express their feelings, using “repetition of ‘good’, ‘well done’ or ‘ victory’ as a satirical or passively active way to highlight the Chinese’s inability to voice criticism of any kind.”
The use of euphemisms is a common tactic by Chinese netizens to evade government censorship, with acronyms and homonyms often replacing banned words. During China’s “me too” movement in 2018, many internet users posted under the hashtags # “rice rabbit” – which when said out loud in Mandarin sounds like “me too” – after the original hashtag is banned.
— 小中大字母圏 武汉外围/成都外围/重庆外围/杭州外围/上海外围/苏州外围/郑州外围/三亚外围/郑州外IZjo/三亚外围) (@KoyzQ9围54) November 28, 2022
This time, China’s censors have also taken note of the amount of information circulating on Western platforms like Twitter, which in recent days has been flooded with pornography and ads for prostitutes using bots. and pro-government accounts.
Twitter has lost thousands of employees to staff cuts and resignations since Elon Musk, a self-described libertarian, took over the social networking platform last month. The employee exodus included many employees responsible for censorship and misinformation policies, including the platform’s entire human rights team, which Musk fired within days of his purchase. $44 billion social media giant.
China’s COVID protests come as the country is grappling with most of its cases, spurring a new wave of lockdowns and restrictions on freedom of movement in major cities. including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou. Health authorities reported 40,347 new infections on Sunday, the fifth consecutive daily record.
Residents of Urumqi, where the recent protests began, have been living under harsh restrictions since August 10, in what is believed to be China’s longest continuous blockade.
In late March and early April, Shanghai’s five-day “circuit breaker” blockade was extended to two months, causing food shortages and rare public expressions of discontent. .
China is the last country in the world to adhere to a “no COVID” policy aimed at stamping out the virus outbreak at almost any cost. The strategy, which relies on blockades, border controls, and mass testing, has kept infections and deaths low compared to elsewhere, but has caused severe social and economic damage.