Protests in China: What are activists doing to circumvent censorship?

Protests in China: What are activists doing to circumvent censorship?


The Chinese people are angry: the extreme measures put in place by the regime to curb the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, mixed with a violent crackdown campaign by the authorities, have succeeded to exhaust the patience of many citizens who have chosen to occupy public space to show their discontent. 

Censorship, very present in China, tries to erase the traces of these revolts on social networks. But nothing works. Freedom activists manage to circumvent the iron curtain in order to show their reality to the whole world.

The demonstrations, the most intense since 1989, were thus able to spread to several major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Wuhan, Shanghai, Nanjing and Chengdu.

How do they do it, when the Chinese government is stepping up its efforts to crush all forms of dissent? 

Leaving traces at all costs

< p>The movement protesting sanitary measures gained momentum last week with the fire at a residential building in Ürümqi, located in the Xinjiang region. The event, which killed a dozen people, inflamed public opinion. 

Images, showing the fire trucks standing at a ridiculous distance from the building, began to be broadcast on the networks. The latter were so far away that their jet of water did not reach the flames. 

Images showing barred doors from outside also shocked.

It should be noted that several residents of the building were Uyghurs, an oppressed minority in China.

Internet users then condemned the zeal of the government in its application of anti-COVID measures. These videos were viewed tens of thousands of times on Weibo and WeChat, Chinese social networks, before being deleted by censors.

In another attempt to quell popular discontent, Chinese social networks have deleted searches around the words “Xinjiang” and “Beijing”. The phrase “I saw it” has also been erased.

But the damage was already done. Many users have managed to save the original posts and have used a virtual private network (VPN) to re-share them on government-banned Western platforms, such as Twitter or Instagram. In one week, Twitter went from 150th to 9th among the most downloaded applications in China, according to TechCrunch.

Some also manage to circumvent the censorship present on Chinese sites by using coded language. Internet users will express themselves using irony and euphemisms. This strategy was also used during the #MeToo movement, where women used the keyword “rice bunny” to circumvent censorship. 

However, the authorities quickly understood these schemes and are trying to all the means to curb popular discontent. Accounts, used by Beijing, shared pornographic images to dilute activists' posts. The cuts led by Elon Musk, the platform's new owner, make it easy for fake news to spread.

A lawyer, questioned by a journalist on the spot, claimed that the Chinese regime uses data from telephones and social networks to trace and arrest protesters.

“Police are stopping random people on the street to check their phones,” journalist William Wang told BBC World. If they have installed apps like Twitter or Telegram, they are forced to delete them. They must also give their personal information to the authorities.”

Foreign Journalists

Several protesters contacted foreign journalists to circumvent government propaganda.

The phenomenon worries the regime so much that students at Tsinghua University in Beijing have been instructed not to speak to journalists who have not been approved by the government.

“Cyber-surveillance in China is very strong, explains this journalist. One of my sources told me that she received a call from the government asking her to stop sharing information.”

The latter also adds that many people have deleted the discussions they had had with him.

Protesters, however, continue to make more public outbursts to attract international media attention. 

They use the blank sheet to illustrate “silenced opposition”. This gesture can also be interpreted as a way of taunting the authorities. “It's a way for them to say 'Are you going to arrest me for holding an empty sign?'” BBC journalist Stephen McDonell wrote on Twitter.

< blockquote class="twitter-tweet">

You’ll notice anti-#ZeroCovid protestors holding blank sheets of paper in #China. This is not only a statement about dissent being silenced here, it’s also an up yours to the authorities, as if to say ‘Are you going to arrest me for holding a sign saying nothing?

— Stephen McDonell (@StephenMcDonell) November 27, 2022

Beijing is trying to discredit this popular discontent by claiming that the protests are driven by “foreign forces”.

Influencers paid by the government claim that protesters are using blank sheets to allow Western countries to write the messages they want via photomontages.

Several conspiracy theories, fueled by agents of the regime, circulate on social networks. Some of them even claim that Hong Kongers were paid by the CIA to sow discord in the country.

They also claim that the candlelight vigils, held in honor of the victims of the Ürümqi fire, are Western initiatives since the Chinese “don't don't use candles. The “real ones” use flower crowns.

Recall that this is not the first time that China blames the West for its social unrest. In 2019, she accused a US consul and a New York Times editor of leading pro-democracy protests.