VSThe hina’s strict censorship system is battling an onslaught of complaints from Shanghai, as locals find creative ways to circumvent bans on words, hashtags and even national anthem lyrics.
As the weeks-long lockdown in the city of 25million has caused widespread food shortages, delivery failures and deadly healthcare disruptions, the government has urged residents to harness ‘positive energy’ . Dystopian banners warn people of “watch your own mouth or face the punishment” and drones admonish apartment dwellers. But far from encouraging residents to queue, the methods have raised tensions.
On WeChat, groups shared the names and stories of people who died, either with Covid or because the lockdown delayed their access to healthcare. They criticized local authorities and China’s continued commitment to zero-Covid as the world opens up, shared videos of residents being detained, evicted from their apartments or brutally treated by pandemic workers.
Many of these posts were quickly deleted, including an article by a leading Chinese health expert, Dr Zhong Nanshan, who cautiously urged China to back away from its zero-Covid commitment. The platforms have also censored videos of protests and outrage over the separation of Covid-positive children from their parents. A Caixin investigation into unreported deaths quickly disappeared.
In a video shared online, pandemic workers appeared to make their way into a man’s apartment to demand that he abolish a critical positionwhile others claim to have been visited by the police on their tweets. Weibo censored the term “buy vegetables in Shanghai” as people complained about food shortages (although one local ironically noted you can still post about buying cake). On Sunday, even the first line of the Chinese national anthem – “Stand up! These people who refuse to be slaves! – had been banned as a hashtag.
But the volume of banned messages seems to challenge the censorship system and the workers.
Last week, for a few hours before dawn on Weibo, criticism of the state flowed unusually freely, as users flooded the two most popular – and therefore sanctioned – hashtags with complaints. Under the topics “the United States is the country with the biggest human rights deficit” and “Shanghai has dealt with several rumors regarding Covid”, the messages were often sarcastic or satirical, circumventing bans by replacing ” China” by “the United States” in their criticisms. The posts remained online for hours, prompting one person to joke that the censors must have escaped the pressures of China’s pervasive “996” culture of overwork.
“People have lost confidence”
Charlie Smith, co-founder of censorship watchdog site GreatFire.com and who goes by a pseudonym, said part of the pushback could be attributed to it coming from Shanghai residents, who he said could “Allow yourself to [more] open, because they are not so linked to Beijing”. Shanghai, China’s commercial capital, is generally wealthier than other parts of the country and home to a large middle class and a cohort of Chinese business and academic elites, most of whom were educated abroad.
“I think what happened in Shanghai wouldn’t happen in Beijing,” he said. “But something has definitely changed. People have lost faith in the government, they are unlikely to believe what the government tells them and they will question the propaganda.
Smith said several recent events have strained China’s censorship system.
“We went from [February story of a Chinese woman found chained in a shed], to the war in Ukraine, to Covid in Shanghai in fairly quick succession. To what extent do they allow people to discuss these topics in depth? »
“They can’t completely censor these topics, and then the constant blame from the United States for everything seemed to break the camel’s back, so netizens turned it around, and now the censors are scrambling.”
Dong Mengyu, a journalist specializing in internet censorship, said the censorship mechanisms were still the same, but “the creativity of dissent poses challenges for censors.”
“The volume of dissent reminds me of what we saw at the start of the Wuhan lockdown, especially after the death of Dr Li Wenliang and the censorship of an essay on Dr Ai Fen,” Dong said. Both had been punished for talking about the emerging virus. Following public outcry after his death, Li was later officially hailed as a hero.
Challenge in Beijing
In a possible sign that they need more tools, several social media platforms announced on Friday that they would soon publish users’ IP addresses, in order to fight against the “propagation of rumours”.
In a Friday post, still online at the time of publication, one person hijacked the US human rights hashtag to deride a planned show in Chinese state media intended to “inject energy positive” by highlighting the “good” elements of confinement. The event was later canceled after online backlash.
“The epidemic has made it much clearer to the Chinese,” they posted. “The Chinese are obedient, but they are not stupid”.
Complaints still littered the US human rights hashtag on Monday, as people posted photos of surveillance cameras set up in women’s college dorms as a ‘pandemic measure’, bogus polls claiming that people were living a harder life than anyone else in Russia or Ukraine, from a dog being beaten to death by epidemic workers, from the removal of all residents (without pets) from a village northeast of Pudong to disinfect it after a cluster of cases.
Smith said Chinese authorities used to fear that simultaneous street protests in different cities would challenge Beijing’s hold on the population. “I don’t know if they ever thought something similar could happen online, but it is happening.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin