China netizens,censors fight for narrative amid COVID demonstrations

Taipei, Taiwan – Chinese internet users and government censors are engaged in a game of cat and mouse to control the narrative around the country’s “Zero COVID” protests.

Protests began in Urumqi, the capital of the western Xinjiang region, on Friday following the death of 10 people in a fire at an apartment block before spreading over the weekend to cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and Chengdu.

Protests in Urumqi erupted after images posted on social media showed fire trucks spraying water from too far away to reach the apartment building, and internet users claimed authorities were unable to get close due to pandemic barricades and cars. who had been abandoned by people who had been quarantined

Videos and photos of the protests quickly circulated on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, receiving tens of thousands of views before being removed by government censors.

Acts of defiance shared online included scenes of people tearing down barricades, calling for the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping and holding up blank sheets of paper as a symbol of protest.

By Monday, Chinese social media appeared to have deleted searches for protest hotspots like “Xinjiang” and “Beijing,” while posts with oblique phrases like “I saw it,” a reference to an Internet user who saw a post recently deleted, they were also censored

Chinese netizens are circumventing censors by taking screenshots of posts on Chinese platforms and then sharing them on Twitter and Instagram. [Supplied]

“As the rift between lies and truth widens, even what cannot be said or seen becomes immensely symbolic,” David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, told Al Jazeera.

“It can go through the lining. And this is what we have seen in recent days. The words ‘I saw it’, marking the void in the wake of a deleted protest video, can become powerful. Or students protesting on campus can hold up blank sheets of paper and talk a lot.”

Many posts documenting the protests have already bypassed China’s Great Firewall with the help of virtual private networks (VPNs) and have been shared on popular Western platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, which are officially banned in China.

“Beijing appears to be using the same keyword-based Chinese social media censorship tactics; however, the amount of information that is passing beyond the Great Firewall is definitely noteworthy,” Stevie Zhang, associate editor of First Draft News, a non-profit dedicated to combating online disinformation, told Al Jazeera.

Zhang said internet users were evading censors by taking screenshots of posts before they were removed and then sharing them with each other or posting them on Western social media. In some cases, the posts came full circle back to China via Twitter screenshots.

Other users have become accustomed to using seemingly unrelated and uncensored phrases to express their feelings, Zhang said, using “repetitions of ‘good,’ or ‘well done,’ or ‘win’ as sort of sarcastic or passive-aggressive.” to highlight the Chinese people’s inability to express any form of criticism.”

The use of euphemisms is a common tactic by Chinese netizens to evade government censors, with abbreviations and homonyms often replacing banned words. During China’s “Me Too” movement in 2018, many internet users posted with the hashtag “rice bunny”, which when said out loud in Mandarin Chinese sounds like “me too”, after the hashtag was banned. original.

This time, China’s censors have also taken note of the amount of information circulating on Western platforms such as Twitter, which in recent days has been inundated with pornography and sex worker ads from bots and pro-government accounts.

Twitter has lost thousands of employees to staff cuts and resignations since Elon Musk, a self-described free speech absolutist, took over the social media platform last month. The exodus of staff has included numerous employees responsible for moderation and misinformation policies, including the platform’s entire human rights team, which Musk fired within days of his $44 billion purchase of the social media giant. .

China’s COVID protests come as the country is dealing with the most cases yet, prompting a new wave of lockdowns and restrictions on freedom of movement in big cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou. Health authorities reported 40,347 new infections on Sunday, a fifth straight daily record.

Residents of Urumqi, where recent protests began, have lived under harsh restrictions since Aug. 10, in what is believed to be China’s longest continuous lockdown.

In late March and early April, a five-day lockdown in Shanghai was extended to two months, leading to food shortages and rare displays of public discontent.

China is the latest country in the world to stick to a “zero-COVID” policy aimed at eradicating outbreaks of the virus at almost any cost. The strategy, which relies on lockdowns, border controls and mass testing, has kept cases and deaths low compared to other places, but has inflicted severe economic and social costs.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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