Nov 29, 2022 - World

The fight against China's protest censorship

A resident holds a sign in protest of COVID restriction in mainland during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.

A resident holds a sign in protest of COVID restriction in mainland during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China. Protesters took to the streets in multiple Chinese cities after a deadly apartment fire in Xinjiang province sparked a national outcry as many blamed COVID restrictions for the deaths. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Amid an unprecedented swell of public anger against the Chinese government, internet users in China are racing to screenshot and repost content related to the COVID protests as censors try to scrub social media spaces of dissent.

Why it matters: Videos and photos posted to social media are one of the only ways to get information about the protests since information is tightly controlled in China and journalism in the country is heavily restricted.

Driving the news: The largest protests since the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989 have been spreading across China in response to pandemic policies that have seen people locked into their apartments for weeks or even months at a time, damaged the economy, and made daily life uncertain for hundreds of millions of people.

  • When asked at a press briefing on Monday if China would end the zero-COVID policy due to the protests, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, "what you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened."
  • He added that China would continue to adjust its policies in line with its stated pandemic prevention measures.

State of play: On Monday, Chinese authorities flooded previous protest areas in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong with police vans and security forces to preempt further demonstrations.

  • Some universities, also the site of numerous protests, announced they would close early for Lunar New Year so students would return home.
  • The measures seemed to have an effect, as protesters in Beijing and Shanghai did not return to previous demonstration sites on Monday night.
  • Online censors deleted social media posts and articles about the protests, while official media did not cover them. On Twitter, which is not accessible in China, a deluge of spam posts appeared under hashtags related to the protests, making it more difficult to use Twitter to track what was happening, per the Washington Post.

What's happening: One former Shanghai resident surnamed Wang told Axios she has been staying up late every night since Friday grabbing screenshots of articles and social media posts about the protests, posting them on WeChat, and sending them to friends so the posts can still be viewed in China.

  • "None of this is organized. There’s no group chat of us saying we should screenshot this before it’s deleted," said Wang, who moved to Taipei a few months ago and asked to withhold her full name in order to protect family and friends in China.
  • Over the weekend, countless Chinese social media users posted and reposted messages intended to convey clear dissent but circumvent censors, such as lines of black squares in place of words or including speeches by Chinese officials.

The big picture: "While the Chinese people haven’t had a choice, they have had a system that they basically trust," Wang said. Many surveys find Chinese people have high trust in their government but other data describes a diversity of views.

  • Wang lived through the two-month-long Shanghai lockdown earlier and described the experience as "collective trauma," with no end in sight.
  • "To have a government that you trust betray you to this degree, and to betray your compliance to the system, why are we surprised that people are angry?"

What to watch: Chinese authorities relaxed some COVID restrictions on Monday but show no signs yet of abandoning the policy completely.

  • "If the protests result in the end of the zero COVID policy but not the end of authoritarianism in China, the protests have still succeeded, because they improved the people’s lives," Wang told Axios.
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