Chinese Users Play Cat-Mouse With Censors Amid Protests

HONG KONG (AP) — Videos of hundreds of protests in Shanghai began appearing on WeChat Saturday night. They stood for only a few minutes before being censored, chanting about the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and demanding freedom.

Elliot Wang, 26, who lives in Beijing, was stunned.

“I started constantly renewing, recording videos and taking screenshots as much as I could before they were censored,” said Wang, who agreed to cite using only his English name for fear of government retaliation. “Many of my friends were sharing videos of the protests in Shanghai. I shared them too, but they were quickly removed.”

The fact that Wang could glimpse the extraordinary flood of complaints underscores the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between millions of Chinese internet users and the country’s massive censorship machine.

Chinese authorities tightly control the country’s internet through a complex, multi-layered censorship operation that blocks access to nearly all foreign news and social media, and blocks topics and keywords deemed politically sensitive or harmful to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. Protest videos or protest calls are usually deleted immediately.

But footage of the protest began to spread on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social networking platform used by more than 1 billion people, following a deadly fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi on November 24. Many suspect that the lockdown measures are preventing residents from escaping the flames, but the government denies this.

Protesters hold blank papers and shout slogans as they march in protest in Beijing on November 27, 2022. In a society where everything is closely watched and censored, the white paper is a silent protest against not allowing users to speak.

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

According to Associate Professor Han Rongbin, the large numbers of unhappy Chinese users who turned to the Chinese internet to express their frustration, along with the methods they used to evade censorship, were briefly overwhelmed by government censors. Department of International Relations at the University of Georgia.

“It takes a while for censors to study what’s going on and add it to their portfolio in terms of censorship, so this is the process of learning how the government can enforce censorship effectively,” Han said.

The COVID-19 death of doctor Li Wenliang in 2020, who was arrested for spreading rumors after an attempt to warn others about a “SARS-like” virus, sparked widespread outrage and overflowing anger against the Chinese censorship system. Users posted hours of criticism before the censors took action to delete the posts.

While censors removed posts about the fire, Chinese internet users often used humor and metaphor to spread critical messages.

Criticizing China’s censorship practices, Liu Lipeng said, “Chinese netizens have always been very creative because every idea once used successfully will be discovered by the censors next time.”

Liu said that Chinese users started posting pictures of blank white sheets of paper, silently reminding them of the words they weren’t allowed to post.

Others posted sarcastic messages such as “Good good good absolutely sure right true yes yes yes” or used Chinese synonyms like “shrimp seaweed” to evoke calls for President Xi Jinping to step down, which sounds like “stepping back” . ” and “banana peel” with the same initials as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But within days, censors took action to include images of the white paper. Chauncey Jung, a policy analyst who previously worked for several Chinese internet companies based in Beijing, said they will use a range of tools.

Most content censorship is not done by the government, but is outsourced to content moderation operations on private social media platforms that use a mix of human and artificial intelligence, Jung said. Some censored posts are not deleted, but can be made visible only to the author or removed from search results. In some cases, posts containing sensitive keywords may be published after review.

Commemorative flowers and blank pieces of paper are seen next to a lit candle during the demonstration in Hong Kong on November 28, 2022.
Commemorative flowers and blank pieces of paper are seen next to a lit candle during the demonstration in Hong Kong on November 28, 2022.

Via Getty Images Ben Marans/SOPA Images/LightRocket

A search of the term “white paper” on Weibo on Thursday revealed posts criticizing the protests, with no single blank page or images of people holding white paper at protests.

It is possible to access the global internet from China using technologies such as virtual private networks that hide internet traffic, but these systems are illegal and many Chinese internet users only access the local internet. Wang does not use a VPN.

“For all the mainlanders of my generation, I can say we’re really excited,” Wang said. “But we’re also really disappointed because we can’t do anything. … They keep censoring, deleting and even creating fake accounts to praise the cops.”

However, the system works well enough to prevent many users from seeing them. When protests erupted across China over the weekend, Beijing resident Carmen Ou initially didn’t realize it.

You only learned of the protests later, after using a VPN service to access Instagram.

“I tried looking at my feed on WeChat, but there was no mention of any protests,” he said. “Without a VPN and access to Instagram, I would not have known that such a tremendous event had taken place.”

Han, professor of international relations, said censorship “does not have to be perfect to be effective”.

“Censorship may be working to prevent a large enough population from accessing critical information to act on,” he said.

China’s opaque approach to curbing the spread of online opposition also makes it difficult to separate government campaigns from ordinary spam.

Searching Twitter using Chinese words for Shanghai or other Chinese cities almost constantly reveals new posts showing videos of protests, as well as explicit photos of young women. Some researchers have suggested that a state-sponsored campaign may try to suppress news of the protest with “not safe for business” content.

Stanford data architect David Thiel said a preliminary analysis by the Stanford Internet Observatory found lots of spam, but there was “no compelling evidence” that it was specifically aimed at suppressing information or dissent.

“I would be skeptical of anyone who claims clear evidence of government attribution,” Thiel said in an email.

Twitter searches for more specific protest-related terms such as “Urumqi Middle Road, Shanghai”, mainly generating posts about protests.

Another research group, which shared analysis with Israeli data analytics firm Cyabra and AP, said it was difficult to distinguish between a deliberate attempt to suppress protest information sought by the Chinese diaspora and an ordinary commercial spam campaign.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. The media hasn’t answered their questions since billionaire Elon Musk took over the platform in late October and cut most of its workforce, including those tasked with moderating spam and other content. Musk frequently tweets about how he’s enacting or enforcing the new Twitter content rules, but hasn’t commented on the recent protests in China.

AP Business Writer Kelvin Chan in London and AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island contributed to this story.

This story has been corrected to reflect that the day of the Urumqi fire was Thursday, November 24, not Friday.

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