The protests in Urumqi erupted against China’s anti-virus measures after a fire broke out in an apartment building in Xinjiang on October 24.

The fire in Xinjiang left at least ten people dead and nine others injured. Residents were angry after footage spread on social media showed fire trucks couldn’t reach the apartment building.

Chinese internet users claimed firefighters could not get closer to the fire due to pandemic barricades and cars that had been abandoned by people who had been quarantined.

Then, protests began spreading to major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and Chengdu.

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

Elliot Wang, who only agreed to be quoted using his English name, in fear of government retaliation, told AP news.

“I started refreshing constantly, and saving videos, and taking screenshots of what I could before it got censored.”

 Wang added, “A lot of my friends were sharing the videos of the protests in Shanghai. I shared them too, but they would get taken down quickly.”

According to Han Rongbin, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s International Affairs department, a large number of Chinese internet users were outraged by the incident. They use methods of evading censorship on social platforms to express their frustrations. As a result, within a short period of time, government censorship was overwhelmed.

Stevie Zhang, an associate editor of First Draft News, a non-profit dedicated to combating online misinformation, told Al Jazeera about this evading censors.

Zhang said Chinese users took screenshots of posts before the government deleted them. These users, then, would share with each other or post them on Western social media. Sometimes, these posts came back to China via Twitter screenshots.

Zhang added another way was using seemingly unrelated and uncensored phrases, such as “repetitions of ‘good,’ or ‘well done, ‘ or ‘win’ as a sort of sarcastic or passive-aggressive way of highlighting the inability of Chinese people to voice any form of criticism.”

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

Chinese users then post images of blank sheets of white paper. It is also the image of protesters in the street. Liu added the white paper as a silent reminder of words they weren’t allowed to post.

Internet users also used Chinese homonyms and metaphors to spread messages, such as “shrimp moss,” which sounds like the words for “step down,” and “banana peel,” which has the same initials as Xi’s name. These aimed to evoke calls for President Xi Jinping to resign.

However, there have been certain obstacles to the spread of the message of the Chinese protesters.

When you search on Twitter for information about protests using Chinese words about Chinese cities, you will see protest videos. At the same time, there were also a lot of new posts showing racy photos of young women.

Some researchers have suggested that a state-backed campaign may have sought to drown out news of the protests as “not safe for work.” However, there is no evidence that the Chinese communist government does this work.

Israeli data analysis firm Cyabra and another research group told the AP that distinguishing between a deliberate attempt to silence objections and a regular commercial spam campaign is tricky.

At the same time, Chinese police track down, invade homes and crush protesters.

According to AFP, Chinese police use surveillance tools such as facial recognition and location data to crack down on participants in the widespread protests across the country.

Wang Shengsheng, a lawyer in Zhengzhou, told the news outlet, the police may have collected phone location data from on-site scanners or COVID health code scanners near the protest areas. 

The Washington Post cited one China-focused security expert, reporting that officials may use data from cellphone towers to track people who were around the protests.

In Shanghai, the scene of some of the most daring demonstrations, police searched people’s cell phones in the streets and on the subway.

In addition, a video recently shared on Twitter showed Shanghai police directly checking people’s cell phones on public transport. Other footage showed police officers on Urumqi Street, where demonstrators gathered to protest, checking and asking people to delete images related to the protests from their phones.

CNN reported, after the protests in Beijing were curbed and temporarily calmed down, some protesters started getting calls from authorities and asking them questions.

These people have denied their presence at the protests. However, the police immediately asked, “Then why did your mobile phone appear in the demonstration?” 

Some more careful protesters said that they put their mobile phones in airplane mode before joining the demonstration to prevent the signal from being detected, allowing them to avoid being questioned by security.

On Twitter, some netizens posted a video of the Urumqi police arresting people at their door, saying that the security unit launched a large-scale campaign against the demonstrators and the people who spread the fire video that ignited the white paper revolution.

Alkan Akad, a China researcher at Amnesty International, told the New York Times, “We’re hearing stories of police turning up on people’s doorsteps asking them about their whereabouts during the protests, and this appears to be based on the evidence gathered through mass surveillance.”

Who will win the confrontation between the Chinese people and the government? In the current situation, the advantage favors the government.

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