Although the Chinese regime has tried to eliminate any voice that contradicts its leaders since it took over the country in 1949, the defiance of dissident Internet users is such that they threaten to make censorship fail after humiliating the repressive system.
Ingenuity and creativity are continually renewed, and the repression of information has become a “cat-and-mouse game,” which puts in check the entities in charge of eliminating ‘forbidden’ messages appearing on social networks.
As the young population overcomes the fear that has paralyzed them for decades and with appropriate new technologies at their disposal, they are increasingly sharing their opinions and criticisms of the adverse policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Ingenious resources used
One widely disseminated video was entitled Voices of April, showing scenes of the suffering of Shanghai residents during the painful closures imposed because of the pandemic.
The piece contained recorded voices of residents crying out to the government for supplies, a son’s pleas for his ailing father to be hospitalized, and a grassroots cadre sobbing to her frustrated interlocutors that she too is tired and can do nothing.
After its publication on the networks, censors immediately deleted it, but Internet users uploaded it repeatedly. In addition, they sometimes edited the images upside down, embedded them in other images, or used voice-over to insert them into another unrelated video.
At other times, the dissidents managed to use the popular TV character SpongeBob sitting in a fast food restaurant, Krusty Krab, watching the video on a cartoon computer.
On the other hand, Chinese network users employ, among other resources, a rich array of homophone words, character variants, and “typos” to circumvent the censors’ control.
This way, they circumvent the automatic filtering of words banned by the Chinese regime. In addition, they frequently use memes, letters, and images with similar pronunciation, words in other languages, or mixed numbers.
One of the characters most frequently mentioned in the messages is the leader, Xi Jinping, and, of course, the appearance of his name immediately triggers automatic censorship.
However, in just two months, the China Digital Times discovered at least 546 nicknames to refer to Xi in their veiled criticisms. Internet users liken him to an emperor of the new age or accuse him of accelerating China’s demise because of his tendency to use policies similar to those of Mao Zedong.
Some images have already become popular, such as one that ridicules Xi by making him look like Winnie the Pooh, a fictional character in the form of an anthropomorphic teddy bear.
The images referring to Xi are often crude in their descriptions; they assimilate him to past dictators from other countries. Moreover, they ridicule events in his biography, daily life, or even the university degrees he has obtained, which are said to be fraudulent.
In general, the closures caused by the pandemic are the impositions that cause the most discontent among the Chinese population, and they express it through the networks in many ways.
In this context, for Xiao Qiang, who studies Internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley, censorship against dissent is “too big this time.”
He adds, “Censorship is more effective than two years ago, but this shows its limit. They can’t solve the root of the problem. People see that the government could be getting it wrong to the point of disaster.”
Censorship intensifies further
For the CCP, freedom of expression is one of its mortal enemies, as is clear from the ferocity with which it fights it. Criticism of the Chinese regime has intensified in the months leading up to its crucial 20th National Congress, to be held in November.
At this event, it is expected that Xi will run for a third term at the helm of the CCP. To minimize the risk of failure, he has carefully removed foreseeable obstacles for years. However, information continues to leak through social media.
To further intensify censorship, the Ministry of Public Security launched, on June 25, the “Hundred Days of Action to Crack Down and Rectify Public Security in Summer” campaign. Another six-month offensive followed this. It aims to combat the “Internet Navy” and guarantee Xi’s re-election.
Two days earlier, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress had assigned this ministry to Xi’s ally, Wang Xiaohong, who is almost 65 years old, according to Bloomberg.
Among its regulations, China’s Internet control agency requires all comments to be reviewed before publication, generating much controversy among Internet users, who foresee an even more significant escalation of censorship.
In addition, the uploader may be held legally responsible for comments made by third parties, which increases the risk of critics posting on topics classified as sensitive by the CCP.
Currently, users of social networks must register with their real identities before leaving comments.
With its bans, the Chinese regime prevents “disseminating information that disturbs normal order and misleads public opinion,” a vague rule allowing a wide range of sanctions.
Social impact of Internet users
Although the Chinese regime tries to hide the reality of the country and the world from Chinese citizens, their demand for democracy is growing. Thus, overcoming censorship restrictions is spreading among the population.
In this regard, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a policy research organization, clarifies the state of Chinese public opinion based on research by Stanford professors Jennifer Pan and Yiqing Xu.
It concludes, “People in China have diverse and well-formed views on a wide range of public policy issues. Not all citizens support current government policies, nor do all their views reflect state propaganda. And, despite the risks, they are willing to share their opinions.”
Pan and Xu’s research shows “that Chinese urban residents are more liberal than expected and more liberal than the official positions of their government.”
Also, “… there is less acceptance of current government trends than previously thought and more tacit support for protests.”
And that the Chinese regime is: “… pursuing policies that face substantial, even if quiet, public opposition.”
Pan and Xu’s study found that: “… an influential portion of the population holds nationalist views that can easily be inflamed.”
On the other hand, a paper published by Cambridge University reveals that the Chinese regime persecuted influential thought leaders, including netizens, to limit “counter-hegemonic speech.”
And because of the threat posed by: “… their potential capacity to unleash information cascades that could undermine CCP legitimacy, encourage real-life collective action or shift public opinion on important topics.”
Further, “Large numbers of online followers have the potential to create the authority and discourse power to challenge CCP dominance.”
Based on this research and the growing demand for transparency and democratic freedoms, it can be inferred that the impact of netizens and their exchanges is crucial in moving toward the free country in which they aspire to live.