When we talk about censorship in China, we usually see the problem in a general way, thinking how the CCP uses electronic systems, software, surveillance cameras, and artificial intelligence, to carry it out. But we forget that it is not only technology. Behind it there are hundreds of thousands of people doing this work.
For most of them it is a means of making money and it is not motivated by a political ideals or believing it is right. They simply comply with the rules of censorship without questioning the scope of their actions, or if they do, they remain discreet for fear of reprisals from the regime.
But there are those who are aware of the evil they are doing and are walking away, or better yet, trying to make amends.
Zeng Jiajun was a cog the complex wheel in China’s censorship machine and his responsibility was to stop and remove material on the internet deemed “harmful” to the Chinese regime.
He said, “At first, when I worked on this, I didn’t think about much bigger things because a job is a job.” He added, “But deep down I knew it wasn’t aligned with my ethical standards. And once you work in this field for too long … the conflicts get stronger and stronger.”
Zeng, 22, and a native of Guangdong province, had his first contact with “forbidden material” in his youth on the internet that marked him deeply. At that time, censorship on the net left many ways to circumvent it and he managed to watch the documentary, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The film was about the protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The images of the crackdown on students by the Chinese military that left thousands dead became fixed in his memory.
He said, “It’s such a big, significant, historic event, but no one ever told us about it, and you can’t search the internet in China; all that content is erased.”
He continued, “I felt it was a big lie. A lot of history is hidden.”
Being part of the censorship machine
After studying in Estonia, he returned to China with a degree in business administration and thanks to his technological skills landed a job at ByteDance, a Chinese social networking company that owns TikTok and Douyin.
With a monthly salary of $4,000 and the motivation to work for a company with international projection, it seemed that Zeng had started a promising career.
The young man was part of a team that developed automated systems incorporating artificial intelligence. The system is used to filter content that the company does not want on its platform. Once detected, a censorship team would be in charge of removing the video or stopping the live broadcast.
Along with the usual censorship against pornography, self-harm, or unauthorized advertising, by order of the Cyberspace Administration of China. Images of tanks, candles, or yellow umbrellas, a symbol of protest in Hong Kong, were added to the list, as was any criticism of Communist Party leaders. Zeng explained, “In China, the line is blurred. You don’t know specifically what will offend the government, so sometimes you will go further and censor more harshly.”
The list changed and expanded depending on the political and social situation at the time.
In 2020, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan city, Dr. Li Wenliang, posted on the networks a warning about a new deadly disease. Soon the information was censored and denied by official TV, until Li contracted the disease, which would later become known as COVID-19.
Zeng drank from his own soup.
When networks exploded seeking answers, censorship became fierce.
Zeng said, “Post something like ‘We want news freedom. No more censorship,’ and then my Weibo account was also censored.”
He added, “At that time, I felt like … I was part of this ecosystem.”
Zeng said, “The night Dr. Li Wenliang died, I felt I couldn’t do this anymore.”
After quitting his job, he migrated to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree at Northeastern University in Silicon Valley.
Aware that he won’t be able to return to China for a long time, he takes his crusade against censorship as a people’s struggle. “I think this is a big problem (and we) should generate awareness about what is happening in China.”
Stealing from the thief
Liu Lipeng, who today resides in the U.S., worked as a censor from 2011 to 2013 for the social network Weibo. He is well acquainted with the Chinese regime’s online censorship and its methods of directing public opinion.
To hold this job, he was only required to be “politically sensitive.” Lui explains, “Anyone who was born and raised in China, has received a basic education in China and graduated from a university, should understand the so-called Chinese version of politics. What are the sensitive words? Brainwashing in China is quite successful.”
He said, “It doesn’t feel good to do this job, it seems like a ‘dirty job’, and I feel that I have done something wrong, but other people don’t feel it, they just think it’s a mess.”
Many times the words of censure were dictated by their superiors, especially after some political event. They started with a dozen sensitive words to delete and block, and then added up to 200.
At work, Liu kept a record of the censored material. He began sneaking the information to overseas media and organizing what would later be published on the China Digital Times website. Liu said, “When I record the censorship log, I don’t feel afraid, nor do I think it is a very dangerous job, because I am doing censorship work in the background, and I personally use a VPN to hide my personal identity, it was only when I looked at the accumulated information that I realized the seriousness of the situation.”
Liu left the country in 2020 after realizing the risk of sending censored information abroad. With the strict internal control measures imposed by COVID in case of being discovered it would be very difficult to escape.
Liu said, “I hope that by narrating my personal experience, more people can understand that in China, online censorship exists, and it really happens every day.”
He added, “The more people are aware of this, the more effective strategies can be employed to interpret information about China when confronted with it.”