Chinese protesters have been creative in navigating their country’s notoriously strict censors in order to express their anger over the government’s enforced COVID curbs.
The recent White Paper Movement in China has been successful in pressing the authorities to relax the COVID-19 restrictions.
To join such large-scale protests, many people had to take to social media and to the streets to demand a loosening of the zero-Covid policy.
Some of the demonstrators even called for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down. This kind of civil disobedience is considered particularly drastic, given the potential consequences.
It means that they risked their livelihoods and careers to express their objection. And many of them had to bypass the regime’s online censorship to criticize the Chinese government.
The U.S.-based National Public Radio cited a scholar saying that because local social media are heavily censored, Chinese online users have had to become creative in expressing their views.
Graham Webster is a research scholar at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and an editor for their DigiChina Project.
He said that Chinese social platforms like Wechat, Sina Weibo, and Douyin all require users to link their ID information to any accounts they create.
There is one way to get around this strict censorship: Communicating with people outside of China, sending them videos, photos, and other materials that would otherwise be wiped from Chinese social media platforms.
After the material is posted to a non-censored platform like Twitter, users in China could re-import and reshare them, using oblique language and rotating, editing or flipping the videos to bypass filters.
Webster said this method of navigating censorship has been a practiced and developed pattern for some time. It would help someone to express something that is deemed undesirable by either the platforms or the authorities.
There were also other methods used during the protests.
Some users posted out-of-context images and quotes from former Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, which could be applied to the situation at hand.
Webster said that some political quotes helped the protesters express their disagreement with the current situation, such as “Well, you’ve got to follow science” or, “You have to let society have some dynamis.”
In another tactic, the protesters used a blank sheet of office paper, transforming it into a powerful political message.
Additionally, the draconian COVID prevention policy has led Chinese people to interconnect to each other, so they could talk with others in person to participate in the large-scale protests.
Webster said: “There’s a tendency to think of the Chinese online reality as 100% totalitarian, fully controlled, ubiquitous surveillance where everything is automated. That’s not quite right.”