Home Message service Shanghai’s covid lockdown messages circumvent China’s censorship regime

Shanghai’s covid lockdown messages circumvent China’s censorship regime

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In recent weeks, social media posts from Shanghai have painted a dire picture of life under the Chinese government’s lockdown. To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, residents have been trapped in their homes, while others are stuck in temporary quarantine centers, unsure when they will be released.

The posts, mostly via Chinese blogging service Weibo and Meta-owned messaging service WeChat, describe loved ones dying after receiving improper care and people hungry amid food shortages. Although the government has responded with denials over the food and medical issues, the outcry has increased pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to address the claims of its citizens.

China has one of the most sophisticated censorship programs in the world, but it has been unable to contain the fury within its borders. It’s unclear exactly how people evade strict censorship protocols to share videos of life in Shanghai and the question remains whether China’s censorship regime will eventually stifle dissent.

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For more, The Washington Post spoke with Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, who spent the first 22 years of her life in China and dedicated her career to investigating the censorship of Internet in the country.

“Journalists have often asked me this question. You know, “Is this the tipping point?” Wang said of Chinese dissent on the internet. “It’s happened so many times before… There’s always this uproar. But the government always steps in and contains the situation.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What kinds of social media content are we seeing coming out of Shanghai?

People just tell their stories because they are in so much pain. Some talk about my mother dying because she couldn’t get to the hospital for her kidney dialysis. People talk about my dad dying because he couldn’t be admitted to the hospital because he didn’t have a negative COVID test result. People say they have no food. There are so many such stories.

Isn’t China’s censorship regime strict? How can people share these things?

Often when a post goes viral, it’s usually overnight. There are fewer content moderators doing their job. It’s usually those times when these things go viral, and then the next day when it’s 8am, the sensors kick in to start cleaning the internet.

Also, people are doing clever things to try to send a message. People try to reference other things, like movie titles and ironic uses of words, to imply things the government would find sensitive. Of course, the sensors get into it later, and then start censoring what’s new. Then the next thing comes to imply a criticism of the government. It’s almost like a game of cat and mouse.

How does the Chinese censorship regime work?

Suppose I live in Shanghai. If you use certain keywords that are already banned, you simply cannot publish the message. Even if you successfully post a story about yourself, sometimes no one else can see it. Or maybe your own followers can see it, but people who don’t follow you can’t see it. So there are all these ways companies can manipulate who can see a post.

Also, the government periodically gives orders to social media companies saying you know, these keywords are wrong, you need to censor them. But they don’t give precise instructions and not this rule: you must censor. Companies must therefore develop their own words or phrases to censor after taking the government’s broad guidelines.

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And companies know that if you exist in the Chinese political system, to survive I have to make sure to censor my users long before the government can punish me later. So they need to do a good job of proactively censoring platforms.

In addition, everyone who has an account on Weibo and WeChat must use their real name to register, you can’t do without it. And WeChat is a great app. You use WeChat for social media, for messaging, for food delivery, for taxis, for financial transactions. So if you say something wrong and your account gets suspended then it affects your whole life as the app is also used for many other things. People get the message. They practice self-censorship.

So, with all these lockdown messages coming to light, will China shut down the internet?

I do not think so. The country is quite sophisticated. In no way do I think the government feels the internet is out of control. Sometimes you see it from the outside: people get up. People are very angry. But, you know, I don’t think the government thinks it’s out of control. They perfected censorship.

Journalists have often asked me this question. You know, ‘Is this the tipping point?’ It’s happened so many times before, when there’s a natural disaster, when there’s a big public health issue, a train crash. There is always this tumult.

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But the government always intervenes and contains the situation. They can use very physical, old-fashioned and effective means to enforce the law. Arrest people, put them in jail. The other is the more subtle ways of censoring or deleting posts, or making a post invisible to others.

But if the government wanted to shut down the internet, it could. In Xinjiang, in 2009, there was a huge and violent clash between the Han people and the Uyghurs. They shut down the internet for three months. But I don’t think there’s been this kind of complete internet shutdown since then, mostly because I don’t think it’s necessary anymore.

Moreover, China will hold a Party Congress later this year. It is a very important event. It is extremely unlikely to have any changes before then. Now is not the time for creative methods to change anything. They don’t want to tolerate any type of change, they want to make sure everything is fine.

Shanghai is a leading Chinese city. Does this make it harder to crack down on social media posts?

Absolutely. Shanghai is the financial center of China. Personalities live there. They have more on. It’s easier for their message to go viral. Also, foreign correspondents and foreigners also live there. They have connections outside of China, so they can get the message out to the rest of the world.

And the lockdown isn’t just happening in Shanghai right now, there are many other cities. You don’t hear much about them because the important people don’t live there. It is very difficult for regular residents to go viral.