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How protesters in China bypass online censorship to express dissent

Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.
Ng Han Guan
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022.

Although protests in China have now successfully convinced government officials to loosen enforced COVID-19 restrictions, anybody expressing their dissent in person or online has had to do so while navigating their country's notoriously strict censors.

After a deadly apartment fire in the city of Urumqi left at least 10 dead in late November, many questioned whether long-standing COVID restrictions limiting mobility within buildings could be blamed, which became a national conversation about the sustainability of the country's "zero-COVID" measures.

Protesters then took to the streets and social media, risking their livelihoods and academic careers to demand a loosening of restrictions. Some even called for the newly reinstated president of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping, to step down from his position, a move of civil disobedience that is considered particularly drastic given the potential consequences, including legal charges.

"I think that what really precipitated this right now is [that] the COVID restrictions have just been soul crushing for people," said Graham Webster, a research scholar at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and an editor for their DigiChina Project.

Chinese social media platforms like Wechat, Sina Weibo, and Douyin are heavily censored and monitored for rule-breaking content. They also require new users to link their national ID information to any accounts they create. As a result, Webster says users have had to become creative in expressing any views critical of the Chinese government.

One method of getting around social media censors is by communicating with people outside of the country, sending them videos, photos, and other materials that would otherwise be wiped from Chinese platforms. Once those materials are posted to a non-censored platform like Twitter, users in China would then be able to re-import and reshare them, using oblique language and rotating, editing or flipping the videos to bypass filters.

This was well evidenced with the widespread popularity of a social media user dubbed 'Teacher Li', a Chinese painter based in Italy, who has been posting information and updates sent to him throughout the protests on Twitter.

"This sort of repertoire of navigating censorship that is a practiced and developed pattern over probably about 20 years now, is what we usually call the cat-and-mouse game of people trying to express something that is deemed undesirable by either the platforms or the authorities," Webster said.

But other methods don't even necessitate digital manipulation. At the height of the protests, some users began posting out-of-context images and quotes from famous Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, which could be applied to the situation at hand.

"[The quotes were] saying things like, 'Well, you've got to follow science' or, 'You have to let society have some dynamis' ... clearly suggest an effort to harness the tools of loyal political expression to express disagreement with the current situation," Webster explained.

Another tactic has removed the need for words entirely, transforming a blank sheet of office paper into a powerful political message.

"People will post pictures of those, or even blog posts that just have these phrases, these sort of empty phrases repeated over and over again. There was one that was going around that said over and over again: 'good, good, good, yes, yes, yes, right, right, right'," Webster said.

Additionally, China's strict COVID prevention measures have led to an interconnectedness among neighbors, workers and students, who don't necessarily need to post online or participate in a protest to talk with each other in person.

"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. The mechanisms are not absolute," said Webster.

"If you get together many thousands of Chinese people trying to come up with ways to use euphemism or manipulate visual media to get around automatic detection, or even get around human censors, they will do it, because that's a lot of smart people doing something. They're going to figure it out."

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Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.