Protests over extreme COVID-19 restrictions have erupted in China over the weekend. The country has yet again implemented draconian pandemic restrictions but the number of cases continues to surge. In particular, one event with a fire in a high-rise block in Urumqi, western China, triggered protests: 10 people were killed by the fire and it is widely believed that lockdown restrictions prevented emergency workers from entering the building (and residents from exiting). As a result, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, demanding an end to severe lockdowns. There are even rare calls for freedom or for President Xi Jinping to stand down.
But after the weekend, authorities started cracking down on protests in China, both physically and online.
In-person, people got creative with their protesting, often using unlikely symbols to express their disapproval, while online, they’re using specialized tools to bypass the scrutiny. But whether they hold up white sheets of paper or download VPN apps to access the uncensored internet, protesters are facing a tough clampdown from authorities.
“Give me liberty or give me death!” is not something you expect to hear in China, a country notorious for its censorship and authoritarian rule. But in several cities, hundreds or thousands of protests gathered to chant it after a fire in Xinjiang killed 10 people; many feel that without the country’s pandemic restrictions, their lives could have been saved.
But to the protesters, this is about more than just the pandemic — it’s about finally finding a voice and asking for freedom, something that China has tried to squash both in the real world and online.
The country’s strict online censorship doesn’t even mention the protests, and censors even things like footage of maskless crowds from the football World Cup that would contrast with its own approach.
The protests are remarkably emotional. They feature candlelight vigils and blank sheets of paper (a nod to the country’s censorship), and participants seem to be mostly young, liberal-oriented people.
“My friends and I have all experienced Shanghai’s lockdown, and the so-called ‘iron fist’ (of the state) has fallen on all of us,” one Shanghai resident told CNN, “That night, I felt that I could finally do something. I couldn’t sit still, I had to go.” Breaking into tears, the protester added: “At that moment, I felt I’m not alone, I realized that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.”
But according to the BBC, police crackdown has managed to silence the physical protests, leaving most people to find their voice online.
The Great Firewall of China
The Internet in China is not like you’d imagine it. China blocks many high-profile websites including Google, Twitter, and Wikipedia. If your website criticizes China or discusses something that violates the censorship policy, you’re very likely to get banned. The system of censorship is often referred to as the ‘Great Firewall’ of China.
But internet censorship is much more sophisticated than just blocking some websites. The government constantly monitors internet access and demands that major internet platforms develop self-censorship mechanisms. They also use human censor reviewers and artificial intelligence algorithms to detect content that may be undesirable and remove it. This leads to rather bizarre situations, such as the ban of the Disney character Winnie the Pooh, which is systematically removed on the Chinese Internet following the spread of an Internet meme that likens Xi to Winnie the Pooh.
The list of banned words, images, and topics grows larger every day. According to some reports, even mentions or images of white papers are removed and banned by authorities. Not being deterred, many protesters took to social media using A3-sized sheets of paper instead of A4 white papers, but even so, the path gets narrower and narrower.
This is why, for many people in China, things like a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) have become a necessity for browsing the internet. VPNs are meant to keep users’ data protected from surveillance, but even this may not offer full safety for dissenting voices.
According to an associate professor of computer science at Arizona State University, people may not fully understand the protection that VPNs offer them.
Jedidiah Crandall is the author of a recent study on VPNs and has been working on Internet censorship for almost 20 years. He says initially, VPNs weren’t meant to be used to bypass censorship.
“VPNs were originally designed to get into a secure network, but companies have repurposed them so you can escape a restrictive internet service provider that you don’t trust and access a free and safe one instead,” Crandall says. “So, the way that people use VPNs today is kind of backwards.”
However, this has become one of the important uses of VPNs, and the researcher cautions against blindly believing protection claims, and instead, being rigorous about what services to use.
“For people around the world, there can be a lot at stake when VPN providers market with false claims about their services. Our research exposed how VPN-based services, including ones marketing thier VPN service as ‘invisible’ or ‘unblockable’ can be effectively blocked with little collateral damage,” adds co-author Ali Ensafi, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.
A turning point, or another squashed movement?
According to the BBC, the government crackdown against the protests seems to be working. While protests overseas are continuing, mainland China has seen far fewer physical protests on Monday, with police cracking down on protests. If this continues, it’s likely that the protests will move online.
The Chinese government has not even acknowledged protests, but they are setting the groundwork for blaming foreigners for instigating the protests. Several journalists covering the protests have been detained, including BBC journalist Ed Lawrence, who was held for several hours.
The game of cat and mouse between censors and the population is likely to continue, with tens of millions of posts already filtered and/or removed.
Even outside of China, indirect censorship seems to be attempted. Twitter searchers for the protests are now returning a flood of spam and gibberish that could be an attempt to drown out actual footage of the protests. Spam is especially prevalent for searches in Mandarin.
Twitter in particular seems to be a fertile ground for disinformation — it’s the social platform that’s most used for sharing actual information (as opposed to personal updates or media), and since the Elon Musk takeover, Twitter is in a frenzy. Musk himself has been, as of now, completely silent on the issue. Ranting about everything from Kanye West to Apple, Musk hasn’t mentioned China in any tweet for months, with many raising doubts about his willingness to stand up to the Chinese government due to the involvement of Tesla in China. Independent observers have cautioned that this seems to be an intentional attack on Twitter coming from China.
Ultimately, the situation remains tense. After three years of extremely harsh pandemic restrictions, the situation seems to be boiling over in China. The fact that Xi was basically crowned ruler for life is also fueling dissent. It remains to be seen whether authorities will listen to the voice of the people or if they will continue the crackdown.