Zero COVID: How the Chinese are thwarting web censorship

Excerpts from the national anthem, allusions to subversive songs: The Chinese are inventively edging out online censorship and expressing dissatisfaction with anti-coronavirus restrictions.

China is watching the Internet closely. Content that portrays state policy poorly or is likely to cause unrest is removed by moderators.

But censorship must now be in full swing to defend the untouchable national strategy of “zero COVID,” under which most of Shanghai’s 25 million residents have been locked up since the start of April.

Frustrated by the problems of supplying fresh produce, accessing non-COVID medical care and sending people who test positive to quarantine centers, many are venting their anger online.

For Charlie Smith, co-founder of GreatFire.org, which tracks Chinese censorship, the shutdown of Shanghai has become a “too big topic to be fully censored”.

Especially since internet users are competing in creativity to thwart it.

Photo or video deleted? Slightly cutting the edges or flipping them like a mirror is often enough to thwart AI-powered automated censorship filters.

censored comment? Internet users use hints or puns.

In Shanghai, instead of writing a scathing review, some shared a hashtag using the opening words of the national anthem: “Whoa! We don’t want to be slaves anymore…

She was eventually censored, but only after the censors were arrested.

Another tactic: Netizens rallied against inclusion on movie and book review site Douban.com, thanks to their online vote to put the dystopian novel “1984” at the top of the rankings.

Target achieved…one more time before the sergeant intervened.

However, the latter failed to prevent the viral spread last month of a video titled “The Voice of April,” which in six minutes collected stories of Shanghainese in distress facing confinement.

By modifying the six-minute video very slightly, netizens were able to thwart the filtering software, which at first could only identify the original version—and thus censor it.

The fighting lasted several hours before observers spent all of the circulating versions. But millions of people had time to watch the video.

Angry at the censorship, many netizens then shared clips of two songs of the protest on the WeChat social network: “Do you hear people sing?” (from the musical “Les Miserables”) and “Another Brick In The Wall” (from the band Pink Floyd).

The first is the call to rebellion. The second is particularly critical of “thought control”.

Luqiu Loi, a former journalist who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University, told AFP that Shanghai is now “willing to pay the price” for publishing critical opinions online.

She believes that the “difficulties, dissatisfaction and anger” associated with incarceration “far outweigh the fear of punishment”.

Gao Ming, a 46-year-old Chinese, told AFP that police called him last month to ask him to delete anti-lockdown messages posted on Twitter and Facebook – all platforms inaccessible from China.

He declined because he says it is “anti-censorship” and “totally against current policy”, according to him, the Shanghai confinement has caused unnecessary deaths, due to severely disrupted access to non-COVID medical care.

The public media insists almost exclusively on the positive aspects, while ignoring the personal difficulties of the population.

But the Communist Party on Thursday reiterated its “unwavering” support for the eradication of COVID and called for a “resolute fight against all words and deeds” that put it into question.

Relaxation is less likely because the Chinese president himself advocates this health policy, notes Yaqiu Wang, China director at Human Rights Watch, an American human rights advocacy group.

“It’s hard for the government to back down when it comes to an ideological issue that personally concerns Xi Jinping.”

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