Zero COVID: How the Chinese Thwart Web Censorship

National anthem snippets, allusions to subversive songs: the Chinese are inventive at outsmarting online censorship and expressing their dismay at anti-COVID restrictions.

China keeps a close eye on the internet. Censors remove content that disparages state policy or causes unrest.

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

Annoyed by the problems with fresh produce supplies, access to non-COVID medical care and sending people who test positive to quarantine centers, many are venting their anger on the internet.

For Charlie Smith, co-founder of GreatFire.org, which tracks Chinese censorship, the lockdown in Shanghai has “become such a big topic that it can’t be censored completely”.

Especially since internet users compete in inventiveness to thwart it.

A photo or video has been deleted? Slightly cropping or inverting the edges like a mirror is often enough to thwart censors’ automated filtering software that works with artificial intelligence.

A comment is censored? Internet users use allusions or puns.

Instead of writing a scathing review, some in Shanghai shared a hashtag that uses the opening words of the national anthem: “Get up! We don’t want to be slaves anymore…

It was eventually censored, but only after the censorship went through.

Another tactic: Anti-inclusion internet users mobilized on the movie and book review site Douban.com to place the dystopian novel ‘1984’ at the top of the rankings thanks to their online votes.

Target accomplished… before the censors intervene again.

However, the latter was overwhelmed and failed to prevent the viral spread of a video titled “Voice of April” last month, which collected six-minute stories of Shanghai in need during their incarceration.

By very slightly tweaking this six-minute video, Internet users managed to thwart the filtering software, which initially could only identify — and thus censor — the original version.

The battle lasted several hours before the censors wiped out all versions in circulation. But millions of people had had time to see the video.

Outraged by the censorship, many internet users then shared clips of two protest songs on the social network WeChat: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (from the musical “Les Miserables”) and “Another Brick In The Wall” (from the band Pink Floyd).

The first is a call to rebellion. The second particularly denounces “thought control”.

Shanghainese are now “willing to pay the price” for spreading critical opinions on the internet, Lüqiu Luwei, a former journalist who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University, told AFP.

“The difficulties, discontent and anger” associated with the incarceration “exceed the fear of being punished much greater,” she says.

A 46-year-old Chinese man, Gao Ming, 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, saying he is “anti-censorship” and “completely against current politics.” Shanghai’s incarceration, he said, has caused unnecessary deaths as a result of highly disrupted access to non-COVID medical care.

The public media almost exclusively emphasize the positive aspects, while ignoring the personal difficulties of the residents.

But the Communist Party on Thursday reiterated its “unwavering” support for zero COVID, calling for “fighting resolutely against all words and deeds” that question it.

A relaxation is all the less likely because the Chinese president himself defends these health policies, notes Yaqiu Wang, China manager at Human Rights Watch, a US organization for the defense of human rights.

“It is more difficult for the government to come back when it comes to an ideological issue personally related to Xi Jinping.”

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