February 8, 2023

The protests stretch China's censorship to its limits

The protests stretch China’s censorship to its limits

With Twitter more connected within China than it has been in years, other campaigns seemed to target the spread of information there. In recent days, massive amounts of spam, often including lewd images and videos, have been accumulating on hashtags related to Chinese cities, some of which have been sites of protests, according to Preliminary check By an independent researcher. Although it is not clear who is behind the spam, such campaigns to dilute politically sensitive posts and make them harder to find are a common feature of Chinese media campaigns abroad.

Inside China, the videos helped draw in the protesters. A former journalist in Shanghai said he first stumbled upon a vigil on Urumqi Road in the city on Saturday, but went out to join another the next day after seeing WeChat videos of his friends at the rally.

He, too, shared videos of the protest on WeChat, though he deleted them after 24 hours in an attempt to evade the authorities, who had begun to pursue some protesters. Although he wasn’t shown until soon after, his videos changed the minds of two people who he thought would be unhated: his parents.

The former journalist said: “My parents, like many Chinese parents, used to think that what I do was meaningless and childish, but they have changed dramatically in the past two days.” He said his parents now understand why he took part in such gatherings, perhaps in part because they too have suffered under the grip of Covid.

Despite the breaches, some warned that censors would soon strike back, possibly regaining control of public opinion. While he agrees they were overwhelmed by the censors, Han Rongbin, a professor of media and politics at the University of Georgia who studies Chinese censorship, said their work, which involved pulling down massive numbers of posts and videos, was nonetheless successful. .

The goal of censorship in China is not to keep everyone in the dark, just enough people to ensure that the spread of protest is stopped. “I still think it’s very effective,” he said, “as there are still a large number of people who aren’t sure what’s really going on.”

After large-scale demonstrations over the weekend, this week’s gatherings were much smaller, with authorities choking off potential sites with tight security. The question is how effective censorship and other measures will be in deterring further protests in the coming days and weeks.

Video production by Axel Boada And the Mui Xiao.