As Shanghai enters its seventh week of COVID-19 lockdowns, China’s censors have worked hard to try to curb an outburst of public outrage and enforce management’s bans on any public debate or calls to reconsider its strategy.
Spikes in censorship and activism on social media occur regularly in China, especially in moments of crisis. As in previous periods of extreme sensitivity to the regime, there are plenty of examples from recent weeks of “overkill”, including restrictions on a WeChat account belonging to the National People’s Congress, seemingly harmless phrases like “Happy Birthday”A hashtag with the first line of Chinese citizenship anthemand references to the Hollywood movie “La La Land.”
Nevertheless, two aspects of the current campaign stand out: The high profile of some of the users being silenced, and the amount of critical content that has survived online despite furious censorship efforts.
Prominent voices silenced
The prolonged shutdowns in Shanghai and further restrictions in other cities have prompted more citizens to raise objections to the human and economic costs of the government’s “zero COVID-19” policy, with some urging their leaders to consider less rigid alternatives that still can save many lives. The prominence, diversity, and number of people who have been subjected to censorship for attempting to engage in such a rational discussion are significant.
Physicians remain a key target for censors as they have been since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, the repression of the health experts’ speech in late 2019 and early 2020 may have denied the country and the world an opportunity to control the virus. Yet practice continues.
In early April, Zhong Nanshan, the country’s best specialist in respiratory diseases, published one English article in the National Science Review, which provided suggestions on how China could reopen “in an orderly and efficient manner” in the coming months. While acknowledging the effectiveness of policies to date, the article warned that the strict “zero COVID-19” approach “cannot be pursued in the long run.” ONE Chinese version was quickly censored, and during the night between April 20 and 21, state media flooded in Baidu search engine results with topics that partially quoted Zhong, expressing support for the existing strategy and downplaying his remarks about the need to gradually open up.
Several grassroots health workers have also become silent. In early April, Dr. Miu Xiaohui, a retired infectious disease expert, to calculate how many people with diabetes could have died due to lack of medicine and treatment during Shanghai’s shutdown, reaching an estimated 2,141. The blog post, which outlined his calculation and suggestions for dealing with the pandemic – through a stronger focus on, for example, vaccination campaigns and home isolation – was deleted.
In addition to the medical profession, financial analysts have been swept up in an attempt to stifle the debate. Hao Hong, a Hong Kong-based market strategist, was censored after he posted a series of comments on social media platforms that predicted a bleak path for China’s economy. On April 30, his Weibo account, which had 3 million followers, was closed and his WeChat account was suspended. Within a few days, he left his position at a major finance firm, citing “personal reasons. “The Weibo accounts for at least three others chief economists and fund managers have recently been suspended for “violation of laws and regulations.” The apparent cleansing fits into a protracted pattern in which warnings of problems for the Chinese economy are stifled despite growing evidence of a downturn.
Prominent influencers and celebrities have attracted censorship and other pressure to repeat the feelings of many ordinary Shanghai residents. Wang Sicongson of billionaire Wang Jianlin, had his Weibo account – with 40 million followers – closed in late April after posting comments question state-sanctioned Chinese herbal medicine treatments and declare that he would refuse to take a mandatory test. There were unconfirmed reports that he had also been detained for “picking up quarrels and provoking trouble”, a criminal charge often used to punish freedom of speech. Meanwhile, rapper Fang Lue (who acts as Astro) removed a YouTube video of his song “New Slave”, which was released in late March and gained popularity for foresight articulating frustration and anxiety in many in Shanghai.
Censors appear to have doubled after a May 5th meet from the Standing Committee of the Politburo, in which President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the “zero COVID-19” policy and made it clear that he would not tolerate any calls for reconsideration or adjustment. The reading notes from the meeting states that the party must “resolutely fight against all distortions, doubts and denials of our epidemic prevention policy.”
Shortly after, Tong Zhiwei, a law professor in Shanghai, published an online essay in which he argued that the authorities acted illegally when taking extreme measures, such as forcing uninfected neighbors into infected persons in collective quarantine. His verified Weibo account was then banned from writing and a hashtag of his name was censored.
May 10 World Health Organization (WHO) Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that China’s strategy was “unsustainable” in light of the virus’ easily transmissible Omicron variant. Almost instantly, as clips and references to the comment circulated online, censors descended on his remarks, suppresses his image, name, related hashtags and even UN-affiliated accounts on Weibo and WeChat.
Internet users push back
During the Shanghai lockdown in particular, ordinary Chinese users have gone to extraordinary lengths to circumvent censorship, keep critical content online, and find ways to freer expressions.
Creative solutions have included piggybacking on officially approved hashtags. In the evening d April 13, tens of thousands of angry comments were posted to a hashtag criticizing human rights in the United States, which was artificially placed in second place by the Weibo platform. Users took advantage of the hashtag to highlight the lack of rights protection in China and express frustration with the Chinese government. Many of the posts got hundreds of likes and shares, but by 4pm the censors had moved in to delete them. Podcasts has also emerged as a less censored space where women in particular have shared their daily hardships during the lockdown.
Another collective outburst of anxiety came in the form of a six-minute video collection of important events from the Shanghai shutdown, entitled “Votes from April. “The video flooded WeChat groups and was constantly reposted and forwarded even though censors tried to remove it. People made new versions of it upside down, embedded in cartoons or with painted still images designed to avoid censural algorithms.
Various initiatives have counteracted censorship of the Chinese Internet by keeping deleted content alive outside the major firewall. A collection of 200 cases of people who died as a result of the actual shutdown rather than COVID-19 – from, for example, refusal of medical care, starvation or suicide – was sent to Airtable, a blockchain-based database platform. Overseas bilingual websites like China Digital Times (CDT) or What’s on Weibo?along with individual Twitter accounts journalists and researchers, have captured, archived and translated posts like many of those cited above. The CDT also published a leaked censorship directive calls for a “comprehensive cleanup of video, screenshots and other content related to ‘Voices from April’.”
The shutdowns, censorship and citizens’ reactions are likely to have long-term effects, regardless of how the pandemic and government’s health policies develop.
It is e.g. remarkably, some of the most popular content has involved local officials – from medical facilities or housing committees – frankly expressing their own sympathy and sense of helplessness to complaining residents, indicating a degree of disillusionment and disagreement among those asked to implement the government’s rigid and often brutal policies. There may be a drag among censors themselves, as suggested by some of the gaps or delays in enforcement around the US human rights hashtag or a blog post titled “Shanghainese Perseverance Has Reached the Extreme Point”, which achieved 20 million views before being deleted.
Reflections published by observers and residents of Shanghai also underscore a disappointment with Chinese state media obvious lack of coverage, as well as a sense of solidarity and community around both offline efforts for mutual assistance and online outbreaks of collective anger. Like a user on social media commented in response to the US human rights hashtag hijacking: “So many posts to like. This is the true voice of the people. Let’s remember tonight … Maybe tomorrow it’s going to be songs and dancing again, but at least we know, that we are awake. “
Digital habits can change during lockdown. Some users have reportedly drive away from Chinese e-commerce platforms and even WeChat, tired of waiting times and fierce censorship and moving towards the real neighborhood or international apps like Telegram.
As Shanghai and other parts of China emerge from health restrictions, more information may emerge about the cost of government policy and its autocratic refusal to admit mistakes, accept independent advice, or adapt to changing circumstances. Even tougher censorship may still be on the way, but it seems clear that this historic and tragic episode in the lives of millions of people will not be easily forgotten, even though much of the digital evidence is quickly blurred.