From the citation of the national anthem to the reference to Hollywood blockbusters and George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”, Chinese internet users are using creative methods to dodge censorship and express discontent about Covid measures.
China maintains a tight grip on the Internet, with legions of censors deleting posts that put Communist Party policies in a negative light.
The censorship machine is now in overdrive to defend Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy as the Shanghai mall endures weeks of lockdown to deal with an outbreak.
Stuck at home, many of the city’s 25 million residents have turned to social media to vent their fury over food shortages and spartan quarantine conditions.
Charlie Smith, co-founder of the censorship monitoring website GreatFire.orghe said the Shanghai blockade had become “too big a problem to be completely censored.”
Resolving to spread their messages, astute internet users were relying on tricks like turning pictures and using puns, he said, using a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of his work.
In one example, censors deleted a popular hashtag on the Weibo social media platform by citing the first line of the Chinese national anthem: “Rise, those who refuse to be slaves.”
The line was being shared along with a torrent of anti-blockade fury.
Others hijacked a hashtag about American human rights shortcomings in order not to make ironic jokes about home imprisonment in China.
In a similar attempt, netizens rallied to bring Orwell’s “1984” fiction to the top of a list of popular titles on the Douban rating site, before it was blocked.
Internet pundits also hastened the elimination of a menagerie of memes and hashtags based on a government official who previously claimed foreign reporters “secretly loved” the fact that they safely tackled the pandemic in China.
Users then came up with a series of oblique puns on that quote, eventually prompting censors to block the hashtag “La La Land”.
“Us against AI”
Internet police scrambled last month to crack down on the viral video “Voices of April” which contained stories of troubled Shanghai residents in solitary confinement.
Web users quickly re-edited and shared the six-minute clip to get past the largely automated screening software, which struggled for hours to identify the different versions.
A frustrated Shanghai local said netizens shared the various formats “to make a point” even though each post disappeared within minutes.
“It was us against AI,” the resident told AFP, asking for anonymity.
People in Shanghai have become more “willing to pay the price” for conveying critical views, said Luwei Rose Luqiu, assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The hardships, discontent and anger” they endured during the blockade “far outweighed the fear” of punishment for posting sensitive content, he told AFP.
Gao Ming, 46, said he received calls from police last month telling him to delete anti-blocking posts on Twitter and Facebook, which are blocked on the internet in China.
But the public relations professional has so far refused, telling AFP that he is “against censorship” and wants to spread the debate on China’s Covid strategy.
“I am totally against the current policy,” he said, arguing that the blockade has caused unnecessary deaths by cutting off access to regular medical care.
Top Chinese leaders vowed at a meeting on Thursday to “steadfastly” stick to zero-Covid and “resolutely fight against all words and actions that distort, question or reject our nation’s disease control policies.”
State media downplayed the positives and “cast aside private difficulties,” said a Beijing-based journalism professor who asked for anonymity.
The approach created “two Shanghainese,” where official representations contrast sharply with what people see online, the professor added.
Online outrage is unlikely to cause the Communist Party to relax its uncompromising approach, particularly with the country’s president so invested in zero-Covid, said Yaqiu Wang, senior Chinese researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“It is more difficult for the government to go back when it becomes an ideological issue related to Xi Jinping personally,” he said.