China Covid lockdown protests: how social media users are bypassing censors

Protests against China’s Covid-19 lockdown policy have led to a crackdown on national social media platforms

China is known for its stringent censorship, blocking most of the world’s social media platforms in the country in a bid to maintain control, especially as the country faces unprecedented protests. One of the most popular channels is Sina Weibo, described as a microblogging site, and with as many as 584 million monthly active users it’s one of the top 10 social media platforms in the world.

So it comes as no surprise that as soon as protests broke out over further Covid-19 lockdowns, that the ‘Great Firewall’ was activated once again, clamping down on what could potentially destabilise the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping’s rule.

In the past week, demonstrations against restrictive measures have spread to Shanghai and Beijing and other major cities including Wuhan and Xi’an, in a rare show of widespread public protest fanned by anger over a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region. The unrest comes after at least 10 people died on Thursday (24 November) in a fire in an apartment building in the city of Urumqi.

Amid the violence, a BBC journalist was reportedly attacked after being arrested while covering the protests. The broadcaster said cameraman Edward Lawrence was “handcuffed” while covering the demonstrations, and then “beaten and kicked” by police. This physical show from Chinese authorities could be seen as the first instance of suppression of foreign media reporting of the events abroad, as Chinese state media itself is closely monitored and directed by the government. Censorship of its social media channels seems fairly inevitable.

What is the ‘Great Firewall’?

The Golden Shield Project, often called the "great firewall of China", is an initiative managed by the Ministry of Public Security division of the Chinese government. The ‘Great Firewall’ is the country’s legislative policy and a technological device to regulate the internet domestically. As the name implies, the project, which began in 1998, has been designed to monitor and censor anything that is deemed unsuitable for its users. Even the most popular sites like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are blocked in the country.

Chinese protester holding paper protest sign ‘Give me liberty, or give me death’ (Getty Images)

The website Comparitech, which was previously called The Great Firewall of China, lets users see whether their inputted domains are blocked in China, and is a convenient tool for demonstrating the widespread filtering employed by China.

The government’s strict methods include repressing keywords on platforms such as Weibo. This includes words such as “Tiananmen Square” and the date “4 June”, for which no search results will appear. This is because the date is that of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where student-led protests called for democracy and freedom, leading to the People’s Liberation Army opening fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing.

Weibo search shows no results for Tiananmen Square 4 June event

How do users bypass China’s Great Firewall?

Chinese characters or Hanzi are logograms which represent a word or morpheme. There is no alphabet and individual written characters constitute sounds directly. An estimated 1.34 billion people around the world use the Chinese alphabet for written communication. It is considered among the oldest continuously used forms of writing in the world.

As a result, the total number of Chinese characters ever to appear in a dictionary is in the tens of thousands, though much of the older characters have been phased out over the years. Modern Chinese has many homophones -  a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning; thus the same spoken syllable may be represented by one of many characters, depending on meaning.

In this way, Chinese social media users have been able to bypass censors through the use of homophones. Whilst the most widely used symbol in the demonstrations has been a blank sheet of paper, some protesters printed the Friedmann equation, which governs the expansion of the universe – the equation’s name sounds like the words “freed man”.

One of the earliest protest examples from 2009 made a comeback, as a woman was seen walking three alpacas down Urumqi road last week, a reference to “grass-mud horse” - an animal that does not actually exist. The “grass-mud horse” (草泥马) is actually a vulgar play on words as ‘cǎonímǎ’, with a shift in tone, becomes ‘cào nǐ mā’, which means “f— your mother” or “motherf—.”  In a country where public discourse is tightly controlled and rigidly censored, the term is playfully defiant of government censorship, and in a small way subverts the authority of the ruling government.

Unfortunately, the Chinese term for white paper protest has already been eliminated from the platform, instead replaced with anti-protest material on Weibo. The platform already announced a crackdown on potentially “illegal” content that incites protests on Tuesday (28 November), encouraging users to monitor others for alleged harmful activities. Some searches had been scrubbed for protest hotspots like “Xinjiang” and “Beijing”, while posts with oblique phrases like “I saw it” – a reference to an internet user having seen a recently deleted post – were also censored.

Chinese homophones used to bypass censors (NationalWorld)

However, several phrases are being used freely such as ‘庆父不死,鲁难未已’ ("So long as the despot continues to rule, the country will continue to suffer"), which translates literally into ‘Father Qing is not dead, Lu is in trouble’. And “we all have weaknesses” or ‘我们都有软肋’ refers to China’s weak apparatus being handed down to future generations. This originally appeared in a video on 20 November, where a Beijing neighbourhood committee was reportedly filmed privately discussing how to rectify ‘disobedient’ households through detention, blaming misbehaving children.

Why is China clamping down on protests?

Protests are not uncommon in China, as low-level demonstrations are seen fairly frequently in cities. However, it is rare to see a coordinated effort across major cities. China has been attempting to save face since the beginning of the pandemic, after being seen as slow to respond to the crisis. It has ramped up its Covid-19 vaccine response, hoping to eradicate the virus completely, and therefore share its technology with the world. Unfortunately, researchers found that the Sinovac vaccine was 60% effective against severe disease, compared with 90% for the Pfizer vaccine and 97% for Moderna’s vaccine.

Bloomberg Intelligence senior pharmaceutical analyst Sam Fazeli said: “There’s no way an uncontrolled wave of infections can be managed. This reinforces the need for local infection control, including closing of businesses, prolonging China’s reopening.”