Videos posted across social media show not only Chinese residents’ anger with their government over strict COVID-19 policies but also a rare lack of control from Beijing over media that exposes the weaknesses in the country.
“It has been a very interesting week for China watchers,” Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on China, told G3 Box News Digital. “What we have seen in China this last week is very much akin to a ‘cat and mouse’ game between Chinese netizens and Chinese censors.”
Chinese citizens have turned out in the boldest rejection of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its policies due to years of “zero COVID,” a system that Beijing employed in order to contain the coronavirus wherever it appeared.
Officials enforced days of lockdown and widespread testing when just a few cases of COVID-19 appeared in any city and moved residents to quarantine facilities if they tested positive for the virus – even asymptomatic cases.
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The protocols may have even played a part in the tragic deaths of 10 people who were trapped in their apartment building while it burned. Video showed some residents hanging out of their windows and off ledges to try and escape.
The building had remained under a partial lockdown for almost two months, prompting many to blame “zero COVID” for the tragedy and setting off the greatest pushback against the CCP in years as videos posted to social media showed citizens clashing with police during protests in the streets.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
The flood of videos proved difficult for Chinese censors to control, with many of the videos appearing on Twitter and other Western platforms. The task proved so difficult that China reportedly spammed Twitter with posts about porn and escorts to make it difficult for users to find protest videos when they searched for cities by name.
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“Chinese censors have been overwhelmed by a barrage of so-called ‘illegal’ content several times over the last year, for instance, after isolated bank protests in several Chinese provinces,” Singleton explained. “There was also a groundswell of intense online activity in places like Shanghai after draconian lockdowns began taking their toll on the population.”
“In these and other cases, censors proved incapable, at least initially, of blocking much of this content – there simply was too much of it,” he added.
Singleton also noted that Chinese citizens have developed a greater literacy with using virtual private networks (VPNs) – a program that hides a user’s location from internet services – and similar methods to evade the “Great Firewall” of China.
“VPNs allow them to post messages, videos and other materials on Western platforms, like Twitter and even Instagram,” he said. “In some cases, citizens are taking screenshots of posts they see online before they are deleted by censors and then sharing them with each other or posting them on Western platforms.”
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In each case, the issue – and China’s attempt to combat it – came down to a problem with volume, which speaks to how widespread the protests grew and in such a short period of time. Jacqueline Deal, co-founder of the American Academy for Strategic Education (AASE), told G3 Box News Digital that the Chinese government may have been “shell-shocked” by the sheer scale of the protests, which delayed their response to the videos and other content.
“I think everyone was surprised by the fact that in a very short period of time there were demonstrations in such a large number of cities and on such a large number of kids,” Deal said. “So, I think it’s difficult to see where this could all go.”
A former Chinese censor told the New York Times that Beijing would need to hire more censors and develop more sophisticated algorithms to cut off the flood of videos reaching the West. Deal noted that the algorithm would also require time to develop and learn what to recognize and what actions to take against offending content, which also presents and opportunity for protesters in the near-term.
But U.S. intelligence suggests that the protests are unlikely to spread across the whole of the country: a U.S. government communication obtained by Politico describes the protests as disorganized and leaderless, indicating they would more than likely fizzle out.
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Deal argued that it’s hard to see how things will go, which makes it all the more important that the U.S. determines whether it will and how it can support the protests.
“The question for the administration is and for members of Congress is: What kind of expressions of solidarity do they want to make?” Deal continued. “For the tech firms and the people with technical expertise: What kind of contributions do they want to make?”
The protesters have made sure to take full advantage of their opportunities by developing more nuanced tactics, such as the “blank paper” protests, which involve the user posting a picture of a blank page and tagging the post with keywords that would otherwise evade the censors like “good,” “yes” and “correct.”
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The protest, using positive terms in an ironic way, allows them to display the sentiment that citizens are “voiceless but also powerful,” according to the New York Times.