Posts, mostly through the Chinese blog service Weibo and the messaging service WeChat, describe relatives who die after receiving the wrong care and people starving in the midst of food shortages. Although the government has responded with denials about food and medical problems, the outcry has increased the pressure on China’s Communist Party to respond to the allegations made by its citizens.
China possesses one of the most sophisticated censorship programs in the world, but it has not been able to keep furore confined within its borders. It is unclear how people escape strict censorship protocols for sharing videos of life in Shanghai, and there are still questions about whether China’s censorship regime will ultimately stifle dissent.
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To learn more, The Washington Post spoke with Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, who spent the first 22 years of his life in China and has dedicated his career to investigating Internet censorship in the country.
“I’ve been asked this question by journalists many times. You know, ‘Is this the turning point?’ said Wang about China’s Internet deviance. “It’s happened so many times before … There’s always this tumult. But the government always comes in and calms the situation. “
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What kind of social media content do we see coming out of Shanghai?
People just tell their stories because they are in a lot of pain. Some talk about my mother dying because she could not get to the hospital for her kidney dialysis. People talk about my dad dying because he could not be hospitalized because he did not have a COVID-negative test result. People say they have no food. There are so many such stories.
Is China’s censorship regime not strict? How can people share these things?
Often, when a post goes viral, it is usually at night. There are fewer content moderators doing their job. These are usually the times when these things go viral, and then the next day, when it’s 8 o’clock, the sensors come in to start cleaning the internet.
Also people do smart things to try to send a message. People try to refer to other things, such as movie titles and ironic use of words, to suggest things that the government would find sensitive. Of course, the sensors catch on later and start censoring the new stuff. Then comes the next one, which involves criticism of the government. It’s almost like a cat and mouse game.
How does China’s censorship regime work?
Say I live in Shanghai. If you use certain keywords that are already banned, you just can not make the post. Even if you successfully post a story about yourself, sometimes no one else can see it. Or maybe your own followers can see it, but people who do not follow you can not see it. So there are all these ways companies can manipulate who can see a posting.
In addition, the government regularly gives orders to social media companies and says you know these keywords are wrong, you need to censor them. But they do not give specific instructions and not this rule: You must censor. So companies have to develop their own words or phrases to be censored after taking the broad instructions from the government.
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And companies know that if you exist in the Chinese political system, in order to survive, I must make sure to censor my users well in advance before the government can punish me later. So they need to proactively do a good job of censoring the platforms.
Also, everyone who has an account on Weibo and WeChat must use their real name for registration, you can not get away from that. And WeChat is a super app. You use WeChat for social media, for messaging, for food delivery, for taxis, for financial transactions. So if you say something wrong and your account gets suspended, it affects your whole life because the app is also used for many other things. People get the message. They engage in self-censorship.
So with all these lockdown posts coming to light, will China then shut down the internet?
I do not think. The country is quite sophisticated. I by no means believe that the government feels that the internet is out of control. Sometimes we see it from the outside: People get up. People are very angry. But you know, I do not think the government feels that this is out of control. They have perfected censorship.
I have been asked this question by journalists many times. You know, ‘Is this a turning point?’ It has happened so many times before, when there is a natural disaster, when there is a major public health problem, a train accident. There is always this resurrection.
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But the government always comes in and dampens the situation. They can use very physical, old-fashioned, effective ways to enforce. To arrest people, get them to go to jail. The second is the more subtle ways to censor or remove posts, or make a post invisible to others.
But if the government wanted to shut down the Internet, it could. In Xinjiang, in 2009, there was a huge, violent clash between the Han people and the Uighurs. They shut down the Internet for ten months. But I do not think there has been that kind of extent of the whole internet shutdown since then, mainly because I do not think it is necessary anymore.
China will also have a party congress later this year. This is a very important event. It is highly unlikely that there will be changes before then. It is not time for creative methods to change anything. They do not want to tolerate any kind of change, they want to make sure nothing goes wrong.
Shanghai is a prominent Chinese city. Does this make it harder to crack down on social media posts?
Absolutely. Shanghai is China’s financial center. Prominent people live there. They have more followers. It’s easier for their message to go viral. Foreign correspondents and foreigners also live there. They have connections outside of China so they can bring the message to the rest of the world.
And the shutdown is not just happening in Shanghai right now, there are many other cities. You do not hear much from them because the prominent people do not live there. It is very difficult for permanent residents to go viral.