The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Locked down, Shanghai residents skirt censorship to vent online

China possesses one of the most sophisticated censorship programs in the world, but it has been unable to keep the furor contained within its borders. A human rights expert weighs in.

Nearly-empty roads during a lockdown due to Covid-19 in Shanghai, China, on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
6 min

Over recent weeks, social media posts out of Shanghai have painted a dire picture of life under Chinese government lockdown. To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, residents have been trapped at home, while others are stuck in temporary quarantine centers, unsure when they’ll be set free.

Posts, mostly through the Chinese blogging service Weibo and messaging service WeChat, describe loved ones dying after being given improper care and people starving amid food shortages. Though the government has responded with denials about food and medical problems, the outcry has increased pressure on China’s communist party to respond to the allegations its citizens are making.

China possesses one of the most sophisticated censorship programs in the world, but it has been unable to keep the furor contained within its borders. It’s unclear just how people are escaping strict censorship protocols to share videos of life in Shanghai and questions remain whether China’s censorship regime will eventually stifle dissent.

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To learn more, The Washington Post talked with Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, who spent the first 22 years of her life living in China, and has dedicated her career to investigating internet censorship in the country.

“I’ve been asked by journalists this question many times. You know, ‘Is this the tipping point?" Wang said of China’s internet dissent. “It’s happened so many times before...There’s always this uproar. But the government always comes in and contains the situation.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What kinds of social media content are we seeing come out of Shanghai?

People just tell their stories because they are suffering great pain. Some are talking about my mother dying because she couldn’t get to the hospital for her kidney dialysis. People talk about my father dying because he couldn’t be admitted to the hospital because he didn’t have a COVID negative test result. People saying they don’t have food. There are so many such stories.

Isn’t China’s censorship regime strict? How can people share these things?

Oftentimes, when a post goes viral, it’s usually the nighttime. There are fewer content moderators doing their job. It’s usually those times when these things go viral, and then the next day, when it’s 8 a.m. the the sensors come in to start to clean off the internet.

Also, people do clever things to try and send a message. People try to reference other things, like movie titles and ironic uses of words, to imply things that the government would find sensitive. Of course, the sensors later catch on then start to censor the new things. Then the next thing comes up to imply 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 cannot make the post. Even if you successfully post a story about yourself, sometimes nobody else can see it. Or maybe your own followers can see it, but people who don’t follow you cannot see it. So there are all these ways companies can manipulate who can see a post.

Also, the government periodically gives orders to social media companies saying you know, these keywords are wrong, you need to censor them. But they don’t give specific instructions and not this rule: You have to censor. So companies have to develop their own words or phrases to be censored after taking the broad directions from the government.

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And companies know that if you exist in the Chinese political system, in order to survive, I need to make sure that I censor my users well before the government can punish me later. So they need to proactively do a good job to censor the platforms.

Also, everybody who has an account on Weibo and WeChat must use their real name for registration, you cannot get away from that. And WeChat is a super app. You’re using 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 entire 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 shut down the internet?

I don’t think so. The country is pretty sophisticated. I don’t think in any any sense the government feels the internet is out of control. Sometimes, we see it from outside: People are rising up. People are very angry. But, you know, I don’t think the government feels this is out of control. They have perfected censorship.

I’ve been asked by journalists this question many times. You know, ‘Is this the tipping point?’ It’s happened so many times before, when there’s a natural disaster, when there’s a big public health issue, a train crash. There’s always this uproar.

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But the government always comes in and contains the situation. They can use very physical, old fashioned, effective ways to enforce. Arresting people, making them go jail. The other is the more subtle ways of censorship or removing posts, or making a post invisible to others.

But if the government wanted to shutdown the internet, it could. In Xinjiang, in 2009, there was a huge, violent clash between the Han people and the Uyghurs. They shut down the internet for ten months. But I don’t think there’s been that kind of scale of entire internet shutdown since then, mainly because I don’t think it’s necessary anymore.

Also, China is going to have a Party Congress later this year. This is a very important event. It is extremely improbable to have any changes before then. It’s not a time for creative methods to change something. They don’t 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 clamp down on social media posts?

Absolutely. Shanghai is the financial center of China. Prominent people live there. They have more of a following. It’s easier for their message to go viral. Also, foreign correspondents and foreigners, live there too. They have connections outside of China, so they can bring the message to the rest of the world.

And the lockdown’s not just happening in Shanghai right now, there are many other cities. You don’t hear much from them because the prominent people don’t live there. It’s very hard for regular residents to go viral.