Faced with censorship on social networks, how can you protest?

Blank sheets, A4 size, without any written message. White squares on WeChat profile. Online messages are forwarded to avoid censorship on social networks. As part of the social movements that have hit China since Friday, November 25, mostly young activists are using clever strategies to challenge Chinese power.

Crowds responded to calls on social media after a deadly fire ripped through the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan, and in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. Some blame the health restrictions still in place as part of the “zero covid” strategy for hampering the work of aid workers. Mobilization in the Xi Jinping Empire is unprecedented.

As a researcher, I cannot understand how people come together by chance and spontaneously.
Zhao Alexandre Huang, Lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences, University of Paris Nanterre.

As a researcher, I can’t understand what happened, how people came together randomly and spontaneously, which shows that China’s ‘zero covid’ policy has reached a critical point.” Zhao Alexandre Huang, a lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, explains. Increasingly strong censorship of the power on the ground has targeted social media and prevented large-scale mobilizations since the June 3, 1989 tragedy, when the Chinese People’s Army opened fire on thousands of students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Active bloggers and influencers on social networks

Protests are often limited to a local scale and often focus on very narrow issues. Demonstrators and activists have been trying to organize, especially on China’s Twitter-like social network Sina Weibo. “The Chinese started using Sina Weibo extensively between 2010 and 2012. At first, people could freely express their opinions there.recalls Zhao Alexandre Huang. Opinion leaders may talk about certain social injustices, but never directly challenge the Chinese authorities.”– says the teacher.

But very quickly, China tightened its grip on the Internet a bit more and attacked anonymity. In December 2012, a law of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress forced all users to provide their real identity to access the fixed and mobile Internet, as well as all services that allow the public posting of information, including Sina. Weibo social network. That’s the end of nicknames.

As with this tightening of generalized control, the account of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei was quickly deleted.

To read (again): Ai Weiwei: Chinese dissident artist, heir to the “prince of poetry”.

Just two hours after sending their first message, “Test. Ai Weiwei. March 18, 2012″The time has come. The sky has changed in China” the artist’s account disappears. Some cry censorship. He used his social security number to open an account. “The controls are very strongAy Weiwei told Reuters by phone in March 2012. They (the government) are very unreliable, they are not ready for any kind of change.“It is now impossible for dissidents or activists to create anonymous accounts.

Abduction control mechanisms” on social networks

The government is starting to come up with internet rules to control the content of messages posted online on Sina Weibo. For example, in April 2018, the government announced that it would remove comics and videos “pornography promoting gore or homosexual violence“. After a flood of protests, the government decides to withdraw the note “homosexuality”.

Sometimes common expressions are censored online. People don’t know what to say.Zhao Alexandre Huang, Lecturer in Information and Communication Sciences, University of Paris Nanterre.

A document broadcast by American Radio, Radio Free Asia, lists the full list of words censored online. “Sometimes common expressions are censored on the Internet. People don’t know what to say“, adds Zhao Alexandre Huang.

So the Chinese are using more and more subtle strategies. “They invented various phrases to capture control mechanisms, Zhao Alexandre Huang explains. They create social media expressions to refer to certain political scenarios.”
For example, in 2013, Winnie the Pooh was used to describe Xi Jinping.

Others use the phrase “baozi”, steamed donuts, talk about the ruler. “LThe phrase refers to the emperor going to a steamed dumpling restaurant called “qingfeng” baozi pu. He wanted to show the image of a president close to the peoplerecalls Zhao Alexandre Huang. After this visit, the phrase “Qingfeng Emperor” became another nickname of the Chinese president on Chinese social media.

Young people who are at the beginning of the movement in front of the “Zero covid” policy do not hesitate to get their hands on these toys. Students of the prestigious Tsinghua University are photographed and displayed “Friedman equations“, named after a physicist. They refer to “free man“(free man) or”freedom“(freedom) in English. Others write articles online with absurd combinations like “.good good good good“where”so so so“.”It’s a bit like French, if I really don’t want to talk to you, I say yes: “bravo, bravo, bravo“, recalls Zhao Alexandre Huang. Others hold blank A4 white sheets on full display.

The goal: find a way to express your anger and bypass the Chinese state’s censorship algorithms.

Social networks remain the primary sounding board for social discontent. (…). But this dissatisfaction has little influence on party-state decision-making. Chloé Froissart is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Chinese Studies at Inalco.

Building social networks is still a difficult influence

But the pressure on online activists is increasing. In June 2022, Chinese star blogger and beauty influencer Li Jiaqi dared to show off a tank-shaped cake live on Sina Weibo a few hours before the anniversary of the 1989 drama. His show was abruptly stopped due to a technical problem. “The the lipstick king” disappears without a trace for almost three months. Tennis player Peng Shuai has gone missing after tweeting that he accused a senior Chinese politician of sexual harassment.

Social networks remain the primary sounding board for social discontent, Chloé Froissart, professor of political science in the Department of China Studies at Inalco, recalls. They allow the party-state to know what the population is thinking and to nip discontent in the bud.”
Videos of demonstrations against China’s “zero covid” policy are no longer online. Information is going very badly. People in China know little or nothing about what is happening in the next city.assures the teacher. We are facing relatively atomized struggles.”

But there has always been protest in China. “However, it is often about living problems, economic issues, Chloé Froissart remembers. There has always been concern for the dialogue between the party and the state in order to find a meeting point between the interests of the people and the interests of the government.“However, since Xi Jinping came to power, this agreement seems increasingly fragile.“The discontent of Internet users has little influence on the decision-making of the party-state. We are faced with a regime that is no longer responsive.”

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