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A sheet of white paper is held by a protester in China.
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China: Protesters Evade Censors and Confront State Surveillance

Chinese citizens are known for their clever plays on words to evade social media censors.

The graffiti on the bathroom wall at the university said there would be a gathering in honor of the people who had died in an apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Bathrooms usually do not have surveillance cameras, so this announcement would probably go unnoticed by censors. It is better than risking punishment by posting on social media. In another city, Chinese citizens discretely shared information about the location of a vigil for the Urumqi victims on WeChat in the guise of dinner plans.

pacifist Asian woman angry and outraged protesting on street demonstration against China abuse standing for freedom and human rights holding Stop Killing Us billboard

A number of people died in the fire, whose toll was likely inflated because emergency vehicles were unable to access the building due to zero-Covid measures. Social media posts showed doors that were barred shut and barricades blocked entry to the apartments. Protesters across China and around the world used this event to protest the Chinese Communist Party’s heavy-handed zero-Covid measures.

In the aftermath of widespread protests across China and among the Chinese diaspora around the world, journalists with contacts in China have learned some of the ways that Chinese people have evaded state surveillance to spread the word about the protests. Chinese citizens are known for their clever plays on words to evade social media censors. Many of those involved in protests also engaged in low tech methods of communication like bathroom graffiti or passing out fliers. Others use VPNs (virtual private networks) to access foreign apps, like Telegram, Signal, Instagram, and Twitter to spread information and share images of the protests.

The “white paper movement” was common across China. Protesters held up blank pieces of paper to represent censorship around any criticism of the CCP and Xi Jinping. This movement has been unofficially dubbed the “A4 Revolution” for a common type of printer paper. The term was originally coined by @Citizensdailycn on Instagram.

How Instagram aided the China protests (intentionally or otherwise)

Caiwei Chen, writing in Wired, said that Instagram was her go-to app for learning stories first hand about acts of dissent in China. People can anonymously submit to Instagram Stories, allowing them to elude censors:

The ‘out-of-context’ nature of memes make them hard to predict, disobedient, and perfect for political critique. But unlike Western memes, Chinese memes tend to be more satirical and ironic, channeling an intentional ambiguity that leaves room for plausible deniability.

Caiwei Chen, “Instagram Is a Site of Protest for the Chinese Diaspora” at Wired (December 16, 2022)

Chen gives the example of the Shanghai gathering at Urumqi Road in which police took away the road sign because it was the meeting point used on social media. Later a meme of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover, with the police taking the sign superimposed on the cover showed up on Instagram. This led to other oblique comments that allowed users to vent their grievances.

Many Chinese prefer Instagram over Twitter because the platform tends to be more entertainment-centric and apolitical. However, Twitter users also offer images and reports on the protests. The New York Times China journalists report that when people searched for city names, such as “Beijing,” on Twitter in Chinese, the results would be flooded with porn and other spam. An analysis from Stanford indicated most of these accounts were bots and did not show the typical indicators for state-backed accounts.

Chinese police targeted groups unaccustomed to their methods

To access foreign apps, like Twitter, Instagram, and Telegraph, Chinese citizens living in the mainland must use a VPN. This limits information from outside China to middle- and upper middle-class people living in large cities. While all Chinese citizens are used to internet censorship, most of the people in this demographic are not used to being the target of harsh surveillance measures. For the most part, they see surveillance as something used for dissenters, ethnic minorities, or migrant workers, not themselves.

However, several people who had gone to the protests have reported that their phones had been tracked, even when they had the GPS turned off. They found that police used facial recognition if they had not taken measures to cover their face. One man in his twenties told the the Times that he had taken precautions, worn a facemask, and even ducked into bushes to change his jacket. Still authorities showed up at his door to intimidate him because his phone had been traced to a location near the protest site.

For many people in China, particularly in its large cities, this was the first time the surveillance apparatus was pointed at them. Censorship is one thing. Police showing up at the door is another:

We’re hearing stories of police turning up on people’s doorsteps asking them their whereabouts during the protests, and this appears to be based on the evidence gathered through mass surveillance,” said Alkan Akad, a China researcher at Amnesty International. “China’s ‘Big Brother’ technology is never switched off, and the government hopes it will now show its effectiveness in snuffing out unrest,” he added.

Paul Mozur, Claire Fu, Amy Chang Chien, “How China’s Police Used Phones and Faces to Track Protesters” at New York Times (December 2, 2022)

Many people deleted apps and VPNs from their phones out of fear that they were flagged by authorities. Others have turned to tactics used in the Hong Kong protests by outing police officers’ information on citizens. This was particularly effective in Shanghai, with a massive cybersecurity leak of a police database in 2020.

One app that protesters used was Apple’s Airdrop, a peer-to-peer file sharing app that allows people within the vicinity of each other to share files via blue tooth or local WiFi. However, Quartz reported that Apple released a new version of its operating system, iOS 16.1.1, which included a change that only applies to iPhones sold in mainland China. It limits how long AirDrop can receive messages “from everyone” (i.e., strangers within the vicinity of where you are located). Apple said the change is a security feature that will be rolled out globally. Perhaps so but tech watchers have noted that it was activated in China on November 9, concurrent with burgeoning protests and unrest.

Beijing has since let go of most of its zero-Covid policies. Government officials have stopped endorsing zero-Covid, and news outlets have stopped using the term and associating it with Xi Jinping. This has led to confusion over what to censor and what not to censor, although the news outlets seem to be restricting information on the overwhelmed medical system and the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

For many Chinese people, particularly Millennials and Gen-Z, this is their first experience of protesting or even feeling able to speak up against government actions. According to Rest of World, which covers global technology, many of them say that even if the protests do not amount to anything, the memories of standing up to power, and then running away from police officers have empowered them to do more in the future. “Holding up the paper and chanting slogans in person, together with others, makes me feel alive again,” said one Beijing protester. “For a brief moment, I felt a bit hopeful again.”

You may also wish to read: When the Chinese had had enough, their government had to listen. Embarrassingly, Xi had already declared victory over the virus in 2020, touting authoritarian governments as better able to respond. 2022: In the course of a week, Beijing went from touting zero-Covid to easing restrictions to censoring mentions of zero-Covid policy online. (Heather Zeiger)

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China: Protesters Evade Censors and Confront State Surveillance