Protests Stretch China’s Censorship to Its Limits

With Twitter more relevant inside China than it has been in years, other campaigns appeared to target the spread of information there. In recent days, huge amounts of spam, often featuring lewd photos and videos, clustered around hashtags related to Chinese cities, some of which have been the locations of protests, according to an initial examination by an independent researcher. Although it’s not clear who is behind the spam, such campaigns to dilute politically sensitive posts and make them difficult to find are a common feature of Chinese overseas information campaigns.

Within China, the videos have helped attract protesters. A former journalist in Shanghai said he first stumbled on a vigil at Urumqi Road in the city on Saturday, but went out to join another protest the next day after seeing videos on WeChat from his friends at the gathering.

He, too, shared videos of the protest on WeChat, though he deleted them after 24 hours in an effort to evade the authorities, who had begun to go after some demonstrators. Though up only shortly, his videos changed the minds of two people he had thought would be unreceptive: his parents.

“My parents, like many Chinese parents, used to think what I’m doing is meaningless and childish, but they have changed dramatically in the past two days,” the former journalist said. His parents now understand why he would participate in such gatherings, he said, perhaps in part because they too have struggled under Covid controls.

Despite the breakthroughs, some warned that the censors would soon strike back, and might well recapture control of public opinion. Han Rongbin, a professor of media and politics at the University of Georgia who studies Chinese censorship, said that while he agreed the censors had been overwhelmed, their work, which has included pulling down huge numbers of posts and videos, had nonetheless been quite successful.

The goal of China’s censors isn’t to keep everyone in the dark, just enough people to ensure the spread of protest can be stopped. “I still think it’s quite effective, in that there is still a large number of people who are not sure what’s actually going on,” he said.

After the widespread demonstrations over the weekend, gatherings this week have been much smaller, as the authorities have smothered potential sites with heavy security. The question is how effective the censorship and other measures will be in deterring more protests in the days and weeks ahead.

Video production by Axel Boada and Muyi Xiao.

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