Iapril A young Chinese painter living in Italy has started using Twitter to post content retweeted by Chinese netizens wary of censorship. He has spent much of the past year doing the same on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. But after Chinese authorities shut down his Weibo account, he turned to Twitter. In the first few months, his posts were not widely read. Twitter is blocked in China. He tweets in Chinese, limiting his foreign audience.
However, his account “Teacher Li is not your teacher” became an important source of information about the protests against covid-19 restrictions that erupted in China last month (pictured). Participants and viewers sent him numerous pictures and witness accounts via private messages. By retweeting many of his posts, he was instrumental in communicating the scale of the unrest to others at home and abroad. In November alone, his Twitter profile gained nearly 600,000 new followers and 387 million visits.
Teacher Li’s account is just one of the biggest holes in China’s internet controls since it began in the late 1990s. Public outrage has erupted online before, but it never turned into widespread physical protests. Now, network administrators are scrambling to plug the holes in the “Great Firewall” before the surge in the new crown epidemic leads to more digital dissent.
One of the reasons for last month’s breach was the sheer number of people involved. The Great Firewall automatically blocks politically sensitive terms and many foreign websites, including news outlets, search engines, and social media. China also requires domestic tech companies to employ armies of censors to sift through user-generated content using frequently updated lists of restricted text and images.
But the deluge of messages posted in late November — featuring different campaigns and slogans — appears to have overwhelmed both algorithms and human reviewers. Many Chinese learned about the protests from local messaging apps, which often copied or downloaded images and comments before censors removed them and reposted them multiple times.
Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor, said China’s bureaucracy is so centralized that when an unfamiliar threat emerges, sensitive information can spread widely while censors await official orders. “In the face of this level of protest, every bureaucrat is afraid to make a decision for himself,” he said.
Spending by some Chinese tech companies on internal scrutiny has been constrained by financial difficulties since a crackdown on the industry began in 2020, other industry insiders said. Chinese authorities have now ordered them to step up their censorship ranks and pay more attention to the protests – related content, wall street journal reports.
Chinese netizens have also become more creative, posting political messages on dating sites or comment sections that would otherwise not cause controversy. Artificial intelligence does not readily recognize sarcasm, so many comments under official posts on social media simply repeat the Chinese word for “好”. Others posted images of blank white paper.
There are also foreign social media accounts like Teacher Li, who aggregate and amplify information from China. While Chinese authorities and their proxies have cited this as evidence of “foreign power” fomenting unrest, the researchers said it was more driven by Chinese citizens abroad, especially students, and Chinese using virtual private networks (virtual private networks) bypass firewalls.
China allows companies to use licensed domestic virtual private networkSecond. But many Chinese have illegal ones, and while numbers are hard to measure, researchers point to a recent uptick in demand (especially from homeschooling students).Qiang Xiao of UC Berkeley estimates 10 million people are using virtual private networkIn China, the number was around 2 million at the start of the pandemic.
There are also signs of more Chinese joining Twitter (using virtual private networks) but only by direct message communication. Twitter does not disclose the number of Chinese users, but UCLA’s Zachary Steinert-Srekeld estimates that the number of Chinese users grew by about 10% in early 2020 as people looked for news on the new coronavirus. He also pointed to an increase in Twitter downloads during the protests. “If I had to bet, I’d say more people are using Twitter now than they were two months ago, but they’re very careful about what they do,” he said.
Chinese authorities seem alarmed, especially by what they call the “reflow” of foreign information. On November 28, the government’s internet watchdog announced a “Level 1 Internet Emergency Response,” requiring the highest level of content management.It ordered Chinese e-commerce sites to limit sales of censorship circumvention tools, including virtual private networks and foreign Apple accounts (to allow downloads of apps banned in China). It also directed Chinese tech companies to remove user-generated suggestions to “skip” the Great Firewall.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities are using more intrusive methods that span the digital and physical worlds. Police scoured phones for banned apps or images related to the protests and contacted protesters identified through phone location data. Mr Li said police visited his parents in China several times, showing them a list of his tweets as “criminal evidence” and threatening to stop them from sending him money. “There’s a lot of psychological pressure,” he said. “But this account isn’t just about our family. It’s about the well-being of countless Chinese people. So I won’t stop.” ■
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