In late November 2022, the Chinese internet was overwhelmed by expressions of rage, grief, and disbelief. The catalyst was a fire in an apartment block in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, which killed at least 10 people after harsh COVID-19 rules apparently restricted the movement of both victims and rescuers. Xinjiang residents, including ethnic Uyghurs, took to the streets to protest.
Many internet users circumvented China’s official censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, to share information on banned platforms like Twitter and Instagram. People across the country joined in a decentralized movement with overlapping aims, including mourning for the Urumqi victims, removal of rigid restrictions associated with the regime’s zero-COVID policy, and in protest of strict political controls. The result was one of the most open challenges to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in decades.
These events were shocking in part because the space to discuss politically sensitive topics on Chinese platforms is small and shrinking – an outcome of the regime’s multiyear strategy to deepen control over domestic internet companies. As the CCP authorities work to close loopholes and prevent any recurrence of the recent outburst, the international community should do everything possible to ensure that the global internet remains a space where Chinese people can raise their voices in dissent.
A Battle With Online Censors
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Public anger in the aftermath of the Urumqi fire erupted suddenly and spread far and wide on social media, despite the Chinese government’s profoundly oppressive controls on the internet. Users who share restricted information or criticism of the authorities are typically censored, harassed, and intimidated into silence. But Chinese platforms initially struggled to cope with the huge volume of videos and messages related to the blaze, much like with the public reaction to the death of Dr. Li Wenliang in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Chinese users also employed creative means to evade censorship as the movement spread. For instance, people on the Weibo microblogging platform expressed solidarity through hashtags like “A4” and “white paper exercise” – both references to the blank sheets of paper that protesters held up to show the wide reach of government constraints on free speech.
Even as they grappled with censors on Chinese platforms, people inside the country turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) – tools that can circumvent the Great Firewall and are heavily regulated in China – to view and share uncensored content about the protests. High-profile Twitter accounts run by Chinese people living abroad acted as staging grounds for dissemination of videos and photos to the wider internet. On Instagram, pages that were previously dedicated to posting memes became important repositories for crowdsourced information about the movement.
Eventually, however, the internet censors caught up. Weibo and other platforms began blocking users’ cleverly coded hashtags. And the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s internet regulator, ordered social media companies to hire more censors, focus on quashing discussion of the zero-COVID protests, and scrub any references to VPNs from content posted by users.
Tightening the Screws on China’s Internet Companies
While the recent outbreak of dissent may have caught officials by surprise, the CCP has worked tirelessly to bolster its censorship system against long-term challenges. Recently, the CAC and other regulators have increasingly reined in Chinese technology companies, whose immense wealth and influence came to be viewed as a potential threat to the CCP’s concentration of power. Leveraging financial and anti-monopoly scrutiny, the authorities imposed large fines or pulled applications from online stores to punish companies for any perceived failure to toe the government line. This clampdown will make online mobilization like that of zero-COVID protests more difficult than ever.
The CCP has also demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that its censorship regime can keep pace with technological advances. For example, regulations introduced in 2021 and 2022 targeted the automated systems that distribute content or advertising to social media users. They require Chinese platforms to develop content-recommendation systems that exclude “illegal and undesirable” material, adhere to “mainstream values,” and promote “positive energy” and “socialist core” principles. Now, the algorithmic systems that sometimes exposed users to critical content they might not discover on their own will be designed to prevent precisely that.
Other regulations aim to undermine anonymity and deter critical speech. To comply with a 2021 regulation, Chinese social media platforms now display the cities or provinces of China-based users under their posts, and users based outside China are tagged with their country. In a post explaining this change, Weibo claimed that some users had pretended to be locals while engaged in discussions about controversial topics.
New regulations that took force last month may constrain online discussions even further by restricting people’s comments on the posts of others. Platforms must now enforce real-name registration for users with commenting privileges and roll out new content-moderation controls on comment threads. Noncompliance can ultimately result in closure of the platform. Comment threads have previously offered a rare space for Chinese people to exchange views or criticism, but that opportunity may be dwindling.
Protecting Chinese Dissent on the Global Internet
To support the Chinese protesters who have bravely raised their voices to share their views, democratic governments and international technology companies should take steps to safeguard access to a free and open global internet.
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First, governments around the world should expand support for the development of tools that can be used to circumvent censorship systems like the Great Firewall, particularly those that are user-friendly and designed for high-risk environments. Related programs should enable civil society organizations to distribute these tools to the people who need them.
Second, democracies should counter the CCP’s campaign to erode the global internet at the international level, which Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2022” report described in detail. Chinese diplomats and state-aligned companies have sought to promote their model of digital authoritarian control to other governments. They have lobbied to enshrine this model within the multilateral institutions that set technical and other standards for the internet, like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) when it was led by China’s Houlin Zhao.
At a minimum, democratic governments should develop common approaches to checking digital-authoritarian influence at multilateral bodies. The Freedom Online Coalition, which brings like-minded governments together to protect human rights online, can drive diplomatic coordination against the Chinese government’s efforts to fragment the global internet. The ITU, now under the leadership of Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the United States, can also resist such polices. Of particular concern are policies that would undermine how networks around the world connect to each other to form the global internet, such as would be the case if Huawei’s New IP proposal and its copycats were adopted.
Third, international technology companies should be prepared to defend Chinese people’s right to express themselves and seek and receive reliable information, particularly when protests are unfolding. During the zero-COVID protests, networks of automated Chinese-language “bot” accounts on Twitter swamped protest-related hashtags with pornography and advertisements for escort services. Although these tactics mirrored previous state-backed disinformation campaigns, no clear evidence of a government link has emerged so far. Twitter was delayed in responding to the deluge, reportedly because the company’s recent mass layoffs undermined its ability to combat content manipulation more broadly.
It is critical for tech companies that serve a global audience to maintain adequate capacity to address threats to platform integrity, including by fully staffing teams dedicated to trust and safety, human rights, and regional needs. Companies should further invest in the internal infrastructure required for such teams to coordinate and respond to CCP manipulation efforts. Companies should also innovate to ensure that users in closed countries can access their products safely and securely, such as by embedding end-to-end encryption and deploying proxy servers.
The zero-COVID protests demonstrated to millions of Chinese people the power of their collective voice, online and off. In December, under pressure from the public, the government relaxed many of its draconian pandemic restrictions – despite their close association with President Xi Jinping. Collective expressions of dissent are not unusual in China, as Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor has found, but they rarely take the form of direct challenges to the central government, and rarer still are major concessions from top CCP leaders.
By protecting the freedom and accessibility of the global internet, the international community will be providing Chinese people and others who live behind authoritarian firewalls with the means to build solidarity and movements that challenge the very mechanisms that deny them fundamental freedoms.