How Chinese netizens broke the big firewall
men April a a young Chinese painter in Italy started using Twitter to publish content forwarded by censor-warely netizens in China. For much of the previous year, he had done the same thing on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. But he moved to Twitter after Chinese authorities shut down his Weibo accounts. For the first few months, his posts were not widely read. Twitter is blocked in China. And he tweets in Chinese, limiting his foreign audience.
But his account, “Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher”, became an essential tool for information about the protests against covid-19 restrictions that erupted across China last month (one is pictured). Participants and viewers sent him many images and eyewitness accounts by direct message. By reposting a lot, he played an important role in spreading the scale of the unrest to others, both in China and abroad. He also gained nearly 600,000 new followers and 387m hits on his Twitter profile in November alone.
Teacher Li’s account was just one revelation of the biggest breach in China’s internet controls since they began in the late 1990s. Public anger has flared online before, but never escalated into widespread physical protests. Now cyber administrators are scrambling to put holes in the “great firewall”, in case a new surge of covid leads to more digital disharmony.
One reason for last month’s break was the large number of people involved. The great firewall automatically blocks politically sensitive terms and many foreign sites, including news outlets, search engines and social media. China also orders domestic technology companies to hire armies of censors who screen user-generated content using lists of restricted words and images that are updated frequently.
But the mass of information posted at the end of November – with various actions and slogans – seems to have exceeded both algorithms and human censors. Many people in China learned about the protests from local messaging apps, where images and comments were often copied or downloaded before censors could delete them, and then reposted. several times.
Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor, says that China’s bureaucracy is so moderate that when it comes to unknown threats, sensitive information can spread widely while censors wait for official orders. “With this level of protest every bureaucrat is afraid to make a decision for himself,” he said.
Other industry insiders suggest that some Chinese tech companies’ spending on internal censorship has been limited by financial problems since the crackdown in the sector began in 2020. Chinese authorities have now ordered them to encourage their censor groups and pay closer attention to content-related complaints, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Chinese netizens are also becoming more creative, posting political messages on dating sites or in the comments section of less controversial content. Artificial intelligence does not see sarcasm easily, so under official posts on social media, many left messages simply repeating the Chinese word for “good”. Others posted images of blank white papers.
Then there are foreign social media accounts like Teacher Li’s, which collect and amplify information sent from China. While Chinese authorities and their proxies cite as evidence that “foreign forces” are stirring up unrest, researchers suggest that it is being driven more by Chinese nationals abroad, especially students , and people inside China who use virtual private networks (VPNs) to surround the great firewall.
China allows licensed domestic businesses to use it VPNs. But many Chinese have illegal ones and, although numbers are hard to quantify, researchers are citing a recent increase in demand (especially from home-schooled students). Xiao Qiang from the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that 10m people use it VPNs each day in China, up from around 2 a.m. at the start of the pandemic.
There are also signs that more Chinese are joining Twitter (using VPNs) but communicating only via direct message. Twitter does not share the number of users in China, but Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld from the University of California, Los Angeles, believes that it rose by about 10% in early 2020 while people looking for covid news. He also noted an increase in Twitter downloads during the protests. “If I had to make a bet, I would say that more people are using Twitter now than two months ago, but they are very careful with their behavior,” he said.
Chinese authorities seem to be alarmed, especially by what they call an “overflow of information” from abroad. On November 28 the government’s internet watchdog declared a “Level 1 Internet Crisis Response”, which required the highest level of content regulation. It ordered Chinese e-commerce sites to ban the sale of censorship-circulating devices, including VPNs and foreign Apple accounts (which allow downloading of apps banned in China). He also instructed Chinese tech companies to investigate user-generated advice about “jumping” the Great Firewall.
At the same time, Chinese authorities are using more intrusive methods that cross the digital and physical worlds. Police have searched mobile devices for banned apps or protest-related images and contacted protesters identified through mobile phone location data. Li’s teacher says the police have visited his parents in China several times, giving them a list of his tweets as “criminal evidence” and threatening to prevent them from sending him money. “The psychological pressure is huge,” he says. “But this account is not just about our family. It is about the welfare of countless Chinese people. So I won’t stop.” ■
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