China’s zero-COVID policies have led to protests across the country, with thousands participating in at least 16 cities. These are being reported by Western media outlets as the largest demonstrations since the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.
In particular, citizens have voiced objections to strict isolation measures, mandatory testing, business lockdowns and digital tracking and censorship that has negatively impacted their life during the past two years of COVID.
Despite footage of the manifestations making their way to the wider world, China’s government has done its best to censor and erase these uprisings from existence. Ironically, one of the iconic symbols of these protests has become a blank A4 sheet of paper, representing the peoples’ anger at government censorship and information control.
China’s protests: huge news everywhere except inside China
The nationwide protests over COVID have been headline news in many other parts of the world, but inside China the government’s censorship measures are making sure that as few of China’s 1.4 billion people as possible find out there’s anything going on.
In particular, the crowds in Shanghai calling for the removal of Xi Jinping as leader and for freedom will not be shown on any nightly news or internet streaming sites in China.
Although many citizens use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to access content and social media sites not allowed inside the country, China’s censorship army is remarkably effective at cutting much of the country off from undesirable foreign content, news and influence.
Chinese authorities are clearly very aware of the use of VPNs and other methods to bypass censorship and have been searching people’s smartphones at protests to see if they’re using banned apps like Twitter and Telegram or employing a VPN to mask their location and get around government firewalls.
Those who go to protests are a focus for identification and questioning by authorities. Many who attended demonstrations have also been arrested, taken in for questioning and asked to detail anyone else they know who is involved. Journalists including BBC’s Ed Lawrence have also been detained and questioned before being released, which British PM Rishi Sunak referred to as “shocking” as well as completely “unacceptable.”
It’s clear that China wants to do what it can to accomplish a threefold mission with regard to these protests and pushback against zero-COVID and human rights abuses:
Firstly: keep these protests as small, marginal and fringe as possible.
Secondly: suppress news and social media contagion from the protests to ensure they retain minimal coverage and leverage.
Thirdly: to ensure that news which does get out is characterized as Western propaganda, inaccurate or the work of naive traitors, spies and disloyal citizens.
Censoring the citizenry: China’s ‘Great Firewall’
China’s censors and information authorities work hard to keep citizens in the dark (or in the “light” of the “People’s Liberation Movement” as it were).
The so-called “Great Firewall” does a lot of the heavy lifting, an extensive system of blocking information, networks and points of view China doesn’t agree with. It’s been in place since 2000, separating Chinese citizens from free access to information, debate and congregating online with who they wish.
Under the Ministry of Public Security, the firewall was used to spearhead the Golden Shield Project which targeted any content unfavorable to the Communist Party of China and pinpointing any agitators and spreaders of “disinformation” across the country for further scrutiny and attention.
Although internet access in China initially inspired many citizens to hope for a more open future of informational availability and exposure, it was quickly throttled by the government as they filtered results, blocked websites and monitored users to prevent “misinformation.”
To be sure, Mao Zedong’s revolution and the resulting bloodshed and social, economic and political change included a top-down reshaping of the news environment and included a ruthlessly masterful grasp of information warfare and propaganda.
But the past decade in particular has seen an escalation in nationalistic propaganda, anti-Western agitation and censorship. Social media has been widely cracked down on and blocked and activists are persecuted and hunted down. Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during the 2019-2020 protests often hid their faces with masks that would confuse facial-recognition software, for example.
Google famously pulled out of China in 2010 after it refused to alter and filter its results according to CCP specifications.
Past attempts to stand up to the Great Firewall publicly have been minimal, although a student Wuhan University chucked his shoes and some eggs at Great Firewall designer Fang Binxing in 2011 when Fang was delivering remarks on campus. Some cheered the student’s action, but the incident faded into the background.
Do you Xi what I see?
Since rising up the ranks of the all-powerful CCP Politburo and assuming full control of the country in 2012, Xi Jinping has made information control a central part of his mission. He’s done his best to shut the mouths of anyone who doesn’t like him, his ministers, or the neo-Marxist ideology of modern China.
The year after taking stricter control, the CCP put out Document 9 among its internal ranks, warning that press freedom and open internet could destroy its rule of the country.
The results were predictable: more censorship, more outlets shut down, and education pushing only the official government narrative. More and more images and words were prohibited.
The film Winnie the Pooh and images of Winnie the Pooh were made illegal in 2018 after numerous jokes comparing Xi to Pooh began to circulate online. It was clear that Xi wasn’t joking and was very serious about controlling what citizens see, believe and focus on in their lives.
To be clear, it’s not like rooms full of workers are going through every joke people send or trying to bust up VPN networks in a back alley in Shanghai. Banned content is scanned by high-power AI systems that root out and block any “sensitive” content and disinfo the government’s censors highlight for removal.
It’s not like getting a VPN or selling them to people is no big deal in China. You can be arrested for it and have your life ruined. Even teaching the wrong ideology or exposing students to it in university can get you immediately reported and fired: using VPNs to communicate and bypass government censors is no laughing matter at all and will get you before a judge very fast if discovered.
Red Dragon rising
China’s communist party has managed to carve out a space of strict information control and rising nationalism.
While presenting itself as the true champions of human potential and dignity, China has promoted a particular brand of nationalism, as can be seen in films like the Wolf Warrior series.
The films portray a united, patriotic and courageous China fighting for the rights of various peoples including poor Africans who are being exploited and gaslit by greedy American capitalists and lying mercenaries.
China is portrayed as the hero, the righteous savior riding through all the Western bragging and rhetoric to save the day and blast the bad guys in the face (repeatedly).
The propaganda aspect of China’s rise is only one element to consider, but is important in the context of censorship. China’s CCP wants only one narrative to remain:
Whether it’s COVID, politics, the economy, the environment or more, China wants it to be clear that it’s Politburo and Xi Jinping are brave and principled leaders who are leading the world in resistance against the malicious indignity and subterfuge of the West.
The censorship seen during these protests against zero-COVID are just reflections of the Chinese government’s supreme confidence that its narrative not only must prevail but must prevail for the sake of its goal of further strengthening China and broadening its influence globally.
China’s fight against COVID
According to its numbers given to the World Health Organization, China has experienced only 5,233 deaths from COVID and COVID-related illness in this pandemic.
This is called into account by most mainstream medical researchers and experts. It’s also debunked by publications like The Economist, which estimate the true China COVID death count at around 1.7 million (around 17,000% higher than that reported by China’s health authorities).
This is comparable to the amount of 1.1 million COVID-related deaths in the United States, for example.
However China’s government credits its extremely strict control measures for the official low fatality rates, continuing to use the pandemic as a justification for amping up even stricter citizen controls and monitoring while praising the supposed lives saved.
While much of the world has returned to normalcy and relaxed COVID controls, China’s leader Xi Jinping and the powerful Politburo have instituted strict anti-COVID measures. Authorities have not relaxed them appreciably in any sense, although National Health Commission representative Mi Feng said that the government would “fine tune” them going forward in the wake of the ongoing protests.
What exactly will that “fine-tuning” look like? The only thing that’s certain at this point is that the official narrative that emerges will be the narrative of the Communist Party of China and its leader Xi Jinping.