As protests against the government’s draconian “Zero COVID” policy continue in cities across China, a separate battle is being waged on social media sites in China and around the world; one that tests the strength of China’s online censors, known as the Great Firewall .
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said that while protesters have become increasingly adept at getting their information past government censors, Chinese officials appear to be resorting to “low-tech means” to suppress online speech.
“Police are literally stopping people on the street, on public transport, and forcing them to hand over their smartphones so that the police can check on them to see if they’re talking about the protests, if they’ve taken photos or videos, or if They sent the material to other people,” she told VOA via Skype on Tuesday.
Some protesters in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are using technology and other techniques to gain information about the crackdown by bypassing government censors who are believed to be using automated systems to help block banned content.
Over the weekend, researchers noted that outside of China, when people on Twitter tried to share tweets about the protests and subsequent police crackdown, Chinese-language accounts intervened to stop the message from spreading.
“Many Chinese-language accounts, some of which had been dormant for months or years, became active early Sunday and began spamming the service with links to escort services and other adult services, as well as city names,” according to Washington post.
Many Chinese citizens have been able to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass the Great Firewall and post photos, messages, videos and other material on platforms including Twitter.
Ji Feng, a former student leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989, told VOA that students with VPNs were “jumping over the firewall” to get information.
Richardson said the posts were a “severe breach of the Great Firewall” and that Chinese authorities could crack down on the use of VPNs.
“A few years ago, using an unauthorized VPN was criminalized,” she said. “So we’re looking forward to hearing that people are going to be prosecuted just for using this technology.”
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that “videos and posts about the protests on Chinese social media were removed by the ruling party’s swift online censors.”
Richardson expects in the next few weeks to conduct a more comprehensive assessment of “the extent to which the authorities will use basic, general-purpose surveillance cameras, which are currently used extensively in all urban areas of China, to identify protesters, and that they may be used to as a basis for prosecuting those who simply exercise their right to free speech.”