What you need to know about censorship in China around COVID-19

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Image description: Dr. Li Wenliang with mask against backdrop of high-rise apartments in Wuhan

Image description: Dr. Li Wenliang wearing mask, backdrop of the high-rise apartments in Wuhan, China. When the news of his death spread there were calls from protests from people staying in their homes in apartments during quarantine. Artist: Paru Ramesh.

On January 1 2020, the official account of Wuhan Public Security Bureau on Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China, claimed that eight people who had spread false information about the unexplained pneumonia in Wuhan were being investigated and penalized by the law. The statement didn't arouse much attention from the public since people were used to similar announcements after China Cyber Security Law came into force on June 1 2017.

The law aims to increase data protection, data localization, and cybersecurity in the interest of national security. It prohibits a series of activities from being conducted online, including manufacturing or spreading fake news online that disturbs the economic and social order.

With the effective implementation of the law, over 84,000 fake news, or what Chinese domestic media often refers to as “rumors,” were intercepted in 2018 alone on Wechat, the Chinese super social app with over 1 billion monthly active users. Wechat even launched an official account on its platform to broadcast “real” news sourced from state-owned media, party-controlled local newspapers, and various government agencies. The announcement about the eight people who spread rumours about the unknown pneumonia seemed to be just another piece among thousands of fake news on the internet in China.

The announcement about the eight people who spread rumours about the unknown pneumonia seemed to be just another piece among thousands of fake news on the internet in China.

On January 22, Chinese authorities declared it would impose a lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, a city with a population of 11 million, to quarantine the center of an outbreak of infectious pneumonia. The pneumonia was later named coronavirus disease 2019, COVID-19, by World Health Organization. 

People in China, including citizens in Wuhan, were horrified by this unexpected lockdown since they had been told that the pneumonia was well contained by the local government. They eagerly raised questions and searched for answers across the internet with fear and confusion, trying to figure out what happened to them. How deadly is the epidemic? How many people have been infected? How long will the lockdown last?... Among all the questions, they all raised one question, when did this infectious disease start?

Soon they learned of a name, Li Wenliang, one of the eight people who was reported to violate the China Internet Security Law earlier. Li was an ophthalmologist who worked as a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, a few miles from Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the hotspot of the COVID-19 outbreak. He warned his colleagues at the end of December 2019 on Wechat about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), later described as COVID-19. For sharing this information, he, together with the other seven doctors, was summoned and admonished by Wuhan public security bureau for “making false comments on the internet.”

It is long believed by the public in China that the party-led campaigns against rumors in China have been used to take out potential critics and enemies against Chinese authorities. When something is labeled as a rumour, that information could either be fake news or something the government doesn’t want the public to know. People angrily discovered that Dr. Li’s experience well proved this assumption. The entire information about the epidemic had been concealed from the public since the end of December, while the local authority did not intervene to contain the virus except for shutting up the whistleblowers.

Articles and comments were posted online, questioning the misconduct of the authority in containing the epidemic and the lack of transparency in the whole process. Together with these challenges, cries for help from Wuhan were everywhere on the internet, from asphyxiated patients who were refused admission from the hospitals, from helpless families which were infected as a whole without proper isolation at home, and from desperate health care workers who were working 24 hours without protective equipment, further confirming how unprepared the city was for the epidemic.

Surprisingly, the wave of discussion about the epidemic survived for almost three days before the Chinese authority stepped in and took action. By January 27, the number of posts for help online began decreasing sharply, and relevant articles posted in the past three days had been removed from their servers.

Surprisingly, the wave of discussion about the epidemic survived for almost three days before the Chinese authority stepped in and took action.

The delay showed the fact that the powerful AI algorithms temporally lost its effect when censoring the discussion around Wuhan lockdown. As required by the Chinese government, major internet platforms and messaging services in China need to establish elaborate self-censorship mechanisms. For ensuring full implementation of the mechanisms, these platforms have dedicated teams and powerful AI algorithms to police content. The AI algorithms will block posts that may be against the mechanisms automatically based on their keyword filters, and the dedicated teams or cyber police will examine the posts that contain specific keywords with a priority. However, the keyword filters failed to cover the discussion about the outbreak of COVID-19 and Wuhan lockdown since it was a completely new topic that was deeply related to people’s livelihood. As a result, another group of people who were working non-stop amid the pandemic was cyber police. It is ironic to see a cyber police officer shared that she could only sleep 4 hours every day because of COVID-19 in an interview.

On February 6, the cyber-rebellion arrived when Dr.Li, the 33-year-old whistleblower of COVID-19, passed away. News of his death was first reported by the state media but was soon deleted. The hospital that Dr. Li stayed in tried to change his time of death and tried to cease the public anger by releasing the news of his death at midnight after everyone went to bed.  More than 17 million people in China stayed awake that night, watching live stream for the status updates of the doctor and witnessing the terrible acts of the hospital.

People’s anger was inflamed by the manipulation, and they started a seesaw battle on the internet with authority. Every single minute of the night, thousands of posts about Dr. Li were posted across all major social platforms in China, while being censored and deleted at the same rate by the internet police. The situation lasted for almost 8 hours that readers could only see the numbers of posts but could not access those contents. The hashtag hashtag #我們要求言論自由, which means we want freedom of speech, gained over 2 million views and over 5500 posts within 5 hours before it was removed by the censors. They also launched an activity themed “I blew a whistle for Wuhan tonight,” where everyone across the country to keep their lights off in their home at 9pm in the evening of February 7, blowing whistles and waving glitters outside of their windows to mourn Dr. Li. This massive anger was later subdued when the central government in Beijing announced it would initiate a comprehensive the day after Li’s death; on the same day, every post related to the subject was removed.

Every single minute of the night, thousands of posts about Dr. Li were posted across all major social platforms in China, while being censored and deleted at the same rate by the internet police.

Unexpectedly, the rebellion had a revival in the following month. An interview with Dr. Li’s colleague, Ai Fen, was published in the morning of March 10 and widely shared on the internet. Ai,the original information source for Dr. Li, shared how she was forced to shut up after she realized the potential severity of the unexplained pneumonia at the end of December 2019. Four hours after being published, the article was deleted across the internet.

The disappearance of the article felt like mockery to those who thought they won justice for Dr. Li previously. This led to another resistance against the censorship. Within 24 hours after the article was deleted, more than 30 versions of the article were shared on the internet repeatedly.  These versions not only included those in different languages, such as English, Germany, Japanese, Vietnamese, but also included those in unique languages, such as oracle, hexadecimal encoding, base64 Encode, Morse code, Hebrew, sign language, Elvish, Braille, etc. The attempt was to bypass the keyword filters and avoid censorship, and all these contents were stored as blockchain data in case they were ever deleted. One version written in the extinct Jinwen scripture was headlined as “文字可以被刪除和泯滅,但思想和記憶長存”, meaning Language can be erased and destroyed, but thoughts and memories will last.

These revolutionary actions formed the last wave of rebellion on the internet so far. The internet space for public discussions about COVID-19 has shrunk dramatically ever since, and the censorship has developed to an unprecedented level. Few articles could survive on the internet for more than 12 hours except for the ones with appreciations for the government’s achievements in containing the pandemic.  Meanwhile, the authority began to create their own narrative on China’s war with people against the virus, eulogizing healthcare workers — most of thom are communist party members — as everyday heroes, including Dr. Li. These narratives have further been encouraged when “The west” with democratic system failed to manage the outbreak in March.

In the end of March, people initiated commemorative activities online for victims who died due to COVID-19, calling for putting together the names of all victims. These activities were soon censored and no stories about the deceased were allowed to share on the internet. Up to this day, the government has not released a list of deaths in this pandemic in China; yet on April 5, China decided to mourn the thousands of “martyrs” that passed away in the new coronavirus outbreak by flying the national flag at half-mast throughout the country and suspending all forms of entertainment. It is ambiguous and ironic to see that people are allowed to mourn, but are not allowed to know and remember whom they mourn, leaving the deceased in silence both online and offline.

It is worrisome to see that internet censorship is being used by countries other than China to mute people’s cries for help and to bury the truth in the name of maintaining the stability of the society. In Cambodia, Human Rights Watch found that at least 17 people have been arrested on fake news charges for comments they made about the coronavirus, including a teenage girl who expressed fear about potential positive diagnoses in her area on her social media. In Turkey, the interior ministry was acting to arrest social media users whose posts were “targeting officials and spreading panic and fear by suggesting that the virus had spread widely in Turkey and that officials had taken insufficient measures.”

It is worrisome to see that internet censorship is being used by countries other than China to mute people’s cries for help and to bury the truth in the name of maintaining the stability of the society.

Pandemics have been associated with social and political upheaval. They could amplify existing political tensions and spark unrest that result in tightened censorship from the government. However, censorship is not a cure for pandemics. When infectious patients in Wuhan were suffering from lack of medical treatments, a question has been raised millions of times on the internet every single day, “What if Dr.Li’s words were taken seriously by the authority in the end of December?” We would never know the answer to the question, but there is one thing that we know for sure, truth was concealed with the internet censorship, and billions of people paid painful cost as a result. Virus may be weakened or destroyed by vaccines and continuous medical development, but tightened censorship is likely to remain in place even when the pandemic has died down.

Pandemics have been associated with social and political upheaval