By Yvonne Lau
November 10, 2022
The Chinese government’s online censorship regime isn’t new. It succeeded in ‘nail[ing] jello to a wall’, to use the words of former US president Bill Clinton, when the world thought the Chinese Communist Party wouldn’t be able to control the internet. The erection of the ‘great firewall’, the success in keeping out external sites and news, the intense surveillance of public and private online activities, and censorship and restriction of information are just a few different flavours of jello. But a recent protest in Beijing has shown that tech solutions are often not enough. Self-censorship is the ultimate form of information control the Chinese government is striving for, and Hong Kong is quickly falling victim to it.
Last month, just days before the CCP’s 20th national congress, a lone protester launched a rare display of political dissent in the capital armed with two simple handwritten banners he hung off a bridge. The first called for reforms, freedoms, elections, dignity and an end to the government’s strict ‘zero Covid’ policy. The second banner read: ‘Boycott schools, go on strikes, remove the dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.’
Photos and videos of the protest quickly started spreading online but were immediately censored on Chinese social media. The words ‘Beijing’, ‘bridge’ and ‘Haidian’ (the district where the incident happened) were also censored. Related terms like ‘courage’, ‘Beijing banner’ and ‘warrior’ were blocked from searches on social media platforms. By the next day, netizens relied on phrases and hashtags like ‘I saw it’ (#我看到了#) to refer to the incident. They too were quickly deleted, and the posters’ accounts were suspended for violating the platform’s rules and regulations.
The repercussions were more serious for others. Some unlucky individuals who shared an image of the bridge protest had their Weibo or WeChat accounts banned permanently. This significantly affects Chinese residents, who rely on the apps for many digital services beyond communication, such as the health QR code and online subscriptions. The frustration has led hundreds of desperate users to write ‘confession letters’ on WeChat containing phrases like ‘I have profoundly realised my mistake’ and ‘I won’t let down the party and the country.’ Users begged Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, to give them a second chance by reinstating their accounts.
By wiping their digital identity, Beijing wants citizens to know the repercussions of speaking out. Placing censors in Chinese social media companies isn’t enough; users must be proactive in censoring the information they receive. Without self-censorship, the system would soon be overwhelmed and news would spread to the point of no return. For the system to work, people need to be aware of what content is shareable and be frightened of the consequences of sharing or receiving ‘prohibited’ content.
The current information environment in Hong Kong encapsulates this need. Once home to a rich communications flow and public expressions of dissent, Hong Kong has changed dramatically since the national security law came into effect in June 2020. Numerous local news outlets have been forced to close. Others still in operation either seek high-level approval before publishing or opt for self-censoring. Families and friends are now afraid to share or discuss sensitive content. Even receiving such content is considered dangerous, because having political information on one’s phone could cause trouble should the police gain access. Concerned for the safety of relatives and friends, many people overseas have stopped sharing sensitive content with close ones in Hong Kong. As a result, many people I spoke to in Hong Kong hadn’t heard anything about Beijing’s lone protester, a scenario that would have been unthinkable two years ago.
With limited independent news reporting, a restricted online environment and selective content being shared, free access to information is a thing of the past for Hong Kong residents. The only report of the bridge protest in the Chinese language, by the online news site HK01, was taken down after a few hours following an internal company meeting. Initium Media, which was founded in Hong Kong but is now based in Singapore, posted a widely circulated photo of the incident on Twitter. Hong Kong Free Press, an English-language news website, reported on the censorship around the protest a day later. No other Hong Kong media covered the incident.
If you’re a frequent user of Western social media sites and follow the right people, you may still have access to the news. But if all the people you’re surrounded by online aren’t receiving this information or are too afraid to pass it on, it doesn’t take much to find yourself living in an information-free bubble without even realising it.
Self-censorship is the consequence of anxiety and trauma inflicted by the Chinese government. The recent investigation into Chinese overseas police stations has shown extraterritoriality at work in dozens of countries and a worrying increase in transnational repression. Then there was the attack last month on Hong Kong protesters at the Chinese consulate in Manchester where an individual was dragged into the consulate grounds and beaten. Through actions like these, the PRC has created an environment of perpetual fear for dissidents and the diaspora community.
Online and in-person surveillance and punishment encourage self-censorship. Why put in the effort and resources to tackle the problem when the problem can be eliminated at its source?
Internationally, the Chinese government is pushing for self-censorship on foreign policy and human rights abuses in China. Through pressure, threats, inducement and coercion, many countries silence themselves out of fear of harming their interests or upsetting Beijing. There is no easy solution to self-censorship. We can call on dissenters to be more vocal, but then we are also asking them to overcome their fear of a repressive government and risk the dramatic consequences that might ensue.
As worldwide protests continue, Chinese people have shown that they also hold a diverse range of views, and, if given a chance, they won’t shy away from expressing them. Kathy, a Chinese student based in London, said she has found through protesting that ‘Courage needs practice, too. I won’t be able to learn these things unless I practise them constantly.’ A generation is waking to the potential of displaying dissatisfaction, and the courage and costs that come with it. As Louisa Lim described encouragingly in her book Indelible city, even when protesters lose everything in this dangerous game, the one thing that can’t be taken away is their ‘freedom of thought’.
Yvonne Lau is a research intern at ASPI. Image: In Pictures Ltd/Corbis/Getty Images.