Chinese authorities have initiated the highest “emergency response” level of censorship, according to leaked directives, including a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs) and other methods of bypassing online censorship after unprecedented protests demonstrated widespread public frustration with the “zero COVID” policy.
The crackdown, including the tracking and questioning of protesters, comes alongside the easing of pandemic restrictions in an apparent carrot-and-stick approach to an outpouring of public grievances.
During an extraordinary week in China, protests against “zero COVID” restrictions included criticism of the authoritarian rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) — which was further highlighted by the death of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民).
Leaked directives issued to online Chinese platforms, first published by a Twitter account devoted to sharing protest-related information, have revealed authorities’ specific concerns about the growing interest among citizens in circumventing China’s so-called “Great Firewall.”
The demonstrations have been strictly censored, but protesters and other citizens have this week used VPNs to access non-Chinese news and social media apps that are banned in China.
The directives, also published and translated by the China Digital Times, a US-based news site focused on Chinese censorship, came from China’s cyberspace administration, and announced a “Level I Internet Emergency Response, the highest level of content management.”
It ordered managers to take a “hands-on approach” and strengthen content management to rapidly identify, deal with and report information about what it termed “offline disturbances” and “recent high-profile events in various provinces.”
“The incident on November 24 triggered expressions of various grievances,” it said, according to the Digital Times’ translation and in reference to an Urumqi building fire which killed 10 people.
“Pernicious political slogans appeared in Shanghai; college and university students held conspicuous political gatherings; smears by foreign media increased; and various Web sites have strengthened their content management,” it said.
It noted upcoming dates during which managers should take particular care, including the one-week anniversary of the fire, World Human Rights Day, and International Anti-Corruption Day.
It also ordered e-commerce platforms to “clean-up” the availability of products, apps and “harmful content” designed to circumvent Internet restrictions, such as VPNs and firewall-circumventing routers.
Protesters and residents who want to air grievances about the “zero COVID” policy or other aspects of life in China have been playing a cat and mouse game with censors this week.
The death of 96-year-old Jiang, announced on Wednesday, provided one avenue for some to creatively express dissatisfaction with Xi.
Jiang left a mixed legacy. Elevated to leader of the Chinese Communist party during the Tiananmen protests and massacre in 1989, Jiang oversaw the subsequent crackdown, as well as repression of Falun Gong practitioners.
He also shepherded China out of the international isolation that followed 1989, grew the country’s economy, and led it into greater international participation.
He was also much more outwardly expressive and participatory with media, in stark contrast to the notoriously closed-off Xi.
Under the increasingly authoritarian and globally isolated rule of Xi, young people have in recent years begun to look on the Jiang era more fondly.
More than half a million people commented on state broadcaster China Central Television’s post on the Twitter-like platform Weibo within an hour of his death being announced, many referring to him as “Grandpa Jiang.”
“Toad, we blamed you wrongly before; you’re the ceiling, not the floor,” wrote one since-censored comment using a popular and mildly affectionate nickname for Jiang.
In retirement, Jiang became the subject of lighthearted memes among millennial and Gen Z Chinese fans, who called themselves “toad worshipers” in thrall to his frog-like countenance and quirky mannerisms.
Some Internet users had social media accounts suspended after they shared a song, titled “unfortunately it’s not you.”
The word “unfortunately” in Chinese is ke xi, while “you” translates to ni — a reference to Winnie the Pooh, which is a banned reference to Xi.
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