After the “Voices of April” video was blocked, users re-uploaded it in ways they hoped would evade the censors’ detection. The video was posted upside down, its audio was paired with different images, and people posted fake movie posters that included a QR code linking to the clip.
Hundreds also shared the video via the Interplanetary File System, a distributed, peer-to-peer internet protocol, according to an investor and entrepreneur who lives in Xintiandi, a wealthy suburb in the center of Shanghai, speaking anonymously to avoid getting in trouble with the authorities. Files stored using IPFS are chopped up and shared by many different machines, and communications are encrypted, so it is far harder for the authorities to remove or block content.
Despite sometimes being overwhelmed, the censors have not given up attempting to contain harrowing stories about the lockdown and anger aimed at politicians or China’s zero-Covid policy. While the Chinese government employs its own censors, the country’s social media companies also have teams of moderators who remove content that the Chinese Communist Party considers to be illegal. Companies like Weibo have a financial incentive to get this right. In December, Weibo was fined 3 million yuan ($470,000) for allowing unspecified illegal content to slip through its net.
The most damning posts, about people committing suicide, for example, have been scrubbed by the country’s internet censors, says the Shanghai investor. He blames Shanghai government officials for mismanaging the situation and believes a number of people in his neighborhood have died of starvation, although that has not been reported anywhere. “I’m surprised to learn how big the information asymmetry is,” he says. “Even friends in other cities in China didn’t know the actual situation in Shanghai,” he says.
Police have also been contacting people who are reposting critical content on international social media platforms, according to Ming Gao, who works in PR and lives in Shanghai’s central Jing’An district. When Gao saw some photos circulating on Chinese social media that were critical of his city’s Covid strategy, he says he wanted more people to see them. So, on April 18, he reposted the photos on Twitter. They show banners hanging in what appear to be leafy Shanghai neighborhoods. One describes the people who had died as a result of the government’s lockdown policies. Another read simply, “People Are Dying.” One more showed the text of a page China’s social media users see when they stumble across a page that has been removed by the censors: “Unable to view this content because it violates regulations.”
The next day, Gao says he received two phone calls from his local police station asking him to take the post down. He refused, and he says that since then, he has heard nothing more.
In the past month, more Chinese citizens tried to access information beyond the Great Firewall, says Zachery Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor at UCLA who runs a project that tracks people accessing Twitter from within China. Users typically reach Twitter, which has been banned inside China since 2009, using a virtual private network, which routes internet traffic through an encrypted link to a computer outside of China. April 2022 saw a 41 percent increase, or just over 23,000 people, in visits to Twitter from Shanghai circumventing internet controls, he says. “They start following pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and they also start following Chinese language foreign news accounts, The Wall Street Journal China, BBC China, The New York Times Asia,” Steinert-Threlkeld says of those seeking to circumvent restrictions.