China's sophisticated censorship engine is being pushed to 'its max' as it struggles to keep protest videos off the internet, experts say

Protesters shout slogans during a protest against China
Protesters shout slogans during a protest against China's zero-COVID measures on November 28, 2022 in Beijing, ChinaKevin Frayer/Getty Images  
  • China is struggling to censor videos of protests against the country's zero-COVID policy, experts say.

  • The country's censorship apparatus has been overwhelmed by the high volume of protest content.

  • Some protesters are finding creative ways to circumvent China's Great Firewall, NYT reports.

China has one of the most sophisticated censorship apparatuses in the world, responsible for blocking photos, messages, and videos that the country sees as an expressions of dissent.

But protesters frustrated by China's restrictive zero-COVID policy have managed to break through China's "Great Firewall,"  said Allie Funk, the research director for technology and democracy at nonprofit Freedom House.

"The sheer number of people expressing themselves online right now, combined with their innovative circumvention techniques, is pushing the government's censorship capability to its max," Funk told Insider.

The protests erupted after an apartment building fire in Urumqi, a city in the Xinjiang region, killed 10 residents last month, Insider reported. Locals alleged that they could've survived if the country's COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

As of earlier this week, 23 protests have spread across 17 Chinese cities, CNN reported. Participants say its rare to see protests at this scale under president Xi Jinping's leadership.

Hundreds of videos of marches and rallies against the government's COVID restrictions continue to circulate on social media sites like WeChat and Douyin, the New York Times reported.

Experts told the Times that the high volume of videos has overwhelmed China's censorship software and teams of human censors.

The sheer scale of content reflects how fed up the Chinese people are with how the government treats them, said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China who studies internet censorship at the Human Rights Watch.

"The government and social media companies are doing all they can trying to stop the spread of information related to the protests, because they know discontent runs deep and courage is infectious," Wang told Insider.

Protesters in Chengdu were seen shouting "Step down, Xi Jinping"and "Opposition to dictatorship," according to videos reviewed by CNN.

Dissenters in parts of southern China were reportedly filmed clashing with police officers as the police shouted, banged their weapons against their riot shields, and made arrests, according to videos obtained and verified by the Times.

"People across the country are feeling the same grievance, and many are directly pointing at the one-Party and one-man rule as the reason for their suffering," Wang said. "Everyone wants to live with dignity and to have a say in how they are governed. "

Protesters are also finding creative ways to circumvent the firewall. Some internet users are reportedly evading content censorship by flipping videos on their side, adding filters, and recording videos of videos to confuse the censorship algorithms, reported the Times.

Others are utilizing VPN software to access Twitter and Instagram, platforms that are banned in China, per the Times.

They are even posting blank sheets of paper and single words like "good" and "okay" on social media to express their discontent in a covert way, Bloomberg reported.

Twitter and Telegram, which are also blocked in China, have become the country's most popular apps amid the the protests, according to the South China Morning Post.

"Though the Party's grip on power is tight, people's deep desire for freedom and democracy is still something the Party is deeply afraid of," Wang said.


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