China brings in ‘emergency’ level censorship over zero-Covid protests

Chinese authorities have initiated the highest “emergency response” level of censorship, according to leaked directives, including a crackdown on 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 Xi Jinping – which was further highlighted by the death of the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.

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.

From blank paper to alpacas: how protesters in China are voicing their anger – video

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 CDT’s translation and in reference to the 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 websites have strengthened their content management.”

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. They also ordered e-commerce platforms to “clean-up” the availability of products and 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.

Flower bouquets placed by mourners seen outside Zemin’s former home in the eastern city of Yangzhou. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

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 commenters flooded state broadcaster CCTV’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,” said 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 worshippers” 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 itself a banned reference to Xi Jinping. In another popular post, a book about Jiang, titled “He changed China” was altered to say “He changed it back”, with “he” a common reference for Xi as naming him in criticism can attract swift punishment.

On Thursday, hundreds of people gathered in Jiang’s home town in the eastern city of Yangzhou to pay their respects to the former Chinese leader on Thursday evening, leaving a thick pile of bouquets around the perimeter of his former residence.

A roadside flower seller said she had “lost count” of the number of chrysanthemums – Chinese funeral flowers – she had sold on Thursday.Reporters with Agence France-Presse witnessed people queueing to lay them against the grey stone wall of the traditional house, with some bowing and saying brief prayers.

“He was a great, patriotic and positive leader,” Li Yaling, a woman in her late 60s, told AFP in Yangzhou. “We admired him greatly, and feel loss and nostalgia now he’s gone.”

Security personnel at the site politely but firmly moved groups of mourners quickly down the narrow alley past the historic building in an apparent attempt to avoid people gathering. There is a tradition in China of using public mourning gatherings for past leaders to express discontent with the current regime.

A group of women carry chrysanthemums to pay their respects to the former Chinese leader.
A group of women carry chrysanthemums to pay their respects to the former Chinese leader. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

Lockdowns have lifted in major cities this week, even where relatively high case numbers are still being reported. Testing and quarantine requirements have also been relaxed in some areas, amid some expectation of a shift in national virus policies. Some communities in Beijing and elsewhere have already allowed close contacts of people carrying the virus to quarantine at home, and several testing booths in the area have stopped operating. In Chengdu, in Sichuan province, passengers no longer needed negative test results to take the bus or subway. In Jincheng, which is halfway from Beijing to Shanghai, people can now enter karaoke venues, but still cannot dine inside restaurants.

However, the haphazard relaxation of restrictions appears to have fuelled some confusion and concern, with residents suddenly feeling more exposed to a virus that, until this week, authorities were describing as deadly.

In recent days, there has been a distinct shift in messaging from officials and state media, regrading the pandemic. Officials appear to have stopped or at least reduced referencing the “dynamic zero Covid” policy by name. The lower severity of Omicron compared with previous virus strains is being publicly discussed and emphasised for the first time.

Commentaries in the official state news outlet, Xinhua, on Friday urged greater individual responsibility around mask-wearing, hand washing, ventilation, and reduced gatherings. They also emphasised the need to protect vulnerable groups, and for local authorities to be faster at re-opening targeted lockdowns.

“Given that risks can be managed, what should be managed must be managed well, and there should also be relaxation when appropriate,” it said according to a translation by the China analyst Bill Bishop.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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