Taipei, Taiwan – Chinese internet users and government censors are engaged in a game of cat and mouse to contain the narrative surrounding the country’s anti-“zero COVID” protests.

Protests began Friday in Urumqi, the capital of the extreme western region of Xinjiang, after the death of 10 people in a fire at an apartment building for spread over the weekend to citiesincluding Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and Chengdu.

Protests in Urumqi erupted after images posted to social media showed fire engines spraying water from too far away to reach the apartment building, with internet users claiming authorities could not get any closer due to pandemic barricades and cars left behind by people who were left behind. quarantined.

Videos and photos of the protests quickly circulated on Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, where they garnered tens of thousands of views before being taken down by government censors.

The acts of defiance shared online included scenes of people tearing down barricades, calling for the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping and holding up blank white sheets of paper as a symbol of protest.

On Monday, Chinese social media appeared to have scrapped searches for protest hotspots such as “Xinjiang” and “Beijing”, while posts containing slanted phrases such as “I saw it” – a reference to an internet user who saw a recently deleted post – were also censored.

Chinese internet users circumvent censorship by taking screenshots of posts on Chinese platforms and then sharing them on Twitter and Instagram [Supplied]

“As the gap between the lie and the truth widens, even what cannot be said or seen becomes hugely symbolic,” David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, told Al Jazeera.

“It can punch right through the veneer. And this is what we have seen in recent days. The words “I saw it,” marking the void after a deleted protest video, can become powerful. Or students protesting on campus can hold up blank sheets of paper and they speak volumes.”

Many posts documenting the protests have already jumped through China’s Great Firewall using virtual private networks (VPNs) and have been shared on popular Western platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, which are officially banned in China.

“Beijing seems to be using the same tactic of censoring Chinese social media based on keywords, but the amount of information getting past the Great Firewall is absolutely remarkable,” said Stevie Zhang, associate editor of First Draft News, a non-profit dedicated fighting online disinformation, Al Jazeera said.

Zhang said internet users evaded censorship by taking screenshots of posts before deleting them and then sharing them with each other or posting them on Western social media. In some cases, messages via Twitter screenshots have made the circle back to China.

Other users use seemingly unrelated and uncensored expressions to express their feelings, Zhang said. inability for Chinese to express any kind of criticism.”

The use of euphemisms is a common tactic used by Chinese netizens to evade government censorship, with abbreviations and homonyms often substituting banned words. During the 2018 “Me Too” movement in China, many internet users posted under the hashtag “rice bunny” – which sounds like “me too” in Mandarin Chinese – after the original hashtag was banned.

This time, China’s censors have also taken note of the amount of information circulating on Western platforms such as Twitter, which has been flooded with pornography and ads for sex workers by bots and pro-government accounts in recent days.

Twitter has lost thousands of employees to staff cuts and layoffs since Elon Musk, a self-described freedom of speech absolutist, took over the social media platform last month. The staff exodus included numerous employees responsible for the moderation and misinformation policy, including the platform’s entire human rights team, which Musk fired within days of his $44 billion purchase of the social media giant.

China’s COVID protests come as the country struggles with the most cases to date, fueling a new wave of lockdowns and restrictions on movement in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou. Health authorities reported 40,347 new infections on Sunday, a fifth consecutive daily record.

Residents of Urumqi, where the recent protests began, have been living under severe restrictions since August 10, in what is believed to be China’s longest continuous lockdown.

In late March and early April, a five-day “circuit breaker” lockdown in Shanghai was extended to two months, leading to food shortages and rare expressions of public discontent.

China is the last country in the world to stick to a “zero COVID” policy aimed at eradicating flare-ups of the virus at almost any cost. The strategy, which relies on lockdowns, border controls and mass testing, has kept cases and deaths low compared to elsewhere, but has come at serious economic and social costs.

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