Partly due to a video that went viral about the lockdown in Shanghai, there is growing criticism of how China is dealing with corona. Normally, the government succeeds in censoring criticism, but the question is whether that succeeds as well, China experts say.
The Voices of April, that’s the name of the YouTube video with sound recordings of desperate Shanghai residents expressing their discontent with the strict lockdown there. The video went viral, even abroad. The Chinese government couldn’t stop that. This raises the question of whether China’s Internet censorship system is failing.
University professor Rogier Creemers has been studying the way China uses the Internet for years, which is completely different from what we do in the West, he says: “For us, the Internet started as an anarchist sanctuary where everything is allowed.”
“It happened when everyone thought that sooner or later the whole world would become a free market with a liberal democracy. The Internet was welcomed as a disruptor that would replace the old structures with better and more transparent models. Now we know that this is not the case.” the case.”
Useful, but with strict limitations
The Chinese have seen the Internet from the beginning as a technology that can be useful to the government and the party, if it is subject to very strict restrictions. The technology sector itself regulates these restrictions. The party has a firm finger in the cake with all the tech companies.
In addition, various authorities monitor companies. They do it with Artificial Intelligence (AI): everything is filtered for “suspicious” words like “Tinamen Square” or “Uyghurs”. And then there are the special officials, who watch out for more subtle criticism. They can touch companies on the fingers if necessary.
“The rules for Internet use are very vague on purpose,” says Creemers. “It really boils down to: don’t create problems. As a result, companies don’t know exactly where the line is and they make sure to stay within it.” That’s very smart, says the university professor, “because if the limit is clearly defined, you can also look for it.”
“Then they make sure that no criticism of the party or the ‘system’ is published. If that happens, someone from the Ministry of Propaganda will issue a warning. On quiet days, there may be a few dozen. But on busy days, which may number in the hundreds.” or thousands.”
‘More diverse than you think’
The editor-in-chief of the Whats on Weibo? news site, Manya Koetse, studies trends and developments in Chinese social media for businesses and other stakeholders. “It’s often portrayed as a kind of cat-and-mouse game between an oppressive government and rebellious citizens, but it’s much more diverse and dynamic than that.”
There are so many platforms and they all respond to each other, he explains. “Companies, state media, brands and NGOs, they all have their own interests and strategies. And they also take advantage of each other.”
State media can easily misrepresent and frame statements on the Internet in their own way, Koetse knows. According to her, a collectively felt indignation is used more intelligently.
“When the young doctor Wen Liang, who had warned about the corona virus, died, there was also a huge wave of protest. Then it was cleverly reversed, making him a kind of hero.”
“Add to that story something about incapable local administrators being sanctioned. Then Beijing steps in and makes things right. Usually the outrage goes away, as does the criticism questioning the system.”
According to Creemers, the question is whether this will also happen with criticism of the lockdown approach in Shanghai: “Certainly local administrators in Shanghai will be fired. But there will not be a completely different course. For this, the Chinese leader Xi has to Jinping too identified with the current policy of extremely strict lockdowns to keep the number of infections as low as possible.”
loss of prestige
But there is much less understanding of that policy with the omikron variant. In the West, after mass vaccinations and less strict lockdowns, omikron caused much less damage than earlier variants. Those old variants even disappeared.
The worst seems to be behind us in Europe and the United States, while Shanghai, the largest and most important city in China, is on the brink of the abyss. But China cannot follow Western policy now: that would be a loss of prestige for Xi Jinping.
According to China experts Creemers and Koetse, it is very exciting what the next 2 weeks will look like. “If Shanghai manages to recover and no more cities like Beijing are locked down, then everything can still be managed,” Koetse suspects.
“Maybe soon, just like in Wuhan, they will celebrate the ‘victory over the virus’ with lots of fireworks. But many citizens now have been directly involved in very heartbreaking situations as a result of the lockdown. A city like Beijing hits you I don’t know.” what’s happening”.
‘The party will survive’
“If things get out of control, Xi Jinping risks the necessary opposition at the next party congress, where he wants to extend his mandate again,” Creemers thinks.
“It could go wrong for Xi Jinping, but the party itself will survive. That party also survived Mao. It is located in China in so many sectors of society and therefore also on the Internet. It will not really disappear with the publication of a video, no matter how many times it is shared.