China’s mass protests are overwhelming its censorship systems

China’s notorious cyber police are struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of videos debunking the unrest in the mysterious nation – while well-fed residents protest the government’s draconian COVID lockdown rules.

The feared censorship regime can’t remove footage of the heated demonstrations fast enough — while cunning protesters are also using tricks to circumvent their systems, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

“This is a crucial breaking of the great silence,” Xiao Qiang, an internet freedom researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told the publication.

Videos of protesters clashing with police or defiantly holding up blank sheets of paper have been circulating on social media for days – an uncharacteristic and courageous display of resistance in authoritarian China.

Footage posted to Twitter on Tuesday shows dozens of riot police in Guangzhou moving in formation towards downed lockdown barriers as protesters threw objects at them.

Other videos showed police using tear gas in Haizhu District.

Security forces in riot gear take away a protester in China
Security guards in riot gear arrest a protester in Zhengzhou, central China’s Henan province.

The Communist Party’s top law enforcement agency promised in a statement Tuesday that China would crack down on “the infiltration and sabotage activities of enemy forces.”

The Central Political and Legal Commission also said it would not tolerate “illegal and criminal acts disturbing social order.”

But the protest videos continue to circulate.

According to Qiang, China’s reliance on automation to censor its citizens online has sometimes made it difficult to counter social media resistance – as incidents were filmed from multiple angles and had multiple chances to go viral.

“Once the anger spills onto the streets, it becomes much more difficult to censor it,” Qiang said.

A former Chinese censor told the New York Times that Beijing needs to hire many more minders and develop more sophisticated surveillance algorithms if it is to stem the tide of videos circulating online.

Protesters have also discovered workarounds – adding filters or making videos from videos played on other devices – in a cunning and seemingly successful attempt to outsmart state censors.

Screenshot of Chinese protesters throwing objects at police
People threw objects at security forces during a protest near the factory of Apple supplier Foxconn in Zhengzhou.

A growing number of protesters are also beginning to deploy virtual private networks — and similar software — that allow them to access services like Instagram and Twitter, which are banned from China’s internet.

According to reports over the weekend, police in China confiscated mobile phones, searched for photos or videos of protests and deleted them – along with any VPN software.

The Days of Defiance were sparked last week by a deadly fire in the far western city of Urumqi, with rescue efforts reportedly hampered by the country’s tight COVID lockdown restrictions.

The city has been under COVID lockdown for 100 days.

Screenshot of Chinese protesters clashing with police
Videos showing protesters clashing with police have circulated despite attempts by censors to remove them from Chinese platforms.

On Sunday, the protests had reached major cities such as Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as the capital Beijing.

The protests, nominally against Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s so-called zero-COVID policy with intensive lockdowns to stop the spread of the pandemic, have turned into a referendum on Xi’s seizure of power.

The leader recently broke with Chinese Communist Party tradition and appointed himself to lead the nation for a third term.

Though the government has yet to acknowledge the protesters’ demands, the cities of Guangzhou and Chongqing announced relaxation of certain COVID quarantine rules on Wednesday.

A man with a long pole surrenders to police in China
The violent protests took place across the country in response to China’s strict lockdown policy.
AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images

The announcement comes after health officials in Beijing on Monday announced an action to encourage elderly Chinese to get the COVID-19 vaccine – which some have seen as a harbinger of a change in lockdown guidelines.

Only two-thirds of Chinese over the age of 80 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and less than half are being boosted.

In contrast, 93% of Americans age 65 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

With mail wires

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