Science fiction is becoming science fact as the Chinese Communist Party used sophisticated surveillance technology to crush the anti-Zero Covid protests. The Telegraph has more.
Many of the protesters were understandably oblique. Some held up blank sheets of paper. Others displayed an exclamation mark on a red background – the symbol of a message that can’t be delivered on WeChat, China’s main messaging platform. One woman brought a pair of alpacas, the physical manifestation of an online meme based on the Mandarin for “grass mud horse” – cào nǐ mā – sounding like an insult that urges the subject to perform an unspeakable act on their mother.
But a few brave protesters were more direct. When police told those gathered in Beijing not to complain about lockdown, the crowd deployed sarcasm to demand more frequent Covid tests. Some even dared to chant slogans specifically denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and calling for President Xi Jinping himself to go. They will have done so in the full and certain knowledge that they were being watched and recorded by the state’s hyper-sophisticated surveillance apparatus and in all likelihood had already been identified by the authorities.
The spark for the wave of protests that has swept across China in recent days was a fire in an apartment building in Urumqi in the far-western province of Xinjiang on November 24 that killed ten people. Many blamed the government’s strict zero Covid policies for hampering the response of fire services in tackling a blaze and adding to the death toll. By last weekend the protests had spread across the country, with thousands gathering in Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi and other major cities.
Protests in China are not quite as rare as one might perhaps assume. Between May this year and November 22nd, before the latest wave of dissent, there were 822 protests around the country, according to China Dissent Monitor, a database run by the US think tank Freedom House. But most have been small-scale, isolated and focused on important but tangential issues such as frustrations around the country’s struggling property sector. The latest protests have been much larger, more widespread and taken aim directly at the heart of the government and its signature policies.
Sam Olsen, the head of the Evenstar Institute, a strategic intelligence and political risk firm focused on China, says that “every dynasty” in Chinese history has been plagued by unrest. The difference with the latest demonstrations is that they have been nationwide and, in common with the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the authorities haven’t been able to keep them under wraps.
They have also simultaneously occurred on the ground and in cyberspace. Reports suggest there have been so many posts about the protests on WeChat that censors have at times been overwhelmed.
The onset of Covid meant that the Chinese population, in common with those in other countries around the world, was initially prepared to tolerate even greater curtailment of their freedoms in order to combat the virus. Drivers still have to scan a code held up by a drone in order to enter cities; once inside everyone must produce their phones at the many checkpoints and display a green QR code.
However, acceptance of this way of life is waning as the pandemic drags into a fourth year. Residents in Chengdu, a city of 22 million people, were barred from leaving their flats in September even when an earthquake hit. Many people are upset they have been unable to earn a living even as the price of food spirals. This was all tolerable while the virus was kept under control perhaps. But now Covid is spreading and the death toll is rising.
“Despite their relatively small size, it is notable that protests and expressions of dissent are happening both online and offline, and in very different parts of the country,” says Katja Drinhausen of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
“While protesters mainly raise livelihood issues, they also target a key policy adopted by the central government [zero Covid] and in some cases systemic issues, such as lack of respect for freedom of expression, rule of law and individual human rights.”
Back in 2011 the Arab Spring was spreading fast through the Middle East and North Africa and social media was thought to be fanning the flames of democracy. The still nascent technology helped demonstrators to organise and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information to broadcast their messages to the world. The names of Twitter and Facebook were written on placards and daubed on walls by protesters.
At one point the Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak cut off internet and mobile phone service in the country in order to try and regain control. The move backfired, focusing global attention on what was happening.
But the great hope that the internet and new technology would help protesters shake off authoritarian shackles proved to be short lived. When Mubarak fell and a military council replaced him, it opened a Facebook page as the main outlet for its communiqués. When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in 2019, the crowds chanted ‘Facebook! Facebook! WhatsApp! WhatsApp!’ at his inauguration, such was the perceived importance of social media in sweeping the right-wing populist to power.
As the Chinese government faces its toughest political test since 1989 there are fresh questions over whether technology can be a means for protesters to circumvent state control or the boot heel under which the government will crush dissent. The Chinese population has arguably never been so angry about being watched and living in an “invisible cage” but, equally, it has never been watched more closely.
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