Outsmarting the censors | WORLD
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Outsmarting the censors

Web users in China often manage to maneuver around Communist censors, at least temporarily

A social media user in Beijing Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times/Redux

Outsmarting the censors
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Inside China’s heavily censored internet network, it’s often a game of cat and mouse as creative netizens think up new ways to bypass censors. Web users have recently employed a variety of creative tactics—including word plays and digital technology—to keep a step ahead of government officials, but censors are often quick to catch on.

When Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died in prison in 2017, censors quickly scrubbed any references to Liu, candle emojis (as expressions of mourning), and even the letters “R.I.P.” on the Twitter-like Weibo. But Chinese users who wanted to remember the late democracy activist started using other terms to discuss him, including “Teacher Liu” or “Wang Xiaobo” (switching out his surname).

Homophones are also often used in Chinese, both as puns and to escape censors. For instance, in Chinese the word for “river crab” sounds like the word “harmony,” a term former President Hu Jintao often used to justify the silencing of dissent. The term “river crab” is now used online to indicate censorship. (As the #MeToo movement arrived in China, censors temporarily blocked the hashtag, leading netizens to instead use the characters for “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu.”)

For longer posts or open letters, web users post images of text—sometimes rotated or upside down—in order to bypass censors. But ever-updated algorithms eventually identify those images as well. A study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that WeChat Moments (similar to Facebook’s timeline) uses optical-character recognition to identify sensitive texts in images as well as a visual-based algorithm that compares pictures against blacklisted images.

The researchers found ways to distort the forbidden images in order to slip past censors: blurring the photo, mirroring the image, or duplicating the same image multiple times and adding a black border. While these techniques may work for now, they’ll likely be blocked as WeChat’s technology advances.

Earlier this year, supporters of #MeToo activist Yue Xin found a new platform to get their message up and keep it up: blockchain technology. It started in April when Yue and other students at Peking University filed a freedom of information request about a student in the 1990s who was sexually assaulted by a professor and then committed suicide. Instead of releasing the information, authorities and school officials harassed Yue and silenced discussion of the case online.

Yue posted on WeChat an open letter about the intimidation she faced, a letter censors quickly scrubbed. But then a supporter of the activist embedded Yue’s letter in a tamper-proof blockchain transaction record. Blockchain is a public digital ledger originally created for the digital currency bitcoin. Because blockchain is decentralized and distributed across a network of computers, it’s permanent and impossible for censors to alter.

The anonymous supporter used a blockchain for another digital currency, Ether, to send himself (or herself) zero Ether cryptocurrency, attaching the text of Yue’s letter in the metadata. Because Ethereum transactions are permanent and public, anyone in China could read the open letter. The post has received 330 comments, with many calling the move “historic.”

Still, the Great Firewall could block access to block explorers (the search engines for blockchain transactions) so that everyday people would be unable to find the transaction without more advanced technical knowledge. In addition, in October the Cyberspace Administration of China drafted new regulations requiring local blockchain companies to register users with their real names and ID number.

Islam in China:

In The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson looks at the long history of Islam in China and what led to the current crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. He also touches on why the Chinese government has never accepted Christianity.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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