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How social media is helping China's COVID protests

William Yang Taipei
December 8, 2022

Western social media platforms have played a crucial yet surprising role in informing protesters and sustaining the momentum of anti-zero-COVID demonstrations in China.

People hold blank papers in protest of COVID restriction in China during a vigil in Hong Kong
Chinese students have held 'silent protests' to express their discontent toward the zero-COVID measuresImage: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Following nationwide protests over the tough zero-COVID regime in the last few weeks, Chinese authorities have announced a series of measures to ease quarantine and testing requirements while limiting local officials' power to impose citywide lockdowns or roll out restrictions on domestic travel.

The new plan means Chinese citizens will no longer need to present a negative COVID test result when going to certain venues or have their health codes checked when entering another province. 

The latest moves signal the Chinese government's efforts to pivot away from the zero-COVID strategy after frustrated Chinese citizens demanded an end to the strict pandemic measures through nationwide protests. 

Protesters in various cities chanted slogans, raised pieces of white paper, held candlelight vigils, or even clashed with police in hazmat suits to demand an end to the harsh pandemic control regime.

What platforms are playing a major role?

Demonstrations have also been held abroad, with Chinese students, for instance, organizing vigils to commemorate those who lost their lives in a deadly fire in Xinjiang province late last month. They have also held "silent protests" to express their discontent toward the zero-COVID measures. 

"The first time we got together was when we held a candlelight vigil for the victims in the Urumqi fire," said Sid, a Chinese student who co-organized a series of events with other Chinese students at Oxford University.

"From November 27 to December 2, we spent every night designing posters and drafting speeches, while spreading word about the silent protest through Instagram, Twitter, and other channels."

China loosens nationwide COVID-19 restrictions

Amid the growing number of solidarity events on college campuses around the world, Sid believes social media plays an indispensable role in sustaining the momentum of this transnational movement. "Due to the censorship regime in China, most messages are hard to be disseminated in the country," he noted. 

Twitter, in particular, has played a key role in spreading information about the protests. The platform has been banned in China since 2009 but people in the country can access it using virtual private networks, which disguise their locations.

Sid said Twitter and Instagram became the main platforms for Chinese people to get information.

"They help build a close connection between people in China and overseas Chinese people. At the height of the 'White Paper Movement,' it's even possible to see protests in Shanghai and other parts of the world live on Instagram," Sid pointed out. 

Connecting China and the world through one account

One Twitter account, in particular, has played an influential role in keeping the world informed about protests in China through countless videos and images that have been shared with the account holder by Chinese citizens. 

The account, which appears under the pseudonym Li Laoshi, or Teacher Li, has more than 800,000 followers, and is followed by many journalists, academics, and China watchers who are trying to keep up with the latest developments about the protests. 

When asked why his account became a key source of information, Li, who lives outside China, told DW that when the protests began, there was a lack of Twitter accounts that could document them in an objective way.

"The main reason why my account has received so much content from Chinese people is probably that I document the protests objectively," he said. 

"While many people are sharing similar content, they share it in a subjective way. But when Chinese people try to get around Beijing's 'Great Fire Wall' to get information about the white paper movement, they want to follow accounts that explain what's been happening without any personal feelings," he added. 

Besides informing the outside world, Li said, social media platforms play an important role in letting people in China know what's happening around the country. 

"While most of the videos and images about the protests will disappear within minutes on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, this content can be preserved on Twitter, which prompts many Chinese people to get over the Great Fire Wall to learn about what's been happening around them since the protests began," he said.

Turning social platforms into 'cyber squares'

Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the huge amount of content showed that a lot of Chinese people were using Western social networks. 

"While it normally seems like not too many Chinese people are using Twitter, critical moments like these prove that a lot of Chinese people are still getting information from Twitter," the expert underlined. 

"On the other hand, Instagram plays an important role in disseminating information about protests in different countries," she noted, pointing out that overseas Chinese students were participating in protests after reading relevant information on the platform. 

"This reflects the decentralized nature of the movement, as people gather together after reading information on social media and they were able to find a sense of community at the scene." 

Over the last week, Chinese authorities have responded to the protests by increasing surveillance efforts and relaxing pandemic control measures — measures viewed by many as efforts to ease public discontent.

Zhou Fengsuo, a Tiananmen student leader and president of Humanitarian China, said regardless of the outcome of the movement, it has helped the younger generation to understand the importance of "taking their fate into their own hands."

"This is also the spirit of the Tiananmen Square protests when young people no longer wanted to accept a life under control," he added. 

Zhou has also stressed the important role played by social media in recent weeks. 

"Chinese people have turned Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram into virtual 'squares' for them to gather, share information, and mobilize. The situation is even better than the Tiananmen protests because the CCP can't easily intervene or easily control ideologies circulating in these 'cyber squares.'"

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru