The story is a familiar one by now: When a mysterious virus cropped up in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist named Li Wenliang took to WeChat to sound the alarm. “7 cases of SARS have been confirmed in the Huanan fruit and seafood market,” he wrote in a private message to a group of his medical school classmates. “They were isolated in the emergency department of our Houhu District hospital.”

Someone posted Li’s messages online. Soon afterward, local police reprimanded Li for spreading rumors and forced him to apologize. But their efforts to muzzle him backfired. Li eventually contracted the virus. On January 30, 2020, as his condition worsened, he posted publicly about his run-in with the authorities on the Twitter-like platform Weibo. What happened next reveals a great deal about the dynamics of state control and popular dissent on China’s internet.

The metaphor most often used by Western observers for the Chinese internet is a wall. The slew of controls enacted by the state to regulate internet traffic is the “Great Firewall,” and using a VPN or other tool to circumvent these controls is called pa qiang, or “climbing the wall.” But this metaphor tends to obscure what is happening on the other side of the barrier. There we find people who respond to state controls with creativity and spunk. While some spend their days trawling cat videos, others create oases of subversion within the reality that they’ve been dealt.

The week after Li’s Weibo post, he died from what would become known as COVID-19. His death sparked an outpouring of grief. On WeChat, people posted images of candles. At around 9 p.m. on February 7, supporters in Wuhan whistled, shone flashlights from their cellphones, and posted images of candles on social media for up to 30 minutes. Others followed suit, setting cities aglow in remembrance. A black-and-white sketch of Li in a mask trimmed with barbed wire made the rounds, becoming the poster image for a nation’s sorrow. Within days, the memorials gave way to calls for freedom of speech. Hundreds of people signed an online petition calling for Chinese leaders to give citizens more freedom and designate February 7, the date of Li’s death, a national day for free speech. 

Official censorship in China happens through a combination of high-level directives, keyword filtering, and the retroactive removal of sensitive posts. The system is strong but far from omnipotent. Most of the time, these various measures succeed in suppressing dissent, but occasionally popular sentiment can spill out into public discourse, which is what happened following Li’s death. When the government tried to censor the most daring posts, a scrappy group of internet users devised ingenious ways to evade censorship and hold their leaders to account. People organized memorials in New York, Chicago, and Hong Kong. A history professor in Shanghai called for the authorities in Wuhan to build a statute in tribute to Li and call it “The Rumormonger.” Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, tweeted that the coronavirus outbreak was “the Chernobyl disaster of the 21st century” — a catastrophe whose effects were exacerbated by officials’ reactions.

In the West, censorship in China is often portrayed as a binary; speech is either permitted, or it isn’t. In reality, online speech is a constantly evolving dance between official suppression and popular countermeasures. Dissent often wears the camouflage of a buzzword or a meme. Over the years, a dizzying array of apparently harmless images have taken on political undertones: river crabs, toads, sunflower seeds, Winnie the Pooh, and Peppa Pig. Following Li’s death, the candle held new meaning.

As Chinese censors tightened controls throughout February and March, activists circulated instructions showing how to save critical posts and videos to the Internet Archive before they disappeared from Weibo or the short-video site Douyin (as parent company ByteDance calls the Chinese version of TikTok). Others screenshotted pages or saved them as PDFs, then uploaded them to GitHub, or circulated censored posts on a Telegram channel called Cyber Graveyard. Although the controls instituted by Chinese authorities are far from perfect, they succeed in limiting information and shaping the majority’s public opinion. And yet, messages and memes do leak out. 

Augusto Zambonato for Rest of World

When Chinese leaders decided to let people go online in the early 1990s, the decision was mainly economic. They were swayed by the work of futurist Alvin Toffler, who had toured China arguing that the world was moving into an information age. From the start, the Chinese Communist Party faced a conundrum: The tool that would bring growth and streamline surveillance was also one that could breed unrest. The state launched the Golden Projects, a series of government efforts that would eventually put a distinctly authoritarian stamp on internet technology. The scope of those projects soon accelerated. 

By 2001, 22 million Chinese were online, inhabiting a circumscribed but vibrant internet. The homepages of early web portals were cluttered and colorful, perfectly suited to a developing country where many people still shopped at open-air wet markets. State control was initially light, as early entrants like NetEase, Alibaba, and Baidu played around with innovation. Sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were slow to load — overseas traffic was siphoned through only three access points — but not yet blocked. Then, as now, censors were quick to delete any posts that called for mass action. Oblique critiques of the government that did not incite people to organize were often left alone.

It wasn’t until 2008, after protests broke out in Lhasa ahead of the Beijing Olympics, that the Chinese government began blocking major Western platforms with any consistency. YouTube was the first to go. Soon after, internet authorities restricted access to Facebook and Twitter. A critical turning point came in January 2010, when Google declared that it would no longer be willing to censor results on its search engine. That same month, in a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described “threats to the free flow of information” in China and elsewhere. In March of that year, Google started directing all search traffic to its uncensored Hong Kong search engine, and other foreign tech companies gave up hope of reaching the market. (Years later, Google developed Dragonfly, a censored search engine for the Chinese market, but the project was exposed by the Intercept prior to launch and then terminated amid public outcry.) Without an easy way to access the open internet, China was now ensconced by what the scholar Lokman Tsui called the “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Within China, the global internet became known as the waiwang — “the foreign net.”

At the time, about one-third of China’s population was online. That changed as millions of people bought smartphones, leapfrogging over desktop computers. In comparison to their western counterparts, the Chinese apps that soon populated these devices were busier, more whimsical, and more cluttered with features, like online versions of Chinese malls. Gadgets were cuter. Robots had antennae, and people embraced color and bling: gold, pink, jewels. Apple’s introduction several years ago of both the gold and rose gold iPhone 5S, 6S, and 6S Plus was reportedly in response to Chinese demand. It was in China that QR codes, mobile payments, and short-form videos all took off on a large scale, and in some ways these innovations could have gained traction only in a rapidly developing society. Short videos were a welcome distraction in rural China, where there was little competing entertainment. Mobile payments caught on because few people had credit cards. (During the outbreak, they helped reduce contact, since QR-code-based payments require only that you get near someone’s device to scan it, eliminating the need to fiddle with dirty keypads or signatures.)

Among the first homegrown products to capture China’s popular imagination was a spate of Groupon clones. The concept of group buying was nothing new, but the way companies battled for market share, flooding the market with capital and resorting to tactics both creative and desperate, was uniquely Chinese. Observers gave this Darwinian contest a name evocative of ancient fights: the “War of a Thousand Groupons.” The winner of this battle, Meituan, soon eclipsed Groupon in its valuation.

Then, in January 2011, the gaming giant Tencent launched WeChat. The app that would come to dominate much of work and play in China was originally primarily a messaging service. But it soon evolved into something very different. Its first notable distinction was that it came to revolve around group messaging, particularly voice texting. Because Chinese is a context-rich language that has historically been difficult to type on a QWERTY keyboard, voice texts took off. (Improvements in predictive text have since made typing much easier, but still today many people prefer voice or voice to text.) As WeChat grew, it expanded into a host of other functions — paying utility bills, donating to charity, booking doctor appointments. Even sensitive work migrated to WeChat, as people traded security for ease of use. Lawyers queried their clients on the platform, and journalists interviewed sources. As Tencent unveiled new features that linked users’ online selves with their real-world experiences, the company would come to amass mountains of granular data that made Facebook look like a fledgling startup.

The next wave of businesses came in areas like food delivery, mobility, and travel — what in China is called “online to offline,” or “O2O.” Companies amassed fleets of delivery people and cars, making their services indispensable in the process. Venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee calls this approach “going heavy” — spending mightily in the hope that it will pay off in scale — and it’s a tactic that works well in large Chinese cities with abundant cheap labor. Sometimes these outlays prove foolish, as when a dockless bike craze resulted in graveyards of thousands of unused bikes. But other times they work. Dianping started as a Yelp-like food review app, then grew into a delivery outfit, then merged with Meituan and expanded into travel and other services. Many O2O apps rely on location tracking, and they took off as mobile phones became the primary way that Chinese users got online. 

So too did QR-code-based mobile payments, which were first introduced in China in 2011 by Alibaba affiliate Alipay, now known as Ant Financial, with a scanner embedded in its super app. (WeChat followed with WeChat Pay in 2013.) The genius of QR codes in still-developing China is their flexibility. Each person has both a unique code and the capacity to scan others, and there are few barriers to entry. Small businesses print up codes and laminate them to their counters. Large companies invest in commercial scanners. It became common to ask, “Do I scan you or you scan me?” The codes have captured the popular imagination; people put them on business cards, newlyweds display them on placards at weddings, and beggars offer them on printouts on the street. They also make it possible for creative people to take their work to WeChat, which in 2015 began allowing official accounts to collect micropayments. Today many writers primarily distribute their work through the platform. (Medium introduced a similar feature in 2017.)

Over the past few years, the lives of Chinese consumers have been reshaped by AI-driven products like smart home devices, real-time translators, and fancy educational gadgets. Chinese tech companies frequently hawk such tools to local governments as well as consumers. Often there is little firewall. In this Faustian bargain, the Chinese government provides companies with steady revenue streams and troves of data in exchange for their algorithms and consumer trust. It is perhaps no coincidence that China’s most apparently frivolous tech export — TikTok — is reportedly under national security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

The COVID-19 outbreak has laid bare the reach of China’s surveillance state. Authorities relied on China’s electronic ID system to identify passengers who had sat near infected patients on trains. As the state called on tech companies for help, Ant Financial unveiled a QR-code-based app to track people’s health and movement. A green code means you are free to move about; red means you have to stay put. The company has not provided details on exactly how people are classified, and the app, which, according to the state press, was developed in collaboration with law enforcement, reportedly sends users’ locations to the police. The recognition giant MEGVII, meanwhile, scanned the foreheads of residents with infrared cameras that it claimed could detect fevers from three meters away. And WeChat introduced a function that allows people to track local cases and death tolls. To reach this page, you click on an illustration of a family gathered around a device, wearing masks.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The outbreak also transformed users’ more intimate interactions with technology in China, just as it has elsewhere. During the lockdown, which began in late January and extended across the country by early February, as a housebound country went online, people livestreamed art classes, exercise sessions, and other events on the platform Yizhibo. Wuhan is famous as a spawning ground for China’s punk movement, and underground clubs streamed raucous virtual parties. Families populated short-video apps like Douyin with absurd videos. In one challenge, users put trash cans on their heads and draped blankets over their bodies, then thrashed around their apartments in wild dragon dances. A country of people, immobilized, tried hard to laugh.

As the government introduced tighter censorship regulations, and the propaganda machine went into overdrive, that playfulness became a key form of subversion. This spring, some in the Chinese Communist Party attempted to redirect public anger by pushing the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 had been brought to China by the U.S. military. Authorities detained citizen journalists and activists, including three of the people who had been memorializing posts on GitHub. But a group of activists doubled down on efforts to spread the truth, circulating articles about how the virus originated in Wuhan. To evade censorship this time, they wrote in Morse code and Braille, swapped out the simplified characters used in China with obscure classical script, and rendered text backwards, in an attempt to defeat censorship engines searching for specific character combinations. One popular target was a deleted profile in the magazine Renwu of Ai Fen, the doctor in Wuhan who had inadvertently tipped off Li Wenliang about the SARS-like cases. “If I had known what was about to happen, I would not have cared about being reprimanded,” Ai had told her interviewer. “I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, wherever I could.” People circulated so many different iterations of the article that the journalist Isabelle Niu called its preservation a sort of “digital performance art project.” In the most imaginative version, someone told the story almost entirely using emojis. “SARS corona ☄️ illness ☠️,” read one sentence.

Deciphering the post took effort and humor, but that was almost beside the point. The goal was to get the message out, by any means possible. Controls in China were tighter than ever, but beneath the surface, a few brave people had carved out a sanctuary for speech.