From her bed in Shanghai, Paloma joined an online protest against the strict Covid-19 lockdowns in her city by sharing a video on the dominant messaging app WeChat. The video, with millions of views already, documented heartbroken voices from a city of 25 million confined for weeks in near-total lockdown: pleas from a son seeking treatment for his critically ill father, shouts from residents demanding food, and cries from babies separated from their parents.
As China’s frenzied censors worked to delete the six-minute video, titled The Voice of April, people created new variations to keep it circulating on WeChat Channels, a TikTok-like short video service. In one, the clip was embedded onto a picture of China’s Civil Code. Another combined it with a song by pop megastar Jay Chou. The more it was deleted, the more angry and determined Paloma became.
After sharing a dozen different versions of the video in a frantic hours-long, cat-and-mouse fight with the censors, Paloma — who asked Rest of World to refer to her by a pseudonym in fear of government retaliation — was too tired to continue. When she woke up the next morning, every single version of the video had been banned – and Shanghai’s harsh lockdown persisted. What had been excitement the night before morphed into despair. “Our anger rose like a massive wave,” the 29-year-old told Rest of World. “But then it just disappeared into the ocean.”
In China, offline protests are rare, with gatherings discouraged by the police and closely monitored by the government. As an alternative, citizens join virtual protests, speaking in innuendo and making up codes and dates to keep their dissent alive. Recently, users have flooded seemingly pro-government hashtags with veiled criticisms and even resorted to inventing new languages. But at the same time, the government has grown adept at online censorship and propaganda, limiting the impact of cyber protests to brief outbursts of anger that are erased before they can coalesce into a movement. Researchers and cyber protesters speaking to Rest of World said these already fleeting actions have less impact than ever against the tightening grip of the state.
“It’s better than nothing, but do not expect a lot of significant political impact,” said Fengshi Wu, political science professor at the University of New South Wales and co-author of a recent study of online criticism in China. “All this impact is fragmented, localized, short-lived. It’s not challenging any institutions or any political legitimacy.”
During this Shanghai lockdown, digital protests have focused on individual suffering, food shortages, and censorship, but few voices have explicitly challenged the controversial zero-Covid policy, which President Xi has pledged to stand by. Though millions viewed and shared The Voice of April, reflecting broad discontent with the lockdown, it’s unclear what participants in this cyber protest were specifically demanding.
Cyber protests still erupt: thousands share the same critical post on Weibo; activists create artwork and memes. But the influence of these actions is dwindling. Resentment on the Chinese internet has become more subtle, and increasingly contained inside small enclaves of like-minded people, according to the study co-authored by Wu. As self-censorship has become a survival instinct, online criticism has become more commonly directed at local problems instead of broader government policies –– people who dare to question the regime are often attacked as anti-China.
One of the most galvanizing moments of digital defiance happened in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. In February 2020, the death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who was punished for warning others about the coronavirus, triggered a torrent of mourning and demands for free speech. A phrase from an interview Li gave before his death started trending on the microblogging site Weibo: “A healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.” After the testimony of another Wuhan doctor, Ai Fen, was censored, internet users posted translations in foreign languages, emojis, and even Morse code. International observers called the outpouring of anguish by its citizens China’s “Chernobyl moment.”
The grief, however, faded from the public arena in a few months. China’s success in containing Covid-19 before wealthy Western countries also fueled a rise in nationalism. On the internet, where President Xi Jinping’s government has spent years solidifying control, the propaganda apparatus stoked anti-Western sentiment and encouraged young nationalists to snitch on critics of the regime. Influencers like pop stars and entrepreneurs are careful to distance themselves from controversial issues.
A sense of hopelessness has silenced previously vocal digital activists. Lily, from mainland China and currently living in Hong Kong, made several posts on her WeChat timeline after Li Wenliang’s death brought her to tears. Two years later, she no longer speaks up. Lily, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym because of fears of political retaliation, said she worried that her WeChat contacts, including family members, might report her defiant stance to the police. In Hong Kong, Lily joined street demonstrations with tens of thousands of others, where she could chant slogans out loud and see just how many strangers were physically standing by her side. But online, she found her voice trapped in an echo chamber. “Those posts disappear so quickly,” she told Rest of World. “Even if they don’t get censored, they only appear on the screen for a few seconds before people scroll past.”
Users could have social media accounts suspended for weeks or months for sharing what’s deemed subversive content –– known as being put in cyber jail. “I’m out of cyber jail,” a Weibo user posted on April 30. “I couldn’t say anything during the suspension, and now I don’t have much desire to speak.”
Though online outrage tests China’s censorship machinery, the costs are mostly covered by social media companies, forced to hire armies of censors to comply with the tightening rules. The Chinese government still slaps platforms such as Weibo and Douban with millions of dollars in fines for letting posts slip by the censors. Sudden outbursts of online anger are extremely costly for the platforms, according to former Weibo censor Eric Liu. “The pressure is enormous,” said Liu, who is currently a researcher with China Digital Times. “If you don’t have enough people to scrub them off, the companies would look really bad to the regulators.”
As platforms also expand their features and, as a result, attract more users, the political risk increases. When Tencent launched WeChat Channels to compete with short video platform Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, the company made opening a Channels account even simpler than a WeChat account. That made it easier for users to quickly make new accounts to keep sharing The Voice of April. “The business of social media is all about traffic. In the case of Chinese social media platforms, the trick is about how to incentivize users to speak up without incurring political or business risks to the platforms,” said Guobin Yang, director of the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a balancing act requiring high skills, because the stakes are high.”
Rose Luqiu, a communications professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the power of digital activism in China is constrained by censorship, fear of retaliation, and the country’s lack of independent media and nongovernmental organizations. “While social media is a decentralized platform and hub of information flows, it lacks authority and leverage with the state,” she said.
Although criticism of national policies is scant, it’s possible for cyber protesters to push for changes locally. At Tongji University in Shanghai, a student protested bad lockdown food by sharing swearing words on the screen during an online meeting with the school management, and others expressed solidarity by creating similar blue-and-red artwork (some were uploaded to NFT marketplace OpenSea.) The protest subsided after the university promised to provide better food.
For others, creating even a fragile, temporary memory is in itself meaningful. The outpouring of online grief in the wake of Li and other whistleblowers’ testimony allowed people to express their anger, even if it was eventually erased, said Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Changing other people’s minds is very difficult,” Fang told Rest of World. “Yes, many people were doing it for themselves, but when they did it together, it was a collective action, expressing shared emotions.”
More than two years later, doctor Li Wenliang’s Weibo page remains active, and people regularly leave comments. “There are still many people who remember you,” wrote one in early May.
In an authoritarian country like China, said Fang, simply expressing frustration and anger can have the impact of bringing people together. “When we talk about ‘impact’, we should include more subtle things other than changing policy or regime,” said Fang. “If some can remember… then it already has huge impact, because it clearly shows an alternative narrative to the official propaganda.”
What’s left from these ephemeral protests are memories that could, to some extent, challenge the official narrative that leaves out how agonizing many have found these moments. In the weeks following the Voice of April protest, the lockdown in Shanghai only intensified, with online videos showing officers in hazmat suits spraying disinfectant inside people’s apartments and forcing residents to go to quarantine facilities.
In May, Paloma managed to travel to another Chinese city, where she was free after two more weeks of isolation. On her social media feeds, she still shares disturbing news from Shanghai: Residents were seen dragged away from their homes by officers in hazmat suits. Travelers unable to find transportation walked for hours to the airport. Senior and disabled patients were denied proper care in makeshift quarantine camps. “I believe most people will remember, but staying angry is hard,” she said. “If everyone could stay angry, we wouldn’t see the same mistake being made over and over again.”