The Great Firewall of China’s blocking and monitoring of the Internet has only gotten worse in the past 15 years. The People’s Republic government has put in more than 60 laws to control internet usage, and has shut down more than 13000 sites and 10 million accounts since 2015. Activists, artists and protesters monitored by tens of thousands of “Internet Police” have seen censorship get progressively worse on social media platforms since the summer of 2017. But they never counted on the creativity of chinese “netizens” who have found ways around this censorship, even at their own risk and peril…

The power of emoji

Emoticons are frequently used by chinese internet users as a way to get around the authorities’ watchful eye. As a way to get around the block imposed on the #metoo hashtag on Sina Weibo, the chinese Twitter, feminists replaced it by 2 emojis; rice and rabbit. When spoken out loud in mandarin, these two emojis sound like “mi tou”. Wired discovered that “this young active community has found a way to stay ahead of censorship”. These methods can only last as long as the authorities don’t get wind of them, before being shut down.

In 2013 chinese internet users found an ingenious way of remembering the Tiananmen massacre on social media. The massacre is a taboo subject in China. With the help of the “candle” emoticon they came out in their droves to commemorate the event on social media. In 2017 however the government stepped in and shut it down.

Secret Codes

Outside of emoticons, users also use plays on words to get around the chinese internet police. They use synonyms or paraphrase to designate a person or event, making them capable of bringing up sensitive topics on social networks. Tiananmen protests are captured under the term “35 may”, or in the case of Liu Xiaobo, “Professor Liu”, a term so common in China it would be impossible to block. Certain internet users resort to speaking “martian” according to Quartz magazine, a complex coded language composed of chinese and japanese ideograms, english words and kaomoji (japanese emoji).

The most famous of all of these used by the Chinese is the one of the grass-mud horse, a type of lama, that refers and represents the current regime.The Chinese name of the animal, Cao Ni Ma, is similar to the expression cào nǐ mā – “fuck your mother” in mandarin – where the mother here is the PRC itself. Lama pictures have since become quite popular on Chinese networks and symbolise resistance to the regime.

VPN, mon amour

As a way to get around the blocking of networks, Chinese internet users use software and tools used by activists in other countries. Lantern and Ultra Surf, for example, allow access to blocked sites by using http proxy servers. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) make it look like the connection is coming from abroad. Dissidents, journalists and intellectuals are amongst the ones making use of these secure “tunnels” that allow them access to blocked sites such as Twitter.

These have become the target of government officials who play a literal game of “cat and mouse” with them. Once a method of access has been uncovered by the internet police, it is shut down – but dissidents straight away go and work on another way of access. In the past few years, software to detect these bypassing has gotten more and more sophisticated. In 2018, China has even gone as far as proposing a law against VPNs which will put pressure on internet service providers.

Censorship IRL

On the 10th of april 2018 the government shut down Neihan Duanzi, a popular site that distributed parodies and spoof videos. The platform, which had thousands of subscribers, had started to create a large online community with whom the PRC could not maintain control over.

With the site down, fans wished to show their support for Neihan Duanzi in real life. Since the site was shut down, there are more and more of them beeping a secret code with their car horns, to see if there is another fan nearby. Naturally, authorities caught on to this, and have already made an arrest on the back of this “noisy rebellion”.

50 Cent Army

In the face of the ingenuity of these Internet users, the PRC has taken some pretty staunch and symbolic measures, one of these being the creation of the 50 cent army. A veritable “army” of of nationalist trolls, paid by the government to put out propaganda on the net. Their name comes from a rumor that they get paid 50 cents of a Renminbis (0.05 euros) to publish a post that props up the party.   

For months now these pro-government accounts have polarised social networks. They are more and more active, invading all type of social networks and forums while spreading warnings about the need to stick to the party’s beliefs and moral code. They also manipulate facts in order to destabilise chinese internet militants. “I feel like the environment on Weibo has turned extreme” laments Xiao Meili, a chinese women’s rights activists.

Blockchain refugees

In face of more and more extreme measures imposed by Xi Jinping’s party for the supreme control of China’s networks, Chinese dissidents are doubling down on their inventiveness to stay ahead of censors. Quartz reports on the 23rd of April that a student of the university of Beijing, known as Yue Xin, published an open letter denouncing the pressure the university has put on supporters of the #metoo movement. The post, evidently, was quickly taken down by the regime.

However short its life was on social networks, it is now transcribed for good in the Ethereum blockchain. Its ledger shows that, on the 23rd of April, an ethereum address sent itself the sum of 0 ethereum (for the sum of 44 cents, the cost of a transaction on ethereum). In the metadata of the transaction, the entire transcript of the letter can be found. Unless the PRC decides to ban ethereum transactions altogether, there is nothing they can do about it, a gesture that keeps the flame of hope alive amongst the Chinese Internet user community.