The following article was written by Dr. Fu Kingwah, Associate Professor at the Center for Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Hong Kong and organizer of the Weibosocope and Wechatscope censorship control projects. The article was originally published in Meedan's Misinfodemic Report on July 28, 2020. The following edited version is published on Global Voices with permission from Dr. Fu and the Meedan Misinfodemic team.
China's strategy to control COVID-19 narratives has become a global concern now that the coronavirus has claimed more than 700,000 lives worldwide in early August. The origin of the virus has become an even more contentious issue in international diplomacy and will most likely continue to have a major impact on world politics.
On March 12, 2020, the Deputy Director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, posted a rather peculiar tweet; claimed that the United States Army carried COVID-19 into China when the country participated in the Military Olympics in October 2019. The claim, or even conspiracy, is not supported by any evidence, but it spread like wildfire and became in a global disinformation article on the origin of the pandemic.
A few days later, disinformation messages reached the mobile phones and social networks of US citizens. One post read, “The Trump administration is about to lock up the country,” which was later denied by the White House. US intelligence officials, who spoke to The New York Times anonymously, attributed them to Chinese operatives and called the tactic “unprecedented.”
Weiboscope, a censorship watchdog project that monitors the Chinese social platform Weibo for misinformation and censorship, has observed how the Chinese government exercises control of information about COVID-19 narratives in China since the early stages of the outbreak.
On the afternoon of December 31, 2019, a post appeared on Weibo that read: “Wuhan pneumonia cannot be considered SARS. Wuhan has the only virology laboratory in the country, which is also a first-class laboratory. There are ways to deal with the virus. If Wuhan can't find out, no one can handle it. ” It was clearly censored within an hour.
The post mentioned the SARS-like nature of the virus, suggesting its high infection rate, and the Wuhan lab, pointing to the origin of the virus. To our knowledge of the government's censorship system, both characteristics appear to be the reasons the post was removed from the social platform.
At the time, social media was already seeing various speculations that a new type of pneumonia was related to a SARS-like illness, according to data from Weiboscope. Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, who learned about the then mysterious illness at a hospital, posted a message on the popular Chinese private messaging app WeChat to warn other doctors about the nameless illness. Local authorities later accused him and six other people of disturbing public order. Within a few months, he died of the disease that would become known as COVID-19.
On December 31, 2019, the same day the post was removed from Weibo, and shortly after Wenliang's alarm, the Chinese government claimed that the “viral pneumonia cases” had “no apparent pattern of human-to-human transmission. “And were” predictable and controllable “; the same findings were also reported by the World Health Organization and the United States.
On January 20, less than a month later, the Chinese central government publicly announced the COVID-19 epidemic. A group of leading Chinese virologists appeared on a state television show and confirmed that the virus could be transmitted between humans.
The censored messages related to the virus in late December and early January may have unknowingly put countless Chinese at risk of infection, and deprived them of receiving the first media and social media notices about the virus. highly communicable disease. Censorship and information control may also have delayed the response of the general public to adopt necessary and timely protective measures.
How do you control China information ?
The internet and digital technology have been shaping China's social, economic, and political domains. Although the internet is known to serve to facilitate citizen activism, the repressive power of the state is notably strengthened through digital technologies.
The Chinese authorities have strongly emphasized the concept of digital sovereignty, which, in general, broadens the notion of cybersecurity as a justification to control some online activities seen as potential threats to the stability of the state. In this context, China has introduced a sophisticated system to regulate traditional and online media, a system that has been integrated into all Internet platforms.
The Chinese government's large and sophisticated internet filtering system, along with its digital governance framework, is often described as the “Great Firewall”. These strict measures make the Chinese internet practically an intranet, in which sensitive private and public communications are filtered, and access to foreign sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is blocked.
Chinese citizens have no choice but to rely on local media, which are mostly state-owned, for information on COVID-19. International media or social media pages are blocked and posts circulating from foreign media reports are also censored. For example, the system registers a censored publication of January 18, with the screenshot of an article on coronavirus entitled “Four new cases in Wuhan: more than 1700 cases are estimated, according to experts”, from the Radio agency and Hong Kong television. It was found that they censored another message on Weibo titled “Urgent: Suspicious Cases of Unknown Pneumonia Found in South Korea”, which had a link to the Yonhap news agency article from January 8, 2020.
China's cybersecurity law, coupled with real-name registration policies, have curbed the online space for free expression and make anonymity virtually impossible.
Additionally, surveillance technology, such as cameras, facial recognition, and identity tracking, which have long been used to help authorities monitor self-quarantine measures during the coronavirus outbreak, has further strengthened social control.
To avoid crossing the so-called “red line” (often unknown and invisible criterion), which could lead to content censorship, suspension and closure of user accounts, police investigations and even jail time, Chinese citizens have taken refuge in self-censorship.
It should be noted that the “red line” is very imprecise and its limits are largely unknown: articles on cyber-buzz about lifestyle have been blocked (N. T clickbaitm translated here as “cyber-buzz”, refers to articles that aim to generate advertising revenue) , rap music is banned, television drama series have been deprecated, and video game services have been stopped. Police have detained three Chinese volunteers for posting censored COVID-19 material to Github.
The impact outside the borders of China
With China's economic boom and growing global influence, the country has modernized its information systems and cyber warfare capabilities. For the world's second largest economy, information technology is not the key to economic growth and vital functions of society and also to national security.
Now, China has the most advanced online censorship system in the world, with more than 854 million citizens online under its purview (2019 CNNIC report). In addition to the traditional methods of warfare such as land, water and air, cyberspace has become a domain of war highly recognized by the Chinese Government.
As his engagement with the world increases, the struggle for control of the narrative about the Chinese Communist Party and the country has spread to global public opinion in a highly ambitious external propaganda project and the internet is one of the battlefields. .
In addition to the traditional forms of propaganda published in the Chinese state media, there are now cases of organized and coordinated initiatives of online lobbying campaigns on issues that are considered of fundamental interest and importance to the Chinese Government, such as the arrests of Uighurs. in Xinjiang, the presidential elections in Taiwan and the most recent protests in Hong Kong.
In the first week of exhaustion, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to unfold and the crisis changes daily, but it seems clear that the world after COVID-19 will be different. Relations between China and the world are expected to turn bitter and more contentious.
China's information control strategy and its consequences have become a global problem. The US state of Missouri is suing China for economic losses and is demanding compensation from the Asian country for its negligence and lack of transparency in containing the virus in Wuhan.
China's control of information on the COVID-19 narrative has served as a red flag on how censorship in one country could impact the rest of the world. However, the news of how exactly COVID-19 would change China's diplomatic relations with the world remains an open question.