Early on during the novel coronavirus outbreak in China, the hashtag “I want freedom of speech” trended on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter and Instagram. It was quickly removed, and anyone using it blocked.
China’s move to initially cover up the crisis and restrict valuable public health information swelled online criticism of the government. The existing system of surveillance and censorship ramped up in response. But Chinese netizens fought back, substituting “sensitive words” for alternatives on a daily basis. At one point, images of pandas were used to represent the domestic security bureau, and “Ministry of Truth” (from George Orwell’s novel 1984) substituted for the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. Journalists, students, and activists developed a rapidly expanding alternative dictionary to keep ahead of the censors.
Censorship and surveillance in China are hardly news. Their impact during the current pandemic, however, highlights why the focus can’t simply be on expanding health services and enforcing quarantines by any means necessary.