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Humans and technology

WeChat wants people to use its video platform. So they did, for digital protests.

A video protesting the Shanghai lockdown spread quickly on the app, as Chinese users raced to outwit censors and keep it alive.

April 24, 2022
workers in protective suits during Shanghai lockdown
workers in protective suits during Shanghai lockdown
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

On the night of April 22, millions of people in China watched the same video on their phones: a six-minute montage of audio clips from the covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai, titled “The Voice of April.” Its emphasis on the lockdown’s human toll struck a chord, and people shared it widely on WeChat and other messaging sites. Soon, though, Chinese state censors began scrubbing it from these platforms, prompting people to find clever ways to dodge censorship and help it reach the next viewer. 

The online relay became another example of the creativity that Chinese people show in fighting the pandemic censorship machine. They used every technological tool to circumvent or deceive censors—disguising the video by embedding it in other clips, overlaying its audio onto other videos, and using QR codes to share the link. One video sharing feature that WeChat has heavily promoted since 2020 was particularly helpful and unexpectedly fueled the online protest.

First published on WeChat on the morning of April 22, the video compiled over 20 audio clips from quarantine workers, residents, and government officials in Shanghai, played over black-and-white drone footage of the city. It highlighted key moments in the Shanghai lockdown—both critical times when ineffective quarantine rules upset Shanghai residents and positive incidents when residents and volunteers helped each other to carry on. 

“I made a video to document [the life] as objectively and authentically as possible, to remember the voices of April,” the creator, a Shanghai-based filmmaker, wrote alongside the video. Perhaps aware of the censorship risks, he also offered a link to download it “if friends want to preserve it.”

With a reserved tone and no personal comment, the video strikes many as a neutral and politically safe portrayal of life in the city. Yet in China’s political reality, even a “safe” video like this can be seen as disruptive if it reaches too large a crowd.

“I knew I would cry, but I didn’t expect to cry so much [after watching it],” says Yao, a consultant living in Shanghai, who’s only using part of her name for this story out of concern for her safety. “Its power originates from the fact that all these things have indeed happened. It’s too real.” 

She knew the video would likely be censored, so she acted quickly to keep a copy of her own. She found a downloadable link on Baidu Wangpan, a domestic cloud service, but suspected that censors could remove a copy saved in the mobile app. So Yao resorted to recording her own phone screen while the video played. 

A video relay

By midafternoon on the day he posted it, the creator had taken the video down because “viewers may have attached more meanings to it than it originally intended.” But it was already spreading rapidly on social platforms including WeChat and Weibo. Soon, censors started removing copies of the video, which only fueled people’s anger. 

As videos were censored, people found ways to keep the relay going. They reuploaded copies to their personal accounts. Some stored the video on the blockchain, while others minted it as an NFT. People put the original audio under footage of party propaganda or popular anime, hoping to trick algorithmic censors. 

According to someone familiar with the matter, the original video uploaded by the creator racked up 5 million views before it was taken down. Given how many times it was reuploaded, the video could have easily reached millions more Chinese people that night. Yet every single version, as well as sympathetic stories that commented on the video, was censored almost immediately.

Censorship of such intensity happening so late at night in China was surprising, says Eric Liu, a former internet censor in China who’s now working with the US-based outlet China Digital Times. “The speed in which posts are censored, within seconds [of publishing], made it seem really uncommon to me. It requires ordering many [censorship] employees to work overtime.”

Two screenshots showing leaked orders from local governments to remove content relevant to the video also appeared online. While worded differently, the orders both asked tech companies to “clean up” any video, screenshot, or derivative content “without exceptions.” It’s hard to confirm the screenshots’ authenticity, but Liu, having once worked in China’s censorship machine, said the terminology used suggests they are likely legitimate.

History repeats. .. with a WeChat twist

This is not the first time during the pandemic that censorship has triggered a heated grassroots protest online. It happened the night when the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang died and again when a story about another Chinese doctor, Ai Fen—applauded as “The Whistle-Giver”—was rigorously censored

What’s different this time is the new video spread largely through WeChat Channels, a young video-sharing product that Tencent has struggled to build an audience for. Channels allows a user to post videos as long as one hour, which can then both be shared with friends and distributed to the public through WeChat’s algorithms. 

Channels was released in January 2020 in response to the explosive popularity of TikTok’s domestic version, Douyin. In the two years since, Tencent has used every tool to promote Channels, including offering monetary incentives for creators, live-streaming concerts by A-list celebrities, and bundling the product with WeChat, an app that’s already used by more than a billion. 

Still, its popularity grew slowly. While it now has almost as many users as Douyin, the average time a user spends on Channels daily is 35 minutes, one-third of Douyin’s 107 minutes.

But on the night of April 22, WeChat Channels took center stage.

Ironically, it was Tencent’s own product decisions that made it easier for Channels to become a tool of protest. To attract new users, WeChat made it extremely easy for users to register a Channels account (while it can take days to be approved to register a traditional publishing account on WeChat). This made it possible for many people to open public-facing accounts and instantly upload hundreds of versions of the video.

As a newer feature inside a messaging app used among friends rather than strangers, WeChat Channels likely also didn’t have a substantial team of censors. “The more closed a platform is, the less rigorous the censorship,” says Liu. Douyin, by comparison, has a massive team of censors and can guarantee that almost all videos are viewed and approved before even being published.

People’s attempts to repost the video may have helped it survive online for a few more hours, but as the night wore on, censors eventually triumphed. No one I spoke with in China was surprised by that. And it’s hard to say whether this event or past online protests will result in any change to the censorship machine or pandemic prevention measures in China. The largest impact they leave is on the collective memory of the people who participate.

“I think it was precisely because people knew it would be censored eventually that resulted in the collective emotions, actions, and all the different versions of the video. It’s a form of resistance when you already know the ending,” Yao says. “Reposting it also made you feel your life is more meaningful, like I finally did something.”

After that night, people went back to talking about the video privately. While WeChat was able to scrub almost all versions, it couldn’t remove the dead links on people’s timelines, reminding everyone of what happened. “The posts are still here; it’s just that you can’t see anything when you click on it,” says Yao. “But the void they left is still here.”

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