Tiananmen Square in Beijing China showing government censorship on social media users

Cat and Mouse Games: Chinese Social Media Users Invent Secret Codes to Bypass Government Censorship on COVID-19

The Chinese government is in a race to crack the code invented by social media users to circumvent restrictions on discussions related to the coronavirus outbreak. The communist government has implemented a new method of restricting social media users from discussing the epidemic by censoring keywords associated with the disease. However, netizens have invented new words to replace common words and phrases currently under government censorship. As the government adds more new words to the blocked list, the Chinese social media users invent more. This competition has led to awkward discussions on Chinese social media platforms.

Chinese government censorship on COVID-19 related keywords

The government efforts to censor specific keywords related to the disease began late last year after the late Dr Li Wenliang tried to warn people of the virus outbreak in Hubei province on WeChat forums. The government rushed to block the content three weeks before the disease started spreading between people. As the cases rise, the Chinese government has renewed its censorship efforts to prevent the spread of information about the magnitude of the epidemic. The initial efforts involved the coverup of the outbreak. However, when the outbreak became common knowledge, the government in Beijing intensified its censorship efforts. The communist government censorship involved restricting the use of specific keywords in social media posts and messaging platforms. Social media users on the Weibo platform could not use the words “Wuhan” and “Hubei.”

Additionally, only a small fraction of users could see posts containing any of the two words. According to Citizen Lab Report from the University of Toronto school of global affairs, social media users on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat and the live streaming platform YY could not share content that criticized the government’s response to the outbreak. Social media users could not use specific phrases such as “Xi Jinping goes to Wuhan.” The government also censored keyword combinations involving the use of the words “Wuhan,” “CCP,” “Crisis,” and “Beijing.” Innocent phrases such as “unknown Wuhan pneumonia,” “Sars variation,” and “disease control and prevention” have also come under restrictions. Due to government censorship, the phrase “I want freedom of speech” started trending on Weibo. A few hours later, the trend was removed from the network, and social media users who participated were blocked. The government also restricted another 99 combinations, including those mentioning Hong Kong and Dr Li. The doctor died after warning people of the outbreak on social media platforms. Banning Hong Kong was because of the province’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who came under heavy criticism for failing adequately to respond to the outbreak.

Unlike the Chinese government, Western governments encourage users to share details of the spread of the virus. Sharing such information allows citizens to avoid areas where citizens are at a higher risk. However, the Chinese government cares more about the country’s image than protecting the lives of its citizens.

Chinese social media users invent a new language

As the government censorship intensified, Chinese social media users have invented a new lingo to circumvent the communist government censorship on COVID-19 related keywords. Users started replacing sensitive words with new alternatives that the government has not yet censored. Netizens started using “wh” and “hb” as replacements for “Wuhan” and “Hubei,” respectively. In anticipation of government censorship of the word “Red Cross,” Chinese social media users started using “red ten” as a replacement. This is because the Chinese character for 10, “十,” resembles a cross. Other phrases include “zf” which represents the government, “jc” replaces the word “police,” while “guobao” or the panda image represents the National Security Bureau. The phrase “Ministry of Truth” represents the Communist Party’s propaganda department. The word “ladder” refers to VPNs, which Chinese social media users utilize to access social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Social media users convey a similar meaning by using the “Vietnamese pho noodles.” The phrases “narrow neck bottle” and “learning” came under government censorship because they resemble the name of the Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Government censorship keeps updating the secret words list and blocking them from common usage. This censorship mechanism makes it difficult for Chinese social media users to communicate. The inability to communicate puts many people at risk by denying them the information they need to protect themselves.