Report: Things Go Terribly Wrong for Chinese Social Media Censors as Netizens Hijack Gov't-Approved Topics


For those who believe the human spirit and ingenuity can get around censorship of public speech in despotic regimes, here’s an ice-bucket-in-the-face reality check: Censorship wins almost all of the battles.

Oh, it may lose the war, God willing. But when it’s firing on all cylinders, censorship is almost always able to keep people saying the “right” things, preclude anyone from saying the “wrong” thing and/or crush the people who won’t comply. In truly authoritarian regimes, in fact, I’d estimate censorship has about a 99.9 percent win rate.

Every now and then, however, freedom scores an impressive victory — even against China. Yes, mighty China, home of the Great Firewall and the social credit system, a country where almost every move is electronically tracked.

(Here at The Western Journal, we’ve documented the ugly panopticon that is the Chinese surveillance state — and how American corporations are unwilling to stand up to the communist party. We’ll keep on holding their feet to the fire. You can help us by subscribing.)

Twitter isn’t exactly the freest of speech platforms, for instance, but it’s a libertarian paradise compared to Weibo, China’s hyper-regulated version of the microblogging platform. Even there, however, Beijing hadn’t been entirely able to control discontent with the effects of the government’s “zero COVID” policy — particularly a lockdown in the city of Shanghai that has left many residents unable to get basic necessities.

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According to a Business Insider report, Weibo banned a hashtag titled “buying groceries in Shanghai” April 8 as frustrated users lamented their inability to buy basic items. After the hashtag got too popular, it was blocked, and searching for it yielded a message that “no results can be found,” Business Insider reported.

This backfired, badly. A widely shared post showed a screenshot of the “no results can be found” page with the sarcastic caption, “Good news! The problem of ‘buying groceries in Shanghai’ has been completely solved,” Business Insider reported. This led to plenty of sarcastic responses under the post, commending the Chinese authorities on their “speed” and “efficiency” in rectifying the problem.

And then, according to a report from a Voice of America reporter who identifies himself as Wenhao, the censors lost even more control as Chinese social media users, “for just a few hours, got to unleash their wrath on the Chinese government for how they handled the Covid crisis in Shanghai and other social issues.”

According to Wenhao, it happened as Wednesday turned into Thursday by China time, when the top two trending topics on Weibo were “Shanghai handled several rumors regarding Covid” and “US is the biggest country of human rights deficit.” (China has only one official time zone, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time.)

“For context, topics of this scale of sensitivity don’t top the chart unless the authorities approved. So this could be considered as propaganda efforts rather what netizens were genuinely interested in,” he noted.

While Wenhao noted this isn’t an infrequent occurrence, including during after Russia invaded Ukraine, “this time, their efforts backfired, big time.”

“It seemed that many netizens had had enough of the Chinese government’s attempts to escape criticism by focusing on how bad the West/US is. So they occupied the hashtag ‘US is the biggest country of human rights deficit’, to express their anger at the state,” he tweeted.

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One user talked about the human rights he enjoyed thanks to high housing prices and interest rates combined with low pay — along with the so-called “996 work environment.” (The arduous work schedule adhered to by many Chinese corporations: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.)

“Yeah we seal people’s doors, kill pets, waste medical resources so patients with more urgent needs miss the opportunities to be treated, but our death number is zero!” another reportedly wrote.

“Some also brought up the women who were chained up in a rural village and gave birth to eight children. But they intentionally replaced ‘China’ with ‘US’ and pretended to be shocked at this kind of things happening in America and said ‘I was so lucky to have been born in China,'” Wenhao noted.

Other comments Wenhao reported on expressed amazement at how bad this looked for the Chinese censors.

“The square (public search results under certain hashtags on Weibo) is wonderful. Looks like everyone has been slapped awaken by daddy (referring to the Chinese government),” one wrote, according to Wenhao..

“Stop making rumors! What 996? Apparently Weibo censors have already punched out,” another wrote.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end; at roughly 4 a.m. Thursday, it was all wiped away.

… which meant they moved to the other hashtag about the Shanghai COVID rumors.

Wenhao reported there were similar “cyber protests” under other hashtags, including one sponsored by Beijing propaganda grist mill China Daily that pushed a conspiracy theory that Moderna created COVID, and another titled “call me by your name,” which has various interpretations, one of which is “when netizens want to complain about China, they have to replace China with the US so they don’t get censored.”

Unfortunately for Weibo users and the Chinese population, that only managed to survive until 8 a.m. China time or so. Of course, it’s since been censored, too.

For a brief moment, however, the Chinese citizens beat the censors. The propaganda backfired and got hijacked. It doesn’t happen often, however, and the censors know how to come back harder.

If you had a chance to glimpse it, though, you got to see a crack in the Great Firewall. And it was glorious.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture