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As US Tech Firms Bow to China’s Censorship, Chinese Users Risk Everything to Defy It

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As US Tech Firms Bow to China’s Censorship, Chinese Users Risk Everything to Defy It

Apple continues to remove the tools that ordinary citizens rely on for unfettered speech, even as some use any means possible to speak up.

As US Tech Firms Bow to China’s Censorship, Chinese Users Risk Everything to Defy It
Credit: Depositphotos

Two recent incidents illustrated the starkly different ways in which U.S. technology companies and Chinese users have responded to Beijing’s obsession with suppressing any criticism of President Xi Jinping.

On April 19, the U.S. technology giant Apple announced that it had removed the applications WhatsApp and Threads – both owned by the U.S.-based social media firm Meta – from its app store in China on orders from the Chinese government. Authorities reportedly found that the apps featured “inflammatory” content about Xi that violated the country’s cybersecurity laws. The details of the offending content were not explained.

In a separate development that week, a person called in to celebrity vlogger Hu Chunfeng’s live stream on Bilibili, a popular video-sharing site, and asked him, “Do you think Xi is a dictator?” The question caught Hu completely off guard, and he tried to distance himself from the caller. Hu’s account was later suspended, online discussions about the episode were censored, and the consequences for the caller were not publicly known. The Chinese government’s strict real-name registration policy for social media and its sophisticated surveillance system suggest that the caller was very likely identified and located by the authorities, and the punishment that awaits may be severe.

The contrast between the two cases is jarring. On the one hand, one of the world’s largest companies again succumbed to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pressure to help fortify the world’s most censored online environment. (In 2023, Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net” report gave China the world’s worst score for the ninth straight year.) On the other hand, an ordinary Chinese netizen again risked everything to express discontent with Xi’s increasingly repressive rule.

Apple’s removal of the Meta apps, which were already blocked in China and only accessible through the use of a virtual private network (VPN), is just the latest of many known instances of the company’s willing compliance with the CCP’s censorship and surveillance demands. Since 2017, Apple has taken down hundreds of VPNs from its China app store, making it much more difficult for people in the country to circumvent censorship and access prohibited information. The firm has also removed the apps of international news outlets and human rights organizations, and banned its devices sold in China from being customized with engravings that include words such as “human rights” and “democracy.”

Meanwhile, even though it is one of the most dangerous things one can do in China, Chinese people, both famous and obscure, continue to criticize Xi Jinping. Real-estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who called Xi a “clown,” has been serving an 18-year prison sentence since 2020. Poet Zhang Guiqi, who urged Xi to step down, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2022. In 2023, prominent human rights activist Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign because he is “just not smart enough,” was given a 14-year sentence.

Then there are those whose fate after speaking out against Xi is simply unknown. In October 2022, when China was still under the CCP’s draconian COVID-19 lockdown, a man whose name netizens believe to be Peng Lifang unfurled two banners on a bridge in central Beijing, calling for an end to the harsh “zero COVID” policy and for “despotic traitor” Xi to step down. Peng was quickly taken away by the police, and his whereabouts remain unknown. It is also unclear what happened to the protesters who shouted “Xi Jinping step down!” during the historic White Paper protests later that year. 

In 2018, Sun Wenguang, a retired professor in Shandong Province, went missing after he criticized Xi’s foreign policy during an interview with the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America. In August 2022, the outlet reported that according to insiders, Sun had died a year earlier in detention, though the journalists were unable to confirm. 

Even referring to Xi on the Chinese internet is a difficult endeavor. One leaked official document from 2016 showed that at least 35,467 phrases alluding to Xi were censored. One can safely infer that the number has grown since then. In late 2022, during the COVID-19 lockdown, municipal authorities in the capital announced that “a woman in Beijing caused 2,700 people to be restricted temporarily,” meaning a COVID-infected woman had traveled widely and caused those who made contact with her to be quarantined. A user’s savvy response to the announcement – “a man in Beijing caused 1.4 billion people to be restricted long-term” – went viral online. And soon “a man in Beijing” became a banned phrase. 

Ironically, because references to Xi are so heavily censored, the simplest and vaguest terms – such as “you,” “he,” “that man,” and “you-know-who” – have all come to be understood by netizens as allusions to Xi. After former Premier Li Keqiang passed away in late 2023, the pop song “Too Bad It Wasn’t You” was circulated widely on social media before being scrubbed by censors. 

In August 2023, a netizen told a joke on the social media platform Weibo: A genie with a magic lamp promises to grant any wish, to which the netizen responds, “Could you make [redacted] happen?” The genie then quickly covers the speaker’s mouth and whispers, “Can you say this?” While no name or even an activity was specifically mentioned, comments to the post showed that all had understood the wish to be for Xi’s death.

Despite enormous risks, Chinese people are still criticizing and mocking their unelected leader in any way they can. Instead of aiding the regime’s efforts to stamp out these stubborn embers of free expression and dissent, international companies like Apple should follow the example of courageous Chinese netizens and push back against the CCP’s censorious demands.