Chinese police are reportedly searching for foreign apps such as Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram in people’s phones amid ongoing unprecedented protests across the country against the nation’s draconian “zero-Covid” lockdown policy.
Unable to post protest content on the Chinese internet due to widespread censorship, users are turning to platforms like Twitter to share news of local public defiance, with dozens of such videos circulating outside the country, according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
But authorities in Beijing, and in other cities like Shanghai and Hangzhou, are randomly stopping people passing by and writing down their personal information if they find apps like Twitter or Telegram on their phones, several reports suggest.
“If they face resistance, police would say they could report the person,” tweeted William Yang, the East Asia correspondent at German broadcaster DW News, adding that the checks are happening anywhere randomly, including at streets and entrances to shopping malls.
The public discontent is being perceived to not just be about the Covid lockdowns, but also an open challenge to the Xi Jinping regime.
The scenes of large-scale public defiance in the country are an unprecedented sight since the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Even though China’s vast internet censorship is labeled the “Great Firewall” because of its scope and the ban on apps like Twitter and Instagram, people are accessing them through virtual private networks (VPNs) to spread information on protests to the outside world, according to reports from The Washington Post and TechCruch.
The Chinese government has resorted to several tactics to curb the spread of information on the protests, including a spam attack over the weekend on Twitter to obscure news on the protests in cities including Shangai and Beijing, researchers pointed out on the microblogging platform.
“Chinese bots are flooding Twitter with *escort ads*, possibly to make it more difficult for Chinese users to access information about the mass protests,” tweeted Mengyu Dong, a tech and censorship analyst.
Some accounts on Twitter lying dormant for years suddenly started posting spam content on the platform.
“Sadly, if a Chinese person decides to come to Twitter to find out what happened in China last night, these nsfw posts shared by bots are likely the first to show up in their search results,” Ms Dong said.
The social media platform also struggled to contain the flood of spam content due to company-wide layoffs that have cut its workforce by more than half.
“All the China influence operations and analysts at Twitter all resigned,” a former Twitter employee told the Post.