Censored coronavirus news shows up again as emoji, Morse code and ancient Chinese
A censored interview with a whistleblower doctor in Wuhan prompts massive pushback on WeChat
The article was published on Tuesday on China’s social media platform WeChat. It was quickly deleted by local censors, but not before it stirred up online anger over the government’s handling of the outbreak.
Dozens of WeChat accounts were playing a cat-and-mouse game with censors on Wednesday by reposting the interview in seemingly every format imaginable. The obvious choices of images and PDFs were common, but people were also posting it in Morse code, braille and even using emojis.
As the day progressed, more versions popped up. These included a translation into Sindarin, the fictional elvish language created by J.R.R. Tolkien, and a rendition using Mao Zedong’s calligraphy.
Some tried posting the article with the text backward in an effort to confuse automated censorship. Others tried using web design tricks and QR codes that reveal the text once scanned.
But you don’t need to understand any of these languages to get the message. The trend seems to no longer be just about sharing the content, but about the act of skirting censorship.
Anger over the government’s response to the coronavirus has now emboldened efforts to get around censorship. Over the past several weeks, as the coronavirus has taken more than 4,000 lives worldwide, Chinese internet users have been calling for more free speech in a rare display of collective defiance.
The death of another whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang, turned out to be an important inflection point. At the end of December, Li shared a hospital report about a dangerous SARS-like disease on WeChat. The report was written by Ai Fen, the Wuhan doctor from the magazine interview.
Ai said she was reprimanded for sounding the alarm about the illness without permission. And Li was also one of multiple doctors punished by authorities for spreading rumours. When he later died of the virus, Chinese social media became overrun with an outpouring of grief and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis.
As this game of Whac-A-Mole continues, some social media users have reacted to the government’s censorship efforts by sharing a poignant quote from the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
“Oh, Harry, don’t you see?” Hermione breathed. “If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”
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