CHINA’S censors are fast. When a mysterious disease struck Wuhan in December 2019, relevant content was quickly removed from the internet. But Chinese citizens were also looking for prohibited information. A virtual private network (VPN) can mask the location a user is browsing from. This allows Chinese netizens to bypass the “great firewall,” the digital barricade the state has erected to block sensitive online content. At the end of January, when Wuhan and surrounding cities were locked down, VPN Downloads jumped. Likewise the search for politically sensitive content.
An article published in PNAS, a scholarly journal, argues that Covid-19 has inspired Chinese citizens to bypass censorship and access sensitive content on banned websites. Although most VPN Applications are blocked in China, the researchers found one available in China’s Apple App Store. They noticed a sharp increase in the app’s downloads, boosting its App Store ranking, just as Wuhan and the wider province of Hubei, to which it belongs, went under lockdown (see chart). This, according to the authors, opened a door to other politically taboo information.
Twitter, for example, is banned in China. But in Hubei, the number of Chinese-language accounts geotagged or assigned a location in China grew by 40% between January and mid-March 2020, when the lockdown was lifted. Activity in July was still 10% higher than in January. Hubei, the area hardest hit by Covid-19, gained more users than any other Chinese province. Twitter volume there has doubled from the pre-lockdown average.
The new Twitterati flocked to Chinese journalists, who gained 42% more followers in China between December 2019 and April 2020, as well as foreign media (31%) and political activists (23%). In contrast, Chinese politicians, entertainers and state media did not see a significant increase. (Though Twitter is banned in China, many officials and state media accounts use the platform to spread the party line.) That trend has continued: A year into the pandemic, about 90% of these new Twitter members were still following accounts that were eligible to disseminate politically sensitive information.
Activity on the Chinese language edition of Wikipedia tells a similar story. Daily pageviews increased from 12.8m in December 2019 to 13.9m during the lockdown between January and March 2020. The trend continued even after the lockdown was lifted, with daily pageviews reaching 14.7 by the end of April 2020 reached million.
Wikipedia pages on Covid saw the biggest increases. But traffic also increased on the pages of Xu Zhiyong, a human rights lawyer awaiting trial for subversion; Tibetan Uprising Day; Ai Weiwei, an activist artist; and the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. During normal times, Chinese citizens can be content to surf inside the firewall. But a crisis can change incentives. Longer-term trends are not considered in the paper, but with millions of people still in lockdown, China’s censors could continue to be challenged. ■