Anger at "iPhone city" in China : "Internet users are inventive in trying to thwart censorship"

A crowd of workers marching down a street, some facing people in full white protective suits and riot police. This is what videos posted on the social networks Twitter and Weibo and verified by AFP show. Hundreds of employees demonstrated their anger in China this Wednesday, November 23 against their living conditions and remuneration in the largest iPhone factory in the world, in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province.

This factory, owned by the Taiwanese Foxconn, is subject to containment, while China tirelessly pursues its health policy “zero Covid”, arousing growing discontent among the population. Foxconn, the main private sector employer in China, confirmed on Wednesday that “violence” had indeed taken place in this huge industrial site, nicknamed “iPhone city”, which generally employs some 200,000 people.

Faced since last October with an increase in the number of people who tested positive for the coronavirus, the factory is confined. Some employees had fled a few weeks ago, resulting in a labor shortage. With L’Express, the sinologist Renaud de Spens, author of the book Chinese as it is spoken and as no one will ever dare to teach it to you (Armand Colin) deciphers the dissemination of images of these demonstrations.

L’Express: Is the scale of the dissemination of images of the demonstrations on Chinese social networks unprecedented?

Renaud de Spens: It is important to note that these demonstrations are mainly relayed by Western press agencies and social networks. This is what is almost unprecedented. Since the arrival of the Covid-19 epidemic, videos and images of protests have been relayed almost daily on the Internet in China, although one must be careful of manipulations from all sides. Fake videos can indeed be broadcast and we are not always sure what is going on.

If these demonstrations are relayed so much around the world, it is mainly because it affects a Foxconn factory, with around 20,000 confined workers, and hundreds or even thousands of demonstrators. The images broadcast show beatings, in any case Internet users mention these beatings in their comments. We can wonder and wonder if all these videos were indeed filmed this Wednesday and if it was on the site of this factory, but we can easily imagine scuffles on both sides. (Editor’s note: On a video verified by AFP in particular thanks to geolocation, filmed at night, a man appears with a bloody face. Off-screen, we hear another say: “They are hitting people, they are hitting people. Do they have a conscience?”

The keyword # RiotsFoxconn seemed censored this Wednesday noon on Chinese social networks. A few posts referring to the protests, however, remained online. How do the Chinese authorities implement such formidable censorship?

The information is indeed very quickly censored on the main social networks, Weibo and WeChat: generally, all these messages have disappeared within half an hour maximum, even if Chinese Internet users are inventive in trying to thwart the censorship. Chinese censors have been vigilant and efficient for years. Several entities are responsible for this censorship, such as the police, state security or companies. The central entity has open doors to all social networks and, to make this more efficient, it empowers all content managers, including companies.

High-performance algorithms have also been around for several years. They evaluate the dangerousness of the information disseminated on social networks through a certain number of objective criteria: the audience, the reruns, the personality of the Internet users, etc. This allows censors to have warnings beforehand. Some keywords are prohibited and may only be used by official news agencies. There are also sensitive words. The algorithms know how to spot them and thus chew up the work of the censors.

Also, before 2020, if the post on social media was deleted, there was no penalty. But since the eruption of Covid-19, if an Internet user sees his post deleted, his account is generally also deleted, which therefore represents a significant price to pay for influencers, for example. Internet users who have their messages deleted are not liable to a prison sentence, but they can however be summoned by the police and subject to administrative detention for a period of up to 15 days. To thwart censorship, you have to go through a VPN which allows you to access Twitter in particular. But few Chinese have access to a VPN.

What could be the consequences of this protest movement?

The Chinese government is obsessed with images of mass protests. He therefore does not like it when a lot of people demonstrate all at once in one place in the country. He may as well let go of the ballast or on the contrary reinforce the repression, by being afraid of a contagion. Usually it does a bit of both.

These workers’ demonstrations are not necessarily supported by the entire population. A part of the Chinese is indoctrinated and thinks that the authors of these demonstrations are not commendable people. It is not impossible for the Chinese authorities to send some demonstrators to prison and on the other hand put forward some leaders, who could be appointed leaders in order to manage the workers’ unions, in return for a more attractive salary, for example.

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