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China Protestors Evade With Social Media

People gather to protest the Chinese governments continued continued zero-Covid policies at the University of California Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California, on November 28, 2022.

Opponents of China's anti-COVID measures are resorting to dating apps and social media platforms blocked on the mainland to evade censors, spread the word about their defiance and strategy, in a high-tech game of cat and mouse with police.

Protesters came out in several Chinese cities for three days from Friday in a show of civil disobedience unprecedented since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.

Videos, images and accounts of the opposition to China's tough COVID-19 curbs have poured onto China's tightly censored cyberspace since weekend protests, with activists saving them to platforms abroad before the censors delete them, social media users say.

Frustration has been building with the stringent zero-COVID policy nearly three years after the coronavirus emerged in the central city of Wuhan but the spark for the wave of protests was a deadly apartment building fire in the western city of Urumqi.

Authorities denied accusations posted on social media that a lockdown had prevented people escaping the blaze but that did not prevent protests on Urumqi streets, videos of which were posted on the Weibo and Douyin social media apps.

Censors tried to scrub them quickly but they were downloaded and reposted not only across Chinese social media but also to Twitter and Instagram, which are blocked in China.

Many people are relying on virtual private network (VPN) software to get past China's Great Firewall and on to encrypted messaging apps.

Tight-knit networks of friends also trade information, adopting a “decentralized” model that some people say was inspired by protests in Hong Kong 2019.

People have set up Telegram groups to share information for their cities, social media users say, while dating app messaging services are also being used in the hope they face less scrutiny, according to one Beijing-based protester who declined to be identified, citing safety.

A few hours before protesters gathered in cities like Shanghai and Chengdu, online flyers and pinned locations were widely shared on Telegram groups, Instagram and Twitter, social media users said.

People are also using platforms to share tips for what to do if they get detained, such as how to wipe data off a phone.

Police have been checking phones for VPNs and the Telegram app, residents and social media users said. VPNs are illegal for most people in China.

The foreign ministry said on Tuesday, when asked about the protests, that China was a country with rule of law and all rights and freedoms of its citizens are protected but they must be exercised within the framework of the law.

State media has not mentioned the protests and the government has said little.

"People are watching and playing off each other,” said Kevin Slaten, head of research for China Dissent Monitor, a database run by U.S.-based non-profit Freedom House.