Late May to early June is the season of erasure in China, but Tiananmen 1989 is not the only uprising that authorities would like to delete from memory. The 2022 “white paper revolution” (白紙革命), when citizens successfully pushed back against excessive societal control during COVID-19, revealed the limits of government power. A new generation simultaneously became aware of its collective strength.
Six months on, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reacting in character: Imprisonments are being coupled with an asymmetric tech approach to develop new surveillance tools and hamstring the few remaining services that enable the public to organize and engage in freedom of expression.
In draft regulations projected by the Cyberspace Administration of China on June 6, short-range file-sharing tools like Bluetooth and AirDrop are set to be restricted. They were used by protesters in both Hong Kong and mainland China to swerve internet censorship and share information anonymously, but providers will soon be required to prevent, record and report any content deemed illegal by the state.
Companies like Apple, which previously tweaked AirDrop for the benefit of the Chinese government, are almost certain to comply, leaving citizens atomized and weak in the face of whatever abuses the CCP devises next. Until they come up with a new workaround, that is.
On the other hand, U.S.-sanctioned Dahua Technology, a company part-owned by China and designated as of this week by the Ukraine government as an international sponsor of war, is combining facial recognition tech with a so-called AI banner alarm to deliver police profiles on members of the public from the moment they unfurl signs that could be politically sensitive, according to IPVM, a specialist security industry research group.
The specificity of the tool’s design is significant as it seems to reference the Beijing Sitong Bridge banner, whose pro-democracy message was an inspiration to the “white paper revolution” — also known as the “A4 revolution” — as it gathered steam. While underlining the almost unlimited niches for repression tech that can be found in China, production of the alarm simultaneously signifies how items as simple as a megaphone, a bedsheet, burning tires and a construction worker’s outfit are enough to trigger fears of tailspin in the would-be superpower. The Sitong banner needed little more than these objects to reach around the world.
Meanwhile, Sitong Bridge (四通橋) itself was accorded the same kind of guardianship by security forces for June 4 as Tiananmen Square, emphasizing just how threatened authorities feel in the wake of 2022. Nor have people forgotten what they endured for three years leading up to then: Red Boy’s Eighteen Wins (紅孩兒十八贏), a folk song that lampoons China’s COVID-era scandals and cover-ups, reached such popularity that censors have now had to scrub it from the national internet.
By lumping Sitong and Tiananmen together, Beijing tacitly acknowledged that citizens will be joining the same dots, too. Perversely, it may even have been encouraging them to do so as a sinister kind of warning. In any case, it took its annual approach to avoiding responsibility for the massacre of its own people 34 years ago, arresting members of the public in Hong Kong; harassing activists and the mothers of victims in mainland China; and, as reported by China Digital Times, issuing guidelines for the censorship of broad swathes of speech and expression, including “numbers with unclear implications,” terms like “objects placed in a row” and “old photos with a throwback feel.”
Other crimes, such as the extensive state campaign to detach Uyghurs from their language, culture, religion and even children, have to be hidden, too, and efforts to distract global attention took the form of a visit by an Arab League delegation to East Turkestan, known as Xinjiang to Beijing, from May 30 to June 2.
China believes that supportive words from Muslim-majority countries are enough to dispel well-evidenced suspicions that its actions in East Turkestan could amount to crimes against humanity. The visit, however, was accompanied by more revelations of Uyghur deaths in custody, and several Arab League countries including Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are themselves suspected of grave human rights violations.
The treatment of women in China, including Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minority groups, also fell under the spotlight with the release on May 30 of a country review by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. An accompanying press release specifically highlighted the paucity of female representation at the highest level of government and reports of “sexual and gender-based violence against human rights defenders by the police and other officials.”
The review itself concluded other failings such as gender-biased judges, opacity in the reporting of discrimination case outcomes and the prioritization of family harmony over security for women in China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law (中華人民共和國反家庭暴力法). It expressed uncertainty over whether legislation criminalizes all aspects of people trafficking, too, “including for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labor, forced marriage, organ removals and illegal adoption, especially among Uyghur and Tibetan communities” and further raised concerns about allegations of coercive family planning practices, such as forced abortions and sterilizations targeted at Uyghur women, “which may in certain cases amount to torture.”
In submissions to the review process, NGOs like PEN International and the Dui Hua Foundation drew attention to the disproportionate arrests of women who had participated in the aforementioned “white paper” protests, and the increased danger that women face due to associated political awakening. The committee itself found that coronavirus containment policies had had particularly detrimental effects on women from the point of view of justice, safety from violence and access to medical services, which perhaps explains their involvement in the protest movement.
China, it seems, has a long COVID problem, not only of the medical kind.
Image: Date20221127, Public Domain