In late April, Shanghai’s Tongji University students found rotting pork inside a meal box delivered several weeks into the city’s Omicron outbreak.
The maggot-infested meal struck a chord with the disgruntled Shanghai public weeks into an indefinite lockdown without access to basic food and medical supplies.
One student penned an angry response that quickly became a symbol of silent resistance, spreading across social media platforms. Censors deleted reposts of his outburst on the microblogging site Weibo, but the expletive-laden message was immortalised online after being turned into a small piece of digital art preserved on the blockchain.
The incident spawned a series of non-fungible tokens, a form of digital artwork, which have spread during the Shanghai lockdown as a way to preserve criticism of the city’s Omicron outbreak beyond the reach of censors.
China’s censors have been at the forefront of the information battle during the country’s worst coronavirus outbreak in two years. They have systematically erased critical articles and posts on mainstream social media sites about the heavy burden of the strict lockdown measures.
But the growing popularity of blockchain technology has presented a fresh challenge to the country’s censorship regime. Once data is sent to a blockchain network, it cannot be deleted or altered by higher authorities.
The country’s internet police worked in a frenzy to erase the viral “Voice of April” video from domestic social media, a six-minute protest video documenting the suffering experienced by people in Shanghai cooped up at home.
Just as the video was taken down from Weibo and the messaging app WeChat, tech-savvy netizens uploaded snapshots of the video to the blockchain, casting them into NFTs.
“Censors cannot delete information from the blockchain,” said Barney Tan, head of the school of information systems and technology management at UNSW Sydney.
One Chinese blockchain enthusiast said the technology has become more user-friendly in the past few years, making it easier to upload and read articles on the decentralised database.
“People have been posting critical articles on the blockchain, so the government cannot delete them. It’s happening more now because blockchain technology is getting better,” the person added, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
But Tan noted that even though censors cannot scrub out information from the blockchain, “they can still block access to it” by preventing people from sharing links on social media.
Chinese citizens have found creative ways to adapt to online life under censorship. The blockchain enthusiast noted that in many of his WeChat groups, friends were sharing censored articles flipped upside down to avoid algorithmic screening.
However, censors are typically only one step behind, quickly discovering the attempts to avoid censorship and ensuring that new leaks of sensitive information do not spark wider online protests.
The goal is to prevent critical posts “from becoming viral or politically mobilised,” explained Rogier Creemers, an expert on China’s digital technology at Leiden University.
Liu Lipeng, who used to work as a censor for Weibo before moving to the US, said censors do not solely rely on deleting posts. “Now they also spread fear” to stop sensitive information leaking online, he said.
In Shanghai, which is now in its eighth week of lockdown, residents have recorded videos of pandemic workers warning them against spreading “false rumours” about life under lockdown.
Liu said the measures had stifled public discussion in Shanghai. China’s censorship has been more effective during the financial city’s current lockdown than during the initial outbreak in Wuhan two years ago, Liu added. He noted that several prominent critics and whistleblowers emerged during the early months of the lockdown, including writer Fang Fang and doctors Ai Fen and Li Wenliang.
“In Shanghai, no one dares to speak up publicly,” Liu said.
This month, a leaked article from a prominent Shanghai law scholar condemning the city’s lockdown policies as unconstitutional appeared to break the silence.
Professor Tong Zhiwei from Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law warned that the city’s lockdown measures would lead to “some kind of legal disaster”.
“Pandemic protection needs to be balanced with ensuring people’s rights and freedoms,” he wrote, casting doubt on the legality of some of the city’s heavy-handed measures, including forcing residents living in the same apartment block as a positive Covid-19 case to move into centralised quarantine facilities.
Tong’s article circulated on Weibo and WeChat for several hours before censors deleted it. But by that time, it had already been permanently etched into the blockchain.
The article is still visible to people in China with the technological knowhow and time to find it. But experts said that from a censorship perspective, in an age where people are inundated with information, it is enough that the sensitive information has been banished to an inaccessible corner of the internet.
“The information control system is never going to work perfectly. But in China, it works well enough to limit information to a small number of computer nerds,” said Creemers.
“From the perspective of regime integrity and stability, the censors have reached their goal,” he added.