Former Chinese Government Official Reveals Behind the Scenes of Communist Party Censorship on Social Media | World

As a teenager, Zeng Jiajun used his knowledge of the Internet to watch a documentary banned in China about the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

A decade later, he was part of the censorship machine that smothers Chinese cyberspace, tasked with preventing the distribution of anything the Communist Party didn’t want public knowledge.

“At first, I didn’t think about it much, because a job is a job,” Zeng said. “But deep down, I knew it wasn’t up to my ethical standards. And when you work on it for a long time, the conflict gets stronger.”

Zeng, who now lives in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, is a 29-year-old who carries the weight of his experience lightly. Few people who worked in the Chinese propaganda apparatus told his story. And much less are ready to do so so openly.

Zeng grew up with the internet. Born in 1993 in southeastern China’s Guangdong province, he got his first computer experience in high school when his father brought home a computer.

What he discovered when he connected to the network was surprising. “There was a whole world that was there to be explored,” he recalled.

The Chinese government’s first attempts to censor the internet were not perfect, because VPN services, which change the user’s geographic location, allowed access to topics and information that were not publicly discussed.

Among them, the three-hour documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”, which deals with the June 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, one of the most symbolic places in Beijing.

Zeng was impressed by what he saw: tanks and semi-automatic weapons aimed at unarmed students in a violent crackdown that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead.

“It’s a huge, significant and historic event, but nobody told us about it, and you can’t look it up on the Chinese Internet. This material has been deleted,” he said.

“I felt it was a big lie. A big story had been made up,” he said.

Like other peers of his generation, Zeng spent his college years abroad and returned home with a business administration degree from Estonia.

Its technological dominance caught the attention of ByteDance, a Chinese startup whose apps, global TikTok and domestic Douyin, competed with Twitter and Facebook. And it was a good job that, in addition to being intellectually stimulating, earned him a salary of $4,000, above average in Beijing.

“At first, I was really excited, because ByteDance is the only company that won outside of China,” he said.

Zeng was part of a team that developed automatic systems to filter content from the platform. Incorporating artificial intelligence, the program was able to analyze images, sounds and comments in search of prohibited content.

If the system identified a problem, it was passed on to one of the thousands of employees who deleted the video, or blocked the transmission.

Most of the time, the prohibited content was the kind that would be banned on any other social network, such as pornography, unauthorized advertising, or violence. But at the same time, the team was tasked with finding and banning posts deemed politically sensitive.

Zeng said the list of censored content was fluid and updated based on specific events. Criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping or other Communist Party leaders, however, was often barred, as were images showing tanks, candles, or yellow umbrellas (symbols of the 2014 Hong Kong protests).

The Chinese Administration for Cyberspace, the country’s government, provided ByteDance with guidance. “In China, the line is fine. You don’t know exactly what will offend the government, so sometimes you go further and censor more harshly,” the Chinese explained.

According to Zeng, in early 2020, an update to the list of prohibited subjects included Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, was trying to warn of a deadly new virus. Li was silenced by authorities, eager to suppress early warnings about what we now know as Covid-19.

“When Dr Li Wenliang broke the news, the information was censored, and propagandists [do governo] said he was spreading disinformation,” Zeng said.

However, when the doctor himself contracted the virus, Chinese netizens were outraged. People would update Twitter and Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) to check the news and try to find the truth between rumors and official denials. “Many tweets, or Weibos, have been deleted,” added the former ByteDance employee.

“I posted something like, ‘We want freedom of information. No more censorship,’ and my Weibo account was also censored,” Zeng recalled. “In that moment, I felt like I was part of that ecosystem.”

The last straw for him, however, was Li’s death. “The night Dr. Li Wenliang died, I felt like I couldn’t keep doing this. [antigo trabalho]”, said.

After quitting his job, Zeng said goodbye to his homeland and moved to the US, where he studies at Northeastern University. The Chinese said that he currently feels hopeless, as Xi Jinping appears to win a third term as president of an increasingly nationalist government. “I accept that I will not be able to return to China for at least ten years,” he said.

“In the short term, everyone is pessimistic. But I think there is long-term optimism about China’s future,” Zeng pondered. “If you look at our history, there are always brave idealists who will drive change when the time comes.”

Zeng said goodbye to his homeland and moved to the US, where he studies at Northeastern University (Photo: JOSH EDELSON / AFP)

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