Exclusive – Freedom House: China ‘Constantly Censoring New Words’ as Dissent Grows

Demonstrators hold white signs as a form of protest during a protest against Zero Covid an
Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Human rights organization Freedom House is struggling to rapidly document protests in China as “the government is constantly censoring new words or interfering with online dissent movements to demobilize aggrieved citizens,” Kevin Slaten, the research lead for the group’s China Dissent Monitor, told Breitbart News last week.

The China Dissent Monitor is a tracker designed to document and analyze acts of protest or civil resistance to the government in the repressive communist country. While mass acts of defiance against the government were once rare following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese citizens have increasingly taken to the streets demanding respect for basic human rights, which the Communist Party has long abused.

Dictator Xi Jinping’s imposition of a repressive “zero-Covid” pandemic policy – focused largely on imprisoning suspected coronavirus patients in unsanitary quarantine camps and locking down entire cities with minimal food or medicine – greatly heightened protest activity in the country for much of 2022. The China Dissent Monitor published a report last week confirming that at least 23,000 Chinese citizens participated in protest events between June and December 2022. More than 1,000 such events were confirmed to occur nationwide, most in the country’s largest urban areas.

Slaten, the author of the report and head researcher for the Freedom House program, told Breitbart News that the lockdown policies had indeed been large drivers of dissent. The Communist Party’s announcement of an “optimization” of its coronavirus policy that allegedly ended “large-scale” lockdowns in December, he asserted, was likely in response to the wave of national protests in late November and was a victory for the Chinese public.

“As far as we can tell from our tracking of events, protests around pandemic control measures did drop considerably after the first week in December, when Zero Covid was effectively and suddenly ended,” Slaten noted. “The timing of this policy change came just days after the peak of the protests, and it is very likely this was a response to the widespread dissent.”

“It is a considerable achievement given that Xi Jinping himself personally promoted and re-affirmed his commitment to Zero Covid in the recent past,” he explained. “Even as China’s citizens won this concession, had they actually been consulted through political mechanisms, they may not have chosen the ‘let it rip’ option of dropping prevention measures all at once.”

The “let it rip” option resulted in nationwide reports of overburdened hospitals, funeral homes running 24 hours a day, and mass death that the Chinese government did not appear to note in any of its coronavirus statistics. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) accused China in January of having “heavily underreported” the coronavirus death rate in the country, making it difficult for the global agency to use reliable data to offer advice and aid in the face of the pandemic.

Slaten noted that Freedom House data indicates that the most restive areas of the country are cities, which “makes sense given population density and the relative ease of residents to organize larger acts of dissent.”

“On the other hand, it could also be the result of observation bias. People in rural areas may be less likely to share public protest online, which is the primary way we are collecting information for the database,” he added.

Confirming the existence of a protest in China is a difficult task that requires finding photos or video of the incident, then speaking to witnesses that can confirm that it occurred. The images or posts online about the events face tremendous censorship on the social media outlets legal in China – primarily Weibo, a heavily monitored community similar to Facebook – and often disappear in minutes. Speaking to Breitbart News in December, Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, described the hundreds of protests confirmed to have occurred in China last year as “likely just the tip of the iceberg.”

“The government is constantly censoring new words or interfering with online dissent movements to demobilize aggrieved citizens,” Slaten reaffirmed last week to Breitbart News. “This requires us to, in some cases, quickly document evidence of dissent before it disappears. However, this has not fundamentally changed over the past six months. CDM has been able to continue using the same collection methods effectively.”

The China Dissent Monitor would soon analyze the per capita rate of protest events, he revealed, which can better help compare the rates of protest in urban and rural communities.

Since the publication of the latest edition of the China Dissent Monitor, a new type of protest has emerged in the country: the “White Hair Movement,” bringing together thousands of elderly Chinese people to protest against the Communist Party’s proposed reforms to the healthcare system, which may leave them effectively without care. Rumors spread online that China’s exorbitant spending on makeshift hospitals, quarantine camps, and other coronavirus facilities have left its coffers dramatically reduced, requiring reforms hurting the country’s most vulnerable.

In response to the proposed reforms, thousands of older Chinese citizens in the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began, and the seaside city of Dalian took to the streets, singing the Chinese national anthem and “The Internationale,” a communist anthem, in protest of the reforms. Videos from Wuhan surfacing on social media showed seniors scuffling with police, forming a wall to contain the illicit anti-government assembly:

The protests grew to such a size, and made enough headlines outside of China’s borders, that the state-run propaganda outlet Global Times effusively denied in an article published this weekend that the healthcare reforms would leave seniors without care.

“Industry observers said the reform, which reduces the amount deposited each month into personal accounts, doesn’t mean the reduction or loss of health insurance benefits, nor is it a move to cover [coronavirus]-related expenses,” the state newspaper insisted, blaming “some Western media” for allegedly needlessly worrying older residents.

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