Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had just died of liver cancer and the internet was going crazy, a flurry of messages expressing grief, shock and anger.
Suddenly on WeChat, the mobile text and voice-messaging app with 768 million users that is by far the most popular in China, anyone sending the late dissident’s name found their dispatches weren’t getting through. You would type in the words but the messages simply didn’t land, seemingly lost in the ether.
It wasn’t just words being screened, something to which people here are long used, but images too. A popular photo of Liu embracing his wife Liu Xia, or a powerful image by the exiled Chinese street artist Badiucao showing a halo atop a pair of pyjamas floating towards heaven, were disappearing into thin air before receivers could see them.
Beijing’s security services are buttressing the system of controls known as the Great Firewall of China to make surveillance easier and online dissent harder.
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and other websites based outside the country are no-go areas, and the government blacklist also includes Googleand encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram.
For years it has been a game of whack-a-mole, with the net nannies reacting to tech advances with heavy-handed blocks, which users would skirt by employing better technology. Now the censors are trying to get ahead of the game.
The image-censorship software shows this scheme works.
The signs were there of renewed fortification. Earlier this year, the government introduced a cybersecurity law tightening cross-border data flows.
A friend here runs a medium-sized company, doing a lot of overseas business, and who uses several virtual private networks (VPNs) to skirt the Great Firewall.
To the uninitiated, a VPN is a third-party service that directs web traffic through servers in another location to where a person physically is, circumventing geographical restrictions.
This friend recently made an outraged posting on Facebook to say that his WeChat account had been blocked. He had been watching, on YouTube, rants by Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, a Chinese billionaire turned activist, against the shenanigans in the upper echelons of the Communist Party.
Guo has been using various online platforms to criticise key figures in power, reserving particular ire for Wang Qishan, the head of the anti-corruption drive that is President Xi Jinping’s signature policy.
My friend had been watching these outbursts with amusement – the consensus among people here is that most of what Guo says is self-serving and probably untrue, but you never know. He sent the occasional message on WeChat about the rants and thought little more of it.
That is, until suddenly his WeChat connection was cut. WeChat is more than a messaging service, it’s also your chief payment method if you live in the city, with most transactions routinely taking place using the “wallet” function. It’s convenient – and very tricky to do without once you get used to it.
Domestic sites have long been restricted but the measures are spreading. Anyone making heavy use of the LinkedIn social network to post stories about Liu Xiaobo was told they were being blocked in China, although not outside.
Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp, very much the poor relation to WeChat here, but which has generally not received much attention from the censors, has also found that it no longer works without a VPN in China.
And now, in a pincer movement, the government has also signalled that it is taking aim at the VPNs. It has told the three big phone companies to rigorously enforce a ban on these services for individuals and force companies to register web-access lines.
The crackdown takes no prisoners. Even Winnie the Pooh has joined the Chinese censors’ roll call of infamy.
A meme showing the rotund bear and his pal Tigger marching along was used as a satire on Xi and then-president Barack Obama as they walked together in 2013.
Since then the bear has reappeared online, including during Xi’s excruciating handshake with Japanese rival Shinzo Abe. Such satire is seen as humiliating a national leader and is deeply frowned upon, hence the online censure of references to AA Milne’s most famous character.
Even though Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are banned, the trio of social media platforms are being used for a “global memorial” to commemorate the democracy activists, with users posting pictures of an empty chair next to the sea.
But what happens overseas is largely a matter of indifference to Xi. He is absolutely concentrated on the 19th Communist Party congress in the autumn, during which he will consolidate his grip on power. There is simply no way anything is allowed get in the way of him doing that and to ensure this, he wants to guarantee “cyber sovereignty” in China.
With such high stakes, there is no room for satirical Winnie the Pooh memes or mournful images of dead Nobel laureates. And the full weight of China’s burgeoning innovative prowess is being brought to bear to bring the internet to heel and ensure it plays a supportive role to the Communist Party.
By Clifford Coonan