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By looking into the censorship surrounding the death of Premier Li Keqiang, Toronto researchers came across the thousand and one ways Chinese Internet users criticize their autocratic president Xi Jinping.

The death of President Xi Jinping, a wish that censorship struggles to ; foil

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Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco, California, November 15, 2023.

  • Philippe Leblanc (View profile)Philippe Leblanc

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Speech synthesis, based on intelligence artificial, allows you to generate a spoken text from a written text.

In the days following the death of former Premier Li Keqiang on October 27, researchers Jeffrey Knockel and Emile Dirks studied a large number of articles and online searches conducted between October 27 and 31 over seven Chinese platforms: Baidu, Baidu Zhidao, Bilibili, Microsoft Bing, Jingdong, Sogou and Weibo. The goal: to understand how Chinese censorship dealt with the event.

According to what they were able to observe, a large part of the censorship applied to comments regarding the alleged involvement of President Xi Jinping in the death of Li Keqiang.

However, another part targeted the different ways Chinese netizens express their disappointment that Li died rather than Xi.

We can thus read in the report that other censorship rules did not target Xi by name. But the intention of these rules is nevertheless understood. For example, Weibo (Chinese Twitter) censored 该死的没死 (he who should die is not dead) as well as 好人不长命 (good people do not live long).

Many platforms also have censorship rules targeting references to 可惜不是你 (unfortunately not you), which is also the name of a popular song by the Malaysian singer Fish Leong.

The report continues: Content moderators censor user queries attempting to determine why the name of the song is being censored. After the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July 2022, some social media users also used the title of the song to indirectly refer to Xi.

These findings surprised researcher Jeffrey Knockel and co-author of the report.

I was surprised to find so many censorship rules targeting content wishing for Xi's death, either directly or through subtle insinuations, says Jeffrey Knockel. While it's not surprising that such content would be banned, the surprise is that censors were actually forced to create so many rules targeting this type of content, suggesting that users were generally expressing and in various ways such wishes.

Publicly wishing for Xi's death in China takes a lot of courage, which reflects the Chinese people's growing courage to criticize Xi during his third term.

A quote from Researcher Jeffrey Knockel

Xi Jinping won an unprecedented third term as president of China last fall. He surrounded himself with loyal collaborators and ousted the former prime minister, Li Keqiang, from power.

Since obtaining this mandate historic, China suddenly abandoned its draconian anti-COVID measures, which would have led to the deaths of millions of Chinese.

The law on counter- Espionage has also been strengthened and surveillance of the population remains omnipresent.

In addition, the Chinese economy is experiencing its worst results in more than 30 years, which is causing discontent among part of the population, particularly among young people whose unemployment rate exceeded 20% during the summer. .

Citizen Lab researchers were interested in the censorship surrounding language relating to the death of the former Chinese premier because it presented an opportunity for citizens to express their frustrations. The censorship targeted his political legacy and the causes of his death. The official causes, communicated publicly, indicate a heart attack at the age of 68.

The study's findings demonstrate China's continued efforts to promote Chinese Communist Party-sanctioned speech on politically sensitive topics. The suppression of web and social media search results regarding Li Keqiang's death, the authors say, presents a distorted narrative for Internet users trying to uncover information relating to Li Keqiang and the Chinese Communist Party, which has an impact on the integrity of the online information environment.

Censors were required to delicately balance the competing demands of censorship, comments Jeffrey Knockel. On the one hand, the censors did not want users to criticize Li, just as they did not want users to criticize any other senior Party leader. On the other hand, censors also didn't want users to praise Li, as he and his ideas are seen as rivaling Xi and his rule.

If you can't criticize or praise Li, that doesn't leave much room to say anything about him.

A quote from Researcher Jeffrey Knockel

The Citizen Lab is a research group at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. The group is interested in human rights, security and information issues. The report's authors from Toronto's Citizen Lab have been studying the effects of Chinese censorship since 2022, constant surveillance that continues to this day.

  • Philippe Leblanc (View profile)Philippe LeblancFollow

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