in my teens Mr. Sojia He used his knowledge of the Internet to watch a documentary banned in China, despite Chinese censorship, about the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A decade later, he was part of a censorship agency that stifles China’s cyberspace, tasked with stopping the distribution of anything the Communist Party doesn’t want public.
“I didn’t think much of it at first because work is work,” he says.
“But deep down, I knew it didn’t fit my ethical standards, and the longer I worked on this, the more conflict I had.”
Zeng, who now lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, California, is 29 years old and downplays his experience.
Few people who have worked within a Chinese propaganda organization have told his story. Few people are openly ready to do so.
Zeng grew with the Internet.
Born in 1993 in Guangdong, southeastern China, he had his first experience with computers when his father brought them home in high school.
What he discovered when he connected to the network was amazing. “There was a whole world out there to explore,” he says AFP.
The Chinese government’s early attempts at internet censorship were less than perfect, as VPN services that changed the user’s geographic location allowed access to topics and information not publicly discussed.
Among them, “Heaven’s Gate of Peace,” a three-hour documentary dealing with the June 1989 student protests in one of Beijing’s most iconic locations, Tiananmen Square.
Zeng was shocked by what he saw. Tanks and semi-automatic weapons launched a violent crackdown on unarmed students, killing hundreds, possibly thousands.
“This is a huge, important and historical event, but no one told us, and we can’t look it up on the Chinese Internet. The material has been deleted.”
“I thought it was a big lie.
Censorship by China and TikTok
Like many of his brightest generation, Zeng spent his university years abroad and returned to Estonia with a degree in business administration.
His technical superiority caught the attention of Chinese startup ByteDance. ByteDance’s apps, his TikTok globally and his Douyin domestically, competed with Twitter and Facebook.
“ByteDance is the only successful company outside of China, so I was very excited at first,” he said.
And in addition to intellectual stimulation, it was a good job that brought him a salary of $4,000, above the Beijing average. Zeng was part of the team that developed an automated system to filter content from his platform.
Incorporating artificial intelligence, they observed images, examined the sounds that accompanied them, transcribed comments, and looked for banned words.
If the system identified a problem, it was reported to one of the thousands of employees who deleted the video or blocked the broadcast.
In most cases, they were looking for content that social networks would stop them, such as pornography, unauthorized advertising, and violence. But they were also looking for politically sensitive material.
Some images were always banned, such as symbols of protests in Hong Kong, such as yellow tanks, candles and umbrellas, and criticism of President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders.
The China Cyberspace Administration gave guidance to ByteDance, but ByteDance spared no effort.
“In China, the lines are blurred. expressed as one.
The list of censored content was fluid and updated based on specific events.
In early 2020, that update included Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was trying to warn of a deadly new virus.
Lee was silenced by authorities in an attempt to suppress early warnings about what is now known as Covid 19.
“When Dr. Li Wenliang released the news, the information was censored and propagandists[on television]said he was spreading disinformation,” Zeng said.
However, Chinese netizens were outraged when the doctor himself contracted the virus.
“They updated their Twitter and Weibo. [la versión china de Twitter] In search of truth between rumors and official denials.
“Many tweets and Weibo have been deleted.”
“We want freedom of information, no more censorship,” and my Weibo account was also censored.
“In that moment, I felt part of that ecosystem.”
Now one of more than 6.5 million people in the world, Lee’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“The night Dr. Li Wenliang died, I felt that I couldn’t do it anymore,” said Zeng, who quit his job and returned to his hometown to focus on his coding skills and apply to college.
China’s future in the face of censorship
As Xi Jinping tries to win a third term as president of an increasingly nationalist government, Zeng says he feels hopeless.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to go back to China for at least 10 years.”
“In the short term, everyone is pessimistic. But I think we are optimistic about China’s future in the long term.” “If you look at our history, there have always been brave idealists who pushed for change when the time was right.”