Chinese internet users are translating sensitive posts to emoji in order to evade censors.

Coronavirus: Chinese internet users are avoiding censorship with ancient scripts, Elvish, and Morse code

Mar 13, 2020

As China’s government continues to block posts about the Covid-19 coronavirus, savvy internet users are playing a cat-and-mouse game with censors, translating controversial articles into all kinds of code.

If you happen to be browsing Chinese social media these days, you might stumble across posts that appear to be a random jumble of Chinese characters and emojis.

This isn’t some modern-day secret language concocted by China’s youth; it’s an elaborate way to fight censorship targeting a doctor who blew the lid on the country’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Ever since the outbreak started in December, officials in China have been monitoring online discussions of the coronavirus and wiping posts.

To get around censors, young Chinese internet users have been translating posts using an archaic form of Chinese writing known as oracle bone script, Morse code, and even Elvish.

Examples of ways Chinese internet users have been avoiding censorship with posts translated to emoji, Morse code, and hexadecimal code used in computing.
Examples of ways Chinese internet users have been avoiding censorship with posts translated to emoji, Morse code, and hexadecimal code used in computing. / Photo: Abacus

It all began when Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at a hospital in Wuhan, the center of the Covid-19 pandemic, gave an interview to local state-run magazine People.

In the interview, she suggested that the authorities missed an opportunity to issue a warning about the disease.

(Read more: Chinese cartoonists are responding to the coronavirus with light humor and quiet protest)

The article was published on Tuesday on the Chinese social media platform WeChat. It was quickly deleted by local censors, but not before it stirred up online anger over the government’s handling of the outbreak.

The text and screenshots of the original article are still circulating on the web, but people in China are finding creative ways to make it more accessible and keep it going viral, including turning the article into a Star Wars crawl.

Dozens of WeChat accounts were playing a cat-and-mouse game with censors on Wednesday by reposting the interview in seemingly every format imaginable.

The obvious choices of images and PDFs were common, but people were also posting it in Morse code, Braille, and even emojis.

The effort to talk about the virus is turning viral itself. As if emojis weren’t weird enough, people have also been using ancient Chinese characters and the more contemporary hexadecimal code used in computing.

(Read more: The emojis you use don’t mean the same thing in China)

As the day progressed, more versions popped up. These included a translation into Sindarin, the fictional Elvish language created by J.R.R. Tolkien, and—ironically—a rendition using Mao Zedong’s calligraphy.

Some tried posting the article with the text backward in an effort to confuse automated censorship. Others tried using web design tricks and QR codes that reveal the text once scanned.

Some are even resorting to languages that would be difficult for even the brainiest netizens to interpret, like the 3,000-year-old oracle bone script made up of the earliest known Chinese characters, and Martian, a kind of Chinese slang popular in the early days of the country’s internet.

The article rendered in oracle bone script, Elvish, and as a QR code.
The article rendered in oracle bone script, Elvish, and as a QR code. / Photo: Abacus

But you don’t need to understand any of these languages to get the message. The trend seems to no longer be just about sharing the content, but about the act of skirting censorship.

Chinese internet users have long used memes, images, and clever phrases to talk about events deemed sensitive by the government, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

(Read more: All the Tiananmen memes that Chinese people use to avoid censorship)

But censors have become more adept at deleting content over the years. WeChat, for instance, can filter both text and images, according to findings from CitizenLab.

Anger over the government’s response to the coronavirus has now emboldened efforts to get around censorship. Over the past several weeks, as the coronavirus has taken more than 4,000 lives worldwide, Chinese internet users have been calling for more free speech in a rare display of collective defiance.

A cartoon commemorating the whistle-blower doctor who sounded the alarm on the coronavirus and later died from it.
A cartoon commemorating the whistle-blower doctor who sounded the alarm on the coronavirus and later died from it. / Photo: Weibo

The death of another whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang, turned out to be an important inflection point. At the end of December, Li shared a hospital report about a dangerous SARS-like disease on WeChat.

The report was written by Ai, the Wuhan doctor from the magazine interview.

Ai said she was reprimanded for sounding the alarm about the illness without permission. And Li was also one of multiple doctors punished by authorities for spreading rumours.

When he later died of the virus, Chinese social media became overrun with an outpouring of grief and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis.

As a result, authorities have increased crackdowns, suspending social media accounts from well-known intellectuals and blocking hundreds of keywords on WeChat about the Covid-19 disease.

Ai’s interview is the latest target of this crackdown. Although some versions of the article can still be accessed, many of them have been “404-ed,” a common expression used for deleted content.

Adapted from an article first published in Abacus.

The Chinese internetCensorship in ChinaCoronavirus