Sto José, USA: As a teenager in rural China, Zeng Jiajun used his internet savvy to watch a banned documentary about the military’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
A decade later, he was part of the sprawling censorship machinery choking China’s cyberspace tasked with stopping the proliferation of anything the Communist Party doesn’t want its people to know about.
“At first when I was working on it I didn’t think much bigger because a job is a job,” he said. “But deep down, I knew it wasn’t in line with my ethical standards. And if you work in this field for too long … the conflicts only increase.”
Now residing in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, Zeng is an easy-going 29-year-old who easily bears the weight of his past experiences.
Few people who have worked in China’s propaganda machine have told their stories. Even fewer are willing to do so openly.
Zeng grew up with the internet.
Born in 1993 in southern Guangdong Province, he got his first computer experience in elementary school when his father brought home a PC.
What he found when he went online was amazing.
“It was like a whole new world waiting for me to explore,” he told AFP.
The Chinese government’s early attempts at web censorship were imperfect; VPNs offered access to topics and information that were not discussed publicly.
Among the forbidden fruits was “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a three-hour documentary about student protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
What Zeng saw—tanks and semi-automatic weapons used in a crackdown on unarmed students that left hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead—was deeply shocking.
“It’s such a big, significant, historical event, but no one has ever told us about it and you can’t search for it on the Chinese internet; that content is all deleted,” he said.
“I just felt like it was a big lie. A lot of history is being covered up.”
Like other bright Chinese of his generation, Zeng spent his college years abroad and returned to China from Estonia with a degree in business administration.
His technical acumen eventually made him an attractive prospect for ByteDance, a burgeoning Chinese social media company whose globally-focused TikTok and inward-focused Douyin took over from Twitter and Facebook.
“At first I was very excited because ByteDance is the only company that has a successful business outside of China,” he said.
“They have TikTok, which ruled the internet in the US and Europe, so we were very proud of that. Most of the time, only US internet companies ruled the world.”
And it was good work. Intellectually stimulating work with a monthly salary of US$4,000, well above the Beijing average.
Out of bounds
Zeng said he was part of a team that developed automated systems to filter content the company didn’t want on its platform.
These systems included artificial intelligence to view images and examine the sound that accompanied them, transcribe comments, and check for objectionable language.
If the system indicated a problem, Zeng said, it would be escalated to one of thousands of human workers who could delete the video or pause the live stream.
Mostly, they were looking for things that any social media company might shy away from — self-harm, pornography, unauthorized advertising — but also politically sensitive stuff.
Some images have always been banned: images of tanks, candles or yellow umbrellas – a symbol of the Hong Kong protest – along with any criticism of President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders, according to Zeng.
He said the guidance was passed to ByteDance from the Cyberspace Administration of China, but was supplemented by the company itself, always careful not to intentionally break vague rules.
“In China, the line is blurred. They don’t know exactly what’s going to offend the government, so sometimes they go above and beyond and censor harder,” Zeng said, describing the company’s position as “like walking a tightrope.”
But the list of censors was fluid, and certain events would trigger an update.
In early 2020, this update included Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan trying to sound the alarm about a deadly new disease.
Li was silenced by authorities intent on suppressing early reports of what we now know as Covid-19.
“As Dr. Li Wenliang published the news, that information was censored and propagandists came out (on TV) saying this doctor was spreading misinformation,” Zeng said.
But when Li contracted Covid himself, Chinese netizens were outraged.
“Everyone updated Twitter or their Weibo feed to check the latest news,” Zeng said, explaining that they were searching for the truth between rumors and official denials.
“A lot of tweets or Weibo have been deleted,” he said.
“I was like, ‘We want freedom of the news. No More Censorship’ and then my Weibo account got censored too.
“In that moment, I felt like … I was a part of this ecosystem.”
Li’s death – now one of more than 6.5 million worldwide – was the last straw.
“The night Doctor Li Wenliang died, I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore,” Zeng said.
He quit his job and moved back to his hometown, where he brushed up his programming skills and applied to be a graduate student at Northeastern University’s Silicon Valley campus.
Zeng feels safe in California and doesn’t think the Chinese government would try to silence him on US soil.
His parents, who remain in China, are more cautious about the risks he faces if he speaks up.
“They just want me to be careful about what I say. They are afraid that something will go wrong or that I will be manipulated by the foreign media. But I’m not listening to them on this matter,” he said. “I assume I won’t be able to return to China for at least 10 years.”
But that cost is worth paying for Zeng, who describes the fight against censorship as “the people’s fight.”
“I think that’s a big issue (and we) should raise awareness of what’s going on in China.”
As Xi Jinping prepares to be anointed for a record-breaking third term as president of an increasingly nationalistic and strident Chinese government, Zeng is feeling somber.
“In the short term, everyone is pessimistic. But I think everyone is optimistic about China’s future in the long term. “I think if you look back at our history there are always some very brave idealists who will make the change when the moment comes.”
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