As a teenager, Zeng Jiajun used his knowledge of the Internet to watch a banned documentary China About the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
A decade later, he was part of the censorship machinery that clamped down on Chinese cyberspace, tasked with preventing the distribution of anything the Communist Party disapproved of in public knowledge.
“At first, I didn’t think much of it, because a job is a job,” Zheng said. “But deep down, I knew it wasn’t up to my ethical standards. The longer you do it, the stronger the conflict becomes.”
Now living in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, Zheng is a 29-year-old who carries the weight of his experience lightly. Some who worked for the Chinese propaganda apparatus told their story. And very few are willing to do so openly.
Zeng grew up with the Internet. Born in 1993 in the southeastern province of Guangdong ChinaHe got his first experience with computers in high school, when his father brought home a computer.
What he discovered when he joined the network was surprising. “There was a whole world to explore,” he recalls.
The Chinese government’s first attempts to censor the Internet were not perfect, as VPN services that changed the user’s geographic location allowed access to topics and information not discussed in public.
Among them is “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a three-hour documentary about the June 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Beijing.
Zheng was impressed by what he saw: tanks and semi-automatic weapons aimed at unarmed students in a violent crackdown that killed hundreds, if not thousands.
“It’s a big, significant and historic event, but no one told us about it, and you can’t see it on the Chinese Internet. The material has been deleted,” he said.
“I felt it was a big lie, a big story was made up,” he said.
Like many peers of his generation, Zeng spent his college years abroad and returned home from Estonia with a business administration degree.
Its technological dominance has attracted the attention of Chinese startup ByteDance, whose apps, such as global TikTok and domestic Douyin, compete with Twitter and Facebook. It was a good job, with intellectual stimulation, and earned him an average salary of $4,000. Beijing.
“At first I was really excited because the Bite Dance was the only outdoor winner China“, said.
Zheng was part of a team that developed automated systems to filter content from the platform. Incorporating artificial intelligence, the program is able to analyze images, sounds and comments in search of prohibited content.
If the system detected a problem, it was sent to one of thousands of employees who deleted the video or blocked the transmission.
Most of the time, the banned content was the kind that would be banned on any other social network, such as pornography, unauthorized advertising or violence. But at the same time, it tasked the group with identifying and banning posts deemed politically sensitive.
Zeng said the list of censored content is fluid and updated based on specific events. However, criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping or other Communist Party leaders was often banned, as were images of tanks, candles or yellow umbrellas (symbols of the 2014 Hong Kong protests).
Cyberspace Administration China, from the country’s government, ByteDance was given guidance. ” at China, the line is fine. You don’t know exactly what will offend the government, so sometimes you censor more and more harshly.”
According to Zheng, at the beginning of 2020, in the update of the list of prohibited subjects, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, tried to warn of a deadly new virus. Eager to suppress early warnings about what we now know as Covid-19, Li was silenced by the authorities.
“When Dr. Li Wenliang published the news, the information was censored, and the propagandists [do governo] He said he was spreading false information,” Zheng said.
However, Chinese netizens were outraged when the doctor himself contracted the virus. People will update Twitter and Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) to check the news and try to find the truth between rumors and official denials. “Many tweets or Weibos have been deleted,” said a former Byte Dance employee.
“We need freedom of information “At that point, I felt like I was part of that ecosystem.”
However, the last straw for him was Li’s death. “The night Dr. Li Wenliang died, I felt that I could not continue doing this [antigo trabalho]”, said.
After quitting his job, Zheng said goodbye to his homeland and moved to the United States, where he is studying at Northeastern University. Chinese say Xi Jinping is hopeless now as he looks set to win a third term as head of a rising nationalist government. “I accept that I can’t go back China At least for ten years,” he said.
“In the short term, everyone is pessimistic, but I think there is long-term optimism about the future. China“, Zeng mused. “If you look at our history, there are always courageous idealists who will make a difference when the time comes.”
Zheng said goodbye to his homeland and moved to the United States, where he is studying at Northeastern University (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP)
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