The cryptic codes behind Chinese Covid protests

Chinese protesters in Shanghai. The sign on the wall reads 'I didn't say anything'
Chinese protesters in Shanghai. The sign on the wall reads 'I didn't say anything'

Chinese protesters are using coded messages to circumvent social media censors and air their opposition to Xi Jinping and his zero Covid policy.

Among the cryptic terms being used by government critics online are “banana peel” which has the same initials as Mr Xi’s name in Chinese, and "shrimp moss", which sounds similar to the phrase "step down".

Protesters also held up blank A4-sized sheets of white paper in a sign of solidarity and a nod to the lack of free speech in China during demonstrations in Beijing and elsewhere.

Others posted white squares on their WeChat social media profiles, echoing the black squares supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement put on their social media profiles after the death of George Floyd.

Viral photos also appeared to show students from top Chinese university Tsinghua holding up signs showing Friedmann equations - chosen for the similarity between the physicist's name and the phrase "freed man" or "freedom".

And after authorities blocked more obvious keywords and place names from internet searches, nonsensical posts comprising repeated characters with "positive" meanings went viral on the WeChat super-app and the Twitter-like Weibo, including some that simply read "right right right right right" and "good good good".

'No to Covid tests, yes to freedom'

By Monday, many of the posts had been wiped from social sites, though similar posts continued to spread.
Some crowds over the weekend called explicitly for Xi to step down, and yelled slogans like "No to Covid tests, yes to freedom," referencing a banner hung up by a solo protester in Beijing just before the Communist Party Congress in October.

Others were more cautious, holding what appeared to be silent protests and offering flowers and candles to commemorate victims of a deadly fire in Xinjiang last week that prompted the latest wave of anger.

In Beijing, a crowd at the Liangma River on Sunday night shouted "I want to do Covid tests! I want to scan my health code," inspiring Weibo users to post similarly sarcastic phrases.

Video clips of Xi as well as quotes from the president have been repurposed to support mass demonstrations, including one clip of him saying: "Now the Chinese people are organised and aren't to be trifled with."

'Put your mask on!'

Groups in multiple locations across China sang the national anthem and the Internationale at their gatherings, pre-empting accusations by Beijing that protests were unpatriotic or instigated by foreign forces.

And one viral video that was swiftly taken down by censors purportedly showed students at a university dormitory singing the song "Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies" by Cantonese pop band Beyond - an ode to freedom also adopted by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong before the pandemic.

Netizens also spread memes about the ongoing World Cup in Qatar, using images of unmasked football fans to mock China's strict zero-Covid policy.

In one widely shared video that has since been censored, a social media user overlaid audio of people screaming "put your mask on!" and "do a Covid test" on scenes of cheering World Cup spectators.