Chinese social media feeds are suddenly being filled with articles written solely in QR codes, in Klingon, and in dots and dashes. Netizens’ complicated cat and mouse game with China’s nebulous censorship systems has seen platforms inundated with content using increasingly obscure languages and codes in an attempt to spread information that is swiftly being deleted.
Earlier this week, an interview in Renwu (People) magazine with Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department head Dr Ai Fen was taken down, seemingly due to her detailing of allegations that she had been reprimanded by a superior after attempting to raise the alarm over a “Sars-like” virus in late December. Ai said in the interview that she had shared her concerns on her WeChat feed, a post which was subsequently shared by coronavirus whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang. “If I had known what was going to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand,” she says in the interview.
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After the original interview was removed, users on Chinese social media platforms took it upon themselves to help spread the news. Accounts on WeChat began sharing screenshots of the article, but when these were also removed iterations emerged that replaced strings of words with emojis, read vertically instead of horizontally, and were produced purely in pinyin, the standard form of romanization for Chinese characters.
From there, the reposts have gotten ever more creative. The article is now circulating as a series of QR codes, as well as in Klingon (the fictional language from Star Trek) and Sindarin (an Elvish language from JRR Tolkien’s fantasy stories, including The Lord of the Rings). Morse code, oracle bone script, computer science encoding system Base 64, and barcodes have all been used as well.
The creative subversion comes as parts of China look to slowly ease restrictions on movement and congregating in groups that have seen millions of people mostly confined to their homes since late January. According to official statistics, there have been no new recorded infections outside of Hubei province, which is home to Wuhan where the novel coronavirus Covid-19 first emerged, in the last two days.