Minutes into a lecture, Chu Xinjian’s online class abruptly stopped. It was the first day of an unusual semester. Across China early this year, schools went virtual. Officials curtailed classroom gatherings from grade school to university level. It was part of an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. The virus first surfaced in Wuhan, a city in central China.
Chu’s professor was sending voice recordings to the class online. Without warning, the system disbanded the group. The reason given: violating China’s internet rules.
China’s Communist Party regulates social media heavily. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are blocked. Citizens—or professors teaching classes—can use homegrown internet outlets such as Weibo and WeChat. But the government-run Cyberspace Administration and the police monitor all communications. They scrub any content deemed offensive.
Monitoring is pervasive. Louis Wang, a middle school history teacher, says, “Every word that is spoken in a video recording must be pre-approved.”
Participants may never know what prompted an interruption. That was the case in Chu’s class. The group was studying bioinformatics, the science of analyzing complex biological data. “I’m not sure exactly what phrases triggered it,” says Chu. “I guess we touched on some sensitive topic.”
History and politics classes are the most vulnerable to censorship. Western students study Chinese events such as the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square Incident. But not Chinese students. Those subjects are off limits. Western maps that show Taiwan in a color different from mainland China are not allowed because China claims to control that independent island nation. The state permits only props, statements, and views fully aligning with Chinese national unity.
Despite the restrictions, China’s Education Ministry declared business as usual. “Classes have stopped, but learning will not,” an official February notice said. The Ministry established 24,000 free online courses during weeks of curfews and quarantines. Business meetings and fitness classes even “met” through the internet.
But while activities continued, China’s citizens weren’t living freely. All internet activity is subject to recording or real-time inspection by government agents. One could listen in at any point, without participants’ knowledge.
Teachers must be vigilant. Spontaneous classroom discussions could be recorded, misunderstood, and circulated online. Even non-controversial statements can conflict with the censors.
For Wang, the answer is writing out his entire lecture. Before he reads it to his online class, a school administrator approves every word.
Almost all political terminology is censored online. That made teaching a politics class extremely difficult for Wang’s colleague. Wording essential to his lesson, even though consistent with China’s political ideals, was scrubbed from notes he planned to share online with students.
A well-known Chinese comedian predicted removal of his social media post when he said, “The absence of freedom of speech will impact our education, our lives. It’s not so funny now, is it?”
As expected, the comedian’s post is no longer visible on Weibo.