Chinese internet giants have become compliant parts of the regime they promised to disrupt. For Tencent’s Pony Ma and other tycoons the future is fraught
In April 2022, a resurgence of Covid spread seemingly unchecked through the financial centre of Shanghai. The government imposed a strict lockdown, confining millions to their homes, triggering mass-testing on a scale unseen since the initial outbreak and outraging affluent urban residents who were increasingly sceptical about China’s Covid-zero policy. In an attempt to control public opinion, the government told social media sites including WeChat – the super-app used by two-thirds of China’s population – to wipe and scrape posts deemed negative or critical of the policy.
But the censorship backfired. There was an unprecedented public outcry, which became a virtual protest. A video documenting the dire fallout of lockdown began circulating online. The six-minute clip known as Voices of April – a montage of audio recordings encompassing the cries of babies separated from parents during quarantine, residents demanding food and the pleas of a son seeking medical help for his critically ill father – resonated with the tens of millions in Shanghai and more across the country. The video was quickly marked as banned content and taken down from social media platforms in China. On the Twitter-equivalent Weibo, even the word “April” was temporarily restricted from search results.