Still a young teenager, Zeng Jiajun used his computer skills from the depths of his Chinese countryside to uncover the truth about the massacre in Tiananmen Square, perpetrated by the Chinese regime.
Ten years later, he was an integral part of the Communist Party-controlled censorship machine to stifle Chinese cyberspace.
“At the beginning, when I was working on it, I didn’t think much of it because a job is a job”, says this pleasant young man of 29 years, evoking his past with lightness, without claiming anonymity.
“But deep down, I knew it didn’t match my ethical values,” he explains from Silicon Valley, the cradle of tech in California, where he now lives. “And when you work in this area for too long, … those internal tugs get stronger and stronger.”
His testimony, that of a link in the Chinese propaganda apparatus, is extremely rare.
– Tiananmen clash –
Zeng grew up with the internet. Born in 1993 in the province of Guangdong (south), his first experience with computers dates back to primary school, when his father brought home a PC.
What he then discovers online stuns him. “It was like a whole new world waiting for me to explore,” he recalls.
At the time, the Chinese government’s censorship remained imperfect: simple VPNs provided access to taboo information.
Among the forbidden fruits, the teenager comes across “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”, a documentary about the student protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Tanks, semi-automatic weapons: Zeng is then deeply shocked by the violent repression against unarmed students, which will cause hundreds, even thousands of deaths.
“It’s such a significant and historic event, but no one ever told us about it, and you can’t even find out about it on the Chinese internet: this episode is erased.”
“I felt like I was facing a huge lie, that a lot of the story is hidden,” he adds.
Like many of his generation, Zeng was educated abroad in Estonia. After a degree in business administration, his computer know-how finally led him to Bytedance, the start-up creator of the social network TikTok – Douyin on the Chinese market -, rival of Twitter and Facebook.
“At first, I was very excited because Bytedance is the only company that has had success outside of China,” he explains.
“They have TikTok, which dominates the internet in the US and Europe, and we were very proud of that.”
Intellectually stimulating, his work earns him 4,000 euros per month, a salary well above the Beijing average.
– Political censorship –
Zeng is then part of a team that develops algorithms to filter content deemed undesirable by Bytedance.
Using artificial intelligence, they examine images and sounds, looking for things that are banned on TikTok. If the system spots a problem, it escalates it to one of thousands of staff capable of deleting a video or interrupting a live.
Most of the time, it’s content censored by all platforms – self-harm, pornography, unauthorized advertising. But politically sensitive topics are also targeted.
Photos of tanks, candles or yellow umbrellas – a symbol of protest in Hong Kong – are for example systematically censored. So does criticism of President Xi Jinping or other Communist Party leaders.
According to the computer scientist, Bytedance does even more than apply the deliberately vague rules enacted by the administration.
“In China, the lines are blurred. You don’t know precisely what will offend the government, so sometimes you go beyond and censor more severely,” he explains. Bytedance is thus reduced to “walking on eggshells”.
Never complete, the censorship list is often updated after certain controversial events.
In early 2020, the system targeted Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist from Wuhan who was sounding the alarm about a new deadly disease that was going to turn the world upside down: Covid-19.
Authorities glossed over the doctor’s initial reports of the virus.
“Propagandists went on TV to say that this doctor was spreading false information,” Zeng said.
But when Doctor Li contracted the coronavirus himself, Chinese netizens were furious.
“Everyone was updating Twitter or their Weibo feed (the main Chinese social network, editor’s note) to check the latest news” and navigate between rumors and official denials. “Many tweets or Weibo posts have been deleted.”
“I posted something like ‘we want freedom of information. No more censorship’, and then my Weibo account was also censored,” Zeng said.
“At that moment, I felt like I was part of this ecosystem.”
Li’s death was the last straw for the computer scientist. From there, “I felt that I couldn’t do that anymore,” he says.
He then quit his job and returned to his hometown, where he honed his coding skills, before enrolling at Northeastern University, which has a campus in California.
As Xi Jinping prepares to be nominated for a record third term at the head of an increasingly nationalist Chinese government, Zeng is bitter.
“I don’t think I will be able to return to China for at least ten years,” he admits, however, believing that “everyone is long-term optimistic for the future of China”.
Because “if you look at our history, there are always very courageous idealists who change things when the time comes.”
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