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Chinese police are searching phones for Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram as protests mount

Chinese police are searching phones for Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram as protests mount


People are using the banned services to communicate and organize protests against China’s strict covid restrictions.

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People in Hong Kong protest in a line while holding blank white sheets of paper.
Protestors in Hong Kong show solidarity with people in mainland China and hold blank sheets of paper as a symbol of censorship.
Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Police in China are checking people’s phones for the presence of foreign apps, including Instagram, Twitter, and the encrypted messaging app Telegram, according to reports from The Wall Street Journal and CNBC. While both outlets indicate that police are stopping people at transportation hubs in Shanghai, William Yang, the East Asia correspondent at the German outlet DW News, says it’s happening in Beijing and Hangzhou as well.

According to reports from TechCrunch and The Washington Post, people in the country are accessing banned services like Twitter, Telegram, and Instagram through virtual private networks (VPNs) to communicate and organize protests against China’s zero-covid policies. Posts about the protests are heavily censored on Chinese social media, and a flood of spam — supposedly posted by accounts with ties to the Chinese government — is reportedly burying legitimate reports about the protests on Twitter.

In China’s capital city, Yang says that the authorities are writing down the personal information of anyone they catch with foreign apps and giving them a warning. “If they face resistance, police would say they could report the person,” he adds. These stops can occur anywhere, Yang notes, such as in the street and at mall entrances. Chinese police are also threatening to arrest people for not deleting photos of the protests, according to the BBC.

Protests erupted throughout China and Hong Kong after a fire at an apartment building in China’s Xinjiang province killed 10 people on Friday. Once news of the fire got out, people began questioning whether China’s covid restrictions hindered emergency response efforts or prevented the building’s tenants from evacuating. The fire took three hours to put out, and one resident told the BBC that the authorities controlled when they were allowed to leave their homes. Last week, violent demonstrations at Foxconn’s “iPhone City” broke out after the workers, who have been under a strict covid lockdown for weeks, found out their bonus payments would be delayed.