If you happen to be browsing Chinese social media these days, you might stumble across posts that appear to be a random jumble of Chinese characters and emoji. This isn’t some modern day secret language concocted by China’s youth; it’s an elaborate way to fight censorship targeting a doctor who blew the lid on the country’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Ai Fen is the director of the emergency department at a hospital in Wuhan, the center of the Covid-19 epidemic. She recently gave an interview to local state-run magazine People, in which she suggested that the authorities missed an opportunity to issue a warning about the disease.

The article was published on Tuesday on China’s social media platform WeChat. It was quickly deleted by local censors, but not before it stirred up online anger over the government’s handling of the outbreak.

Ai Fen’s interview in People magazine translated into emoji, Morse code, hexadecimal code. (Picture: Zhuanboxue Zhi Si/Ditoushe/Qingshen Bingren Leguan Duo via WeChat)

The text and screenshots of the original article are still circulating on the web, but netizens in China are finding creative ways to make it more accessible to people in China and keep it going viral. 

Dozens of WeChat accounts were playing a cat-and-mouse game with censors on Wednesday by reposting the interview in seemingly every format imaginable. The obvious choices of images and PDFs were common, but people were also posting it in Morse code, braille and even using emoji.

The effort to talk about the virus is turning viral itself. As if emoji wasn’t weird enough, people have also been using ancient Chinese characters and the more contemporary hexadecimal code used in computing. As the day progressed, more versions popped up. These included a translation into Sindarin, the fictional elvish language created by J.R.R. Tolkien, and a rendition using Mao Zedong’s calligraphy.

Some tried posting the article with the text backward in an effort to confuse automated censorship. Others tried using web design tricks and QR codes that reveal the text once scanned.

QR codes, Martian language and braille are being used to keep the coronavirus conversation alive in China. (Picture: Qu Sang Su via WeChat)

Some are even resorting to languages that would be difficult for even the brainiest netizens to interpret, like the 3,000-year-old oracle bone script made up of the earliest known Chinese characters, and Martian, a kind of Chinese slang popular in the early days of the country’s internet. 

But you don’t need to understand any of these languages to get the message. The trend seems to no longer be just about sharing the content, but about the act of skirting censorship.

Chinese internet users have long used memes, images and clever phrases to talk about events deemed sensitive by the government, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But censors have become more adept at deleting content over the years. WeChat, for instance, can filter both text and images, according to findings from CitizenLab.

Anger over the government’s response to the coronavirus has now emboldened efforts to get around censorship. Over the past several weeks, as the coronavirus has taken more than 4,000 lives worldwide, Chinese internet users have been calling for more free speech in a rare display of collective defiance. 

The death of another whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang, turned out to be an important inflection point. At the end of December, Li shared a hospital report about a dangerous SARS-like disease on WeChat. The report was written by Ai Fen, the Wuhan doctor from the magazine interview.

You may not understand the language, but you know what it means. (Picture: Yingying Weiguan/TUCAO Cun/Xiao Qiang Zhuabo via WeChat)

Ai said she was reprimanded for sounding the alarm about the illness without permission. And Li was also one of multiple doctors punished by authorities for spreading rumors. When he later died of the virus, Chinese social media became overrun with an outpouring of grief and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis.

As a result, authorities have increased crackdowns, suspending social media accounts from well-known intellectuals and blocking hundreds of keywords on WeChat about the Covid-19 disease.

Ai Fen’s interview is the latest target of this crackdown. Although some versions of the article can still be accessed, many of them have been “404-ed,” a common expression used for deleted content.

As this game of Whac-A-Mole continues, some social media users have reacted to the government’s censorship efforts by sharing a poignant quote from the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

“Oh, Harry, don’t you see?” Hermione breathed. “If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”