China’s elaborate censorship mechanism, nicknamed the Great Firewall, blocks tens of thousands of foreign websites deemed hostile to the Communist Party regime.
While some internet users inside China count on services like VPNs and proxies to get access to Facebook, Twitter, and overseas news outlets, many Chinese netizens never bother. They’re satisfied with the filtered information they get on China’s “intranet,” as it is sometimes jokingly called in China.
But recently, hundreds of Chinese investors, who may be out $6 billion in one of China’s biggest financial scams, have leaped over the Great Firewall in an organized, determined way. After being ignored by China’s regulators and lawmakers, these desperate investors are pouring into Twitter to spread news of their plight.
While their numbers are small, their actions are already inspiring other Chinese investors burned in a monumental number of recent scams, turning Twitter into a new venue for angry Chinese citizens to protest. And as they leap over the Great Firewall, some are coming to a new realization—the government has been cracking down on free speech and civil protests just like theirs for years.
More than 300 investors in Fanya Metal Exchange, have become active Twitter users, mostly thanks to Cong, 30, a state bank employee in Shanghai. Like many Fanya investors, Cong asked not to reveal her full name for fear that the government would retaliate. Her case is also typical: She put her life savings, nearly one million yuan (around $150,000), into the exchange because she trusted the local government and state banks which endorsed it.
Cong rallied her fellow Fanya investors to join her Twitter initiative at the end of April. In less than a month, she had gathered hundreds in a WeChat group she set up. Most of them had never used Twitter before, and more than half are middle-aged, and not even active internet users. Most just know how to use chat apps like Weibo or WeChat.
Cong had to learn step-by-step how to bypass online censorship herself, and then she wrote instructions for others. She recommends the Lantern proxy tool for Android phones, and GreenVPN for iPhones, as she finds them the most stable.
“I was really tired when everyone was asking me questions,” Cong told Quartz. Although teaching was frustrating sometimes, she felt “really touched” because many senior investors were willing to join them.
A 70-year-old retiree from Shanghai, who asked to be identified only by his surname Sheng, is the oldest. It took him three days to complete the setup to write his first tweet. It took him three days to complete the setup to write his first tweet, he said. He wanted to give up at one point but didn’t because he thought, “If everyone else can do it, why I can’t?”
Sheng sank two million yuan—more than 90% from selling his only apartment—into Fanya. He hadn’t taken part in any protests in the past, because of a medical history of heart attacks and strokes. But now he feels connected to other investors by joining the outcry on Twitter.
“I only ask the government to treat common people fairly,” he said.
Everyone in the group is encouraged to make at least one post per day, no matter whether it is pictures or videos of the protests they attended, or details of the miserable changes in their lives. “We must @ prominent media,” Cong wrote in the instructions she sent out to investors, including a list of twitter handles from the UN to the BBC to US president Barack Obama.
Obama’s Twitter feed is now flooded with hundreds of tweets, in both Chinese and English, crying for help:
Most of these investors cannot really speak or write in English. Those who understand English best sometimes write a template for others to copy. Most of the time, individuals use online translation tools to turn their Chinese writing into English messages, though they’re often written with poor grammar like “please attention.”
The effort may be paying off. This week, Wen Yunchao, a New York-based Chinese human rights activist who has nearly 250,000 followers, made a public list of the Fanya investors he discovered on Twitter, and re-tweeted them to call for attention. Another Twitter user offered 200 free accounts of a proxy service to them.
“There must be some righteous media people in the world” Cong said they haven’t heard back from media for interview requests (except Quartz), perhaps because some foreign news outlets have already covered their physical protests in China. They are looking for more, she said. “There must be some righteous media people in the world.”
While these investors keep on “harassing” foreign media and Obama on Twitter, they are also planning a direct email campaign, in a template as follows:
Dear Sir & Madam,
We are Fanya investors who are cheated by the government. We lost our life savings by putting money into government funded company Fanya!… Could you please report Fanya on your media? Please help us!
A changing world behind the wall
China’s netizens have collectively jumped the Great Firewall before, but for very different reasons. In January, an army of Chinese trolls blasted the Facebook page of Taiwan’s incoming president Tsai Ing-wen with anti-Taiwan comments and memes, for example.
Fanya’s investors, though, would have been unlikely to try to go around Chinese censorship beforehand. “If this hadn’t happened, I would never have learned to ‘jump the wall,’” one investor named Tittizhush wrote on Twitter. “I used to live my nourishing life, but now… it’s horrible.”
What’s more, they were unlikely to express “anti-China” opinions before—but now many do.
Like most upper middle class in China who enjoy a “nourishing life” in China (an often-used phrase that means much the same as “comfortable life”) Fanya’s investors didn’t think much about freedom of speech, assembly, demonstration, voting rights, or democracy until they realized they needed them to recover their life savings. She realized “unfair, unbelievable things happen in China every day.”
After joining Twitter, Cong said she realized “unfair, unbelievable things happen in China every day.” She keeps on reading posts about the government’s crackdown on individuals’ rights and civil society. “In the past I was optimistic about our country,” she said. Now she writes in her Twitter biography, “I hate China, I want leaving here, go anywhere.”
Gu, 50, who accumulated his fortune through his property business, invested seven million yuan into Fanya. More than four million yuan were bank loans, and he had to borrow money from his relatives to pay them back. “I spent the past year to understand the real China,” Gu said of the government’s crackdown on their protests to recoup their losses. “Otherwise I’d be still living in the world of CCTV news broadcast.”
Gu said he only posts about Fanya, but reads about other civil rights movements including the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, on Twitter. He hopes to see China guarantee free speech and elections in the future. “After all, we, generation after generation, live in this place,” he said. But if democracy remains beyond reach in China, Gu said, many investors, himself included, think that they or their children will have to emigrate.
Investors from two other financial frauds have reached out asking how to organize similar activities on Twitter, Cong said.
She believes such action is worth trying, but whether it has any impact still depends on Beijing. “If the Chinese government doesn’t care about how the world thinks of it,” she said, the Twitter fight “doesn’t make sense.”