Over the past decade, Twitter has been a rare outlet where people in China who can’t stand government censorship of domestic social media have been able to express themselves. “Here are no sensitive words, no messages that can’t be displayed ‘according to the relevant laws’, and no risk of having our account shut down at any movement,” wrote a user in China back in 2016.
Other risks certainly existed. Twitter is blocked in China. Those who rely on circumvention tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) to share their views on the platform have at times paid a personal price. In February 2020, Zhou Shaoqing, a resident of the northeastern city of Tianjin, tweeted to his 300 or so followers about the authorities’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that officials would “intentionally or otherwise, reduce the number of confirmed cases”. For that and other similar tweets, a local court handed Zhou a nine-month prison sentence for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
Yet despite the government’s crackdown, my interaction with Twitter staff suggests that the company itself has traditionally been quick to react to requests to protect the accounts of Chinese human rights defenders (although some activists have criticised Twitter for not acting quickly enough). Twitter also labels content and accounts from government officials and state-affiliated media outlets around the world. The labelling of Chinese state media has led to a significant drop in engagements with those accounts.
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter threatens to change that equation between the platform and China. Already, it is sparking concerns among Chinese users. “Folks, remember to delete your phone number from your Twitter … After acquiring Twitter, [I hope] Musk wouldn’t sell user privacy to show his allegiance [to the Chinese government,]” a user tweeted in Chinese.
Musk might be the planet’s richest man, but he is particularly vulnerable to pressures from the world’s most powerful authoritarian government — one that has been deft at manipulating or leveraging foreign businesses’ access to the country to compel them to toe the Communist Party line.
Musk has significant business interests in China. The country is Tesla’s second-largest market, and sales in China have increased significantly in the past couple of years. Tesla’s plant in Shanghai is the world’s largest electric vehicle factory and the company’s primary export hub. In January, Tesla opened a showroom in Xinjiang that drew criticism from members of the US Congress and rights groups because of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeted at the region’s Uighur and other Turkic Muslim communities.
Last month, Musk suggested that Taiwan agree to being partly administered by China as a way to resolve their tensions. The proposal was welcomed by Beijing but slammed in Taipei.
His early moves after acquiring Twitter don’t inspire confidence. Musk fired Vijaya Gadde, the official responsible for trust and safety on the platform. The Washington Post has reported that a first round of layoffs would target about 25 percent of the company’s workforce, with an emphasis on departments including legal, trust and safety.
Musk has announced the formation of a content advisory board and said that no major content decisions would be made before it convenes. However, within hours of Musk’s takeover, extremist voices flooded the platform, and Musk himself on Sunday tweeted, and then deleted, an article that made an unfounded allegation about the attack on United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
All of this has renewed concerns about how Musk — who had been critical of Twitter’s content moderation policies — will handle the social media platform, which is already rife with disinformation campaigns, organised trolls and attempts at censorship by governments.
The Chinese government has repeatedly shown it cares greatly about its image outside of the country. Its diplomats, state media outlets and their journalists use Twitter to disseminate government propaganda.
They have stepped up efforts to spread disinformation on the platform in recent years, creating numerous fake accounts that defend the government’s positions on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, COVID-19 and other issues. They have also been targeting Twitter users in China, jailing those who criticise the government, and forcing them to delete sensitive tweets or close their accounts.
Yet, until now, Twitter has largely upheld its own policies, including when that has meant taking down Chinese government-linked disinformation campaigns. In December 2021, Twitter said it removed 2,048 accounts that “amplified Chinese Communist Party narratives related to the treatment of the Uyghur population”.
These actions would not have made Beijing happy. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has now created an opportunity for China to influence the discourse on the social media platform.
There are plenty of examples that demonstrate how this might work: The Chinese government has forced numerous multinationals to grovel, in order to continue to access the country’s market and its supply chains.
Apple removed hundreds of VPN apps from China’s App Store, making it nearly impossible for users in the country to circumvent government censorship and to protect their digital footprint. Company management reportedly warned the creators of some of the shows on Apple TV+ to avoid portraying China in a negative light, affecting what people around the world can watch through its streaming services (Apple did not reply to these reports).
In 2020, an agent affiliated with the Chinese government infiltrated Zoom and shut down online meetings held in the US about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Beijing also promoted boycotts of companies that have publicly expressed concerns about forced labour and other human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The US chipmaker Intel has apologised for its letter telling suppliers not to source from Xinjiang and Japanese clothing retailer Muji actually advertises the use of cotton sourced from the region, in a bid to appeal to Chinese customers.
Chinese government officials are already calling for Musk to remove labels, or, as they say, “biased words,” to Twitter accounts linked to state media.
We asked Musk for comment on our concerns but had not heard back at the time of publication.
Twitter has a responsibility to respect human rights and remedy abuses under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights — regardless of government pressure or the company owner’s personal beliefs.
This means the company must address adverse human rights impacts that stem from company practices or operations. Whatever changes are made at Twitter they must keep the rights and safety of users across China — as well as other at-risk people around the world — at their centre.
Much is at stake in these decisions. Car sales must not determine Twitter’s relationship with China’s authoritarian government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.