As a teenager in rural China, Zeng Jiajun used his online knowledge to watch a banned documentary about the bloody military campaign in Tiananmen Square.
A decade later, he was part of the sprawling censorship machine stifling China’s cyberspace, tasked with stopping the spread of anything the Communist Party didn’t want its people to know.
“Initially when I worked on this I didn’t think it was much bigger than that because a job is a job,” he said.
“But deep down I knew it wasn’t in line with my own ethical standards. And once you’ve been in this field for so long… the conflicts get stronger and stronger.”
Now living in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, he’s a cute 29-year-old who shoulders the brunt of his past experience lightly.
Few people who worked inside the propaganda apparatus in China told their stories. Even fewer are willing to do so publicly.
Zeng grew up with the Internet.
Born in 1993 in the southern province of Guangdong, his first experience with computing was during elementary school, when his father brought a computer home.
What he found when he went online was amazing.
“There was a whole new world waiting for me to explore,” he told AFP.
The Chinese government’s early attempts to censor the Internet were imperfect; VPNs provided access to topics and information that were not publicly discussed.
Among the forbidden fruits was The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a three-hour documentary about student protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
What Zeng saw – tanks and semi-automatic weapons used against unarmed students in a violent crackdown that left hundreds, perhaps thousands of people dead – was very shocking.
“It’s a huge, important and historic event, but nobody told us that, and you can’t search for it on the Chinese Internet; that content has been completely erased,” he said.
“It felt like a big lie. A lot of history was hidden.”
Like other intelligent Chinese of his generation, Zeng spent his university years abroad, returning to China with a degree in business administration from Estonia.
His tech expertise eventually made him an attractive prospect for ByteDance, an upstart Chinese social media company whose world-facing TikTok and inward-facing Douyin has been capturing the power of Twitter and Facebook.
“Initially I was very excited that ByteDance is the only company that has a successful business outside of China,” he said.
“They have TikTok, which rules the internet in the United States and Europe, so we were very proud of that. Most of the time, it’s only American internet companies that rule the world.”
It was a good job. Intellectually stimulating work with a monthly salary of $4,000 was well above the average in Beijing.
Zeng said he was part of a team that developed automated systems to filter out content the company didn’t want on its platform.
These systems included artificial intelligence to look at images, scan the accompanying audio, write comments and search for forbidden language.
If the system reports a problem, Zeng said, it will be passed to one of the thousands of human workers who can delete the video or stop the live broadcast.
Mostly they were looking for something that any social media company would reject – self-harm, pornography, unauthorized advertising – but also anything politically sensitive.
Some images have always been taboo: images of tanks, candles or yellow umbrellas – the symbol of Hong Kong’s protest – along with any criticism of President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders, according to Zeng.
He said the directive was handed over to ByteDance from China’s Cyberspace Administration, but the company itself complements it, always wary of intentionally bypassing vague rules.
“The line is not clear in China. You don’t know precisely what offends the government, so sometimes it will go further and impose more harsh censorship,” Zeng said, describing the company’s stance as “like walking a tightrope.”
But the censor’s list has been volatile, and certain events may lead to an update.
In early 2020, this update included Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was trying to sound the alarm about a deadly new disease.
Lee was silenced by authorities who were eager to suppress early reports of what we now know as Covid-19.
“When Dr. Li Wenliang broke the news, this information was monitored, and propagandists (on TV) appeared and said that this doctor is spreading misinformation,” Zeng said.
But when Li himself contracted Covid, Chinese netizens were outraged.
“Everyone was refreshing their Twitter or Weibo feed to see the latest news,” Zeng said, explaining that they were searching for the truth between rumors and official denials.
“Many tweets or Weibo have been deleted,” he said.
“I posted something like, ‘We want freedom of news. No more censorship,” then my Weibo account got censored as well.
“In that moment, I felt like I…was part of this ecosystem.”
Lee’s death – now one of more than 6.5 million deaths worldwide – was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“On the night that Doctor Li Wenliang died, I felt like I couldn’t do that anymore,” Zeng said.
He quit his job and returned to his hometown, where he hone his coding skills and applied to become a graduate student at Northeastern University’s Silicon Valley campus.
Zeng feels safe in California, and doesn’t think the Chinese government will try to silence him on American soil.
His parents, who remain in China, are more cautious about the risks he takes for speaking out.
“They just want me to be careful about what I say. They worry that things might go wrong or that foreign media will manipulate me. But I don’t listen to them on this issue,” he said.
“I suppose I won’t be able to go back to China for at least 10 years.”
But that cost is worth paying for Zeng, who describes the fight against censorship as “the people’s struggle.”
“I think this is a huge issue (and we have to) raise awareness of what’s happening in China.”
As Xi Jinping prepares to win a record third term as head of China’s increasingly nationalist and hardline government, Zeng is feeling bleak.
“In the short term, everyone is pessimistic. But I think everyone is optimistic in the long term about China’s future.
“I think if you go back to our history, there are always some brave idealists who will bring about change when the time comes.”