Less than 30 minutes into a discussion of bioinformatics, student Chu Xinjian’s class was suddenly ended.
It was the first day of an unusual school term. Across China, schools are closed in an effort to contain the new coronavirus that has killed some 3,000 people.
Chu’s class was one of tens of thousands — from grade school to university — that have been forced to go online for an undecided amount of time.
Chu’s professor was sending voice recordings to the online class group discussion when, without warning, the system ended the class. It had violated China’s strong internet laws.
The students did not know the nature of the violation. Was it something about the subject matter? Bioinformatics is the science of collecting and examining complex biological data. Chu, who spoke to Reuters about the incident said, “I guess we touched on some sensitive topic.”
Major social media sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are blocked in China. The country’s government closely watches similar sites created in China, such as Weibo and WeChat. Chinese security agents remove information considered offensive.
Now, the sudden arrival of public education onto such sites has brought new attention to government controls over the internet.
Biology courses in recent weeks have been blocked for “pornographic content.” History and politics classes are among the most at risk of shutdowns. Subjects such as China’s Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are commonly censored in classes and online discussions.
Daily life in the world’s most populous nation has changed greatly in the last six weeks. Streets that are usually full of activity are now empty. Fast-food restaurants offer only takeout service. And group activities have been replaced with online substitutes.
“Classes have stopped but learning will not,” the Education Ministry said in a February notice. It has established 24,000 free online studies on 22 websites.
Yet the country’s internet security agents have interfered with many of these substitute educational programs.
Louis Wang is a middle school history teacher in northeast China. He said his workload has expanded greatly because of a difficult approval process for online classes.
“Every word that is spoken in a video recording must be pre-approved,” Wang said.
For him, that means writing his class lectures word-for-word — about 5,000 Chinese characters each — for school administrators to examine.
Even seemingly neutral statements can cause a problem with the censors.
Wang said one of his coworkers, a politics teacher, was trying to upload a document that included the words “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in its name. That expression was made famous by former leader Deng Xiaoping and is still often used by the government today.
However, the system’s internet censors blocked the document. The teacher was able to upload it only after the group of words was removed.
Teachers are finding ways to avoid some barriers to sharing information over the internet. For example, they can sometimes share online files with individual students, even as the same documents get rejected when sharing with an online group of students. So, some teachers send files to parents and students one-by-one.
Not every problem faced by online classes involves censorship. Sometimes technical difficulties are the cause.
Cheng Yufan is a university student in the southern province of Jiangsu. She accidentally became the leader of a lecture on the first day of online classes last month.
When class was set to start, her professor did not appear. And the media site’s system appointed Cheng as the group administrator.
When her professor finally signed on, connection issues blocked his communication with the class. Cheng and the other students spent two hours listening to…nothing.
But, the professor did not even know. He wrote in the class group discussion, “See you next time!”
I’m Jonathan Evans.
The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
Words in This Story
topic – n. someone or something that people talk or write about
pronography – n. material that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement
censor – v. to examine books, movies, letters, etc., in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.
censor – n. a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.
lecture - n. a talk or speech given to a group of people to teach them about a particular subject
character - n. a graphic symbol (such as a hieroglyph or alphabet letter) used in writing or printing