Fans of a humorous video app shut down by the ruling Chinese Communist Party for "vulgar content" staged traffic-stopping and horn-honking protests around the country on Thursday, as President Xi Jinping's administration extended government control over what China's internet users may see or do online.
Video footage seen by RFA showed a group of singing protesters, waving their lit-up smartphones, gathered outside the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) late on Wednesday after the agency ordered the removal of the Neihan Duanzi app from app stores.
In Yichuan county in the central province of Henan, a group of people holds up a banner expressing support for "Duanzi friends" everywhere while a man shouts out a coded slogan linked to the online community.
In the eastern province of Jiangsu, rows of cars with headlights and hazard lights flashing were seen stationary in the middle of a highway, while people stood holding a banner supporting "Duanzi friends" in the middle of the road.
Meanwhile, motorists in the southern province of Hunan parked up with lights flashing, emitting long honking sounds on their horns, in a protest also related to the removal of the app.
Earlier, video footage emerged on Twitter claiming to be of a similar, horn-honking protest at the heart of the Chinese capital, although RFA was unable to verify the video independently.
Sources told RFA that the protests were flash-mobs organized online, using secret signals to allow "Duanzi friends" to recognize each other: a car-horn beeped in a specific long-short-short rhythm, and a double-flash of the headlights.
Platform for the disgruntled
Neihan Duanzi will permanently shut down its app and user accounts at the request of regulatory authorities," according to an Apr. 11 statement displayed on the app's website.
The platform had allowed users to share satirical videos, spoofs and mashups of a kind targeted by the ruling party in recent years, as propaganda officials seek to clamp down on any content not generated by officially recognized sources.
One humorous video posted to the Neihan Duanzi Facebook page last November showed a group of young men in college dorm beds, unable to motivate themselves because of a lack of life prospects.
"If we get up for class, that doesn't mean we'll pay attention," says one. "If we pay attention, we won't necessarily learn anything," quips another. "If we learn anything, that doesn't mean we'll pass the test ... or graduate ... or find a job ... or make money ... or find a wife ... or that she'll get pregnant ... or that the kid will even be ours," they conclude, in humor heavily linked with the online culture of "diaosi," a slang term for young men without particularly bright prospects.
While such jokes aren't overtly political, the fact that the app community used a system of "secret codes" and gave a platform to disgruntled voices would likely raise a red flag among party propagandists in Xi Jinping's China.
A Duanzi user surnamed Zhang from Yingkou city in the northeastern province of Liaoning said he had attended a protest in the city that saw around 140 cars converge on the city's Minghu Square, West Fort and Ping An Square to protest at the app's removal.
"We did it in our city yesterday night ... there were 140 cars at Minghu Square, running from about 7:00 p.m. to about 9:00 p.m.," he said. "However, we didn't make trouble, and we didn't affect the flow of traffic. [The authorities] didn't make any response."
Zhang said the protests were organized in the hope that the government would reverse the decision to shutter Neihan Duanzi for good.
But he said he had been unable to upload video of the protest to the internet, suggesting that news of the protests is also being censored.
Political commentators who spoke to RFA said that while the app wasn't overtly political, it did provide a way for people to overcome social fragmentation, and its potential for organizing and connecting its more than 100 million users likely made the government nervous.
Repeated calls to officials at SARFT rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Zhang Yiming, CEO and founder of Neihan Duanzi's parent company Jinri Toutiao, issued a public apology on Wednesday to Neihan Duanzi users.
"Jinri Toutiao will permanently shut down Neihan Duanzi," Zhang said. "The product took a wrong turn. The content that appeared there went against core socialist values and we did not do a thorough job in guiding public opinion."
Zhang blamed Toutiao's reliance on recommendation algorithms, at the expense of government guidelines.
He said the company is currently undergoing a "rectification" process aimed at "restoring order to the Toutiao community," by hiring 4,000 new staff to monitor content.
Beijing artist and poet Wang Zang said the protests could be indicative of a much broader, simmering public resentment over years of micromanaged censorship by the government, however.
"Actually, in such a restricted climate, with the advent of the New Cultural Revolution where the suppression of freedom of speech is at crazy levels, it's actually pretty important to see people standing up over the closure of an app," Wang said.
"We have become so accustomed to being shut down and blocked in the past few years ... and a lot of people have just been keeping their mouths shut," he said. "[But] I think the authorities will only create more resistance from internet users, with their crazy levels of censorship."
Earlier this month, SARFT also suspended news apps Jinri Toutiao for three weeks; Phoenix News for two weeks; and NetEase News for one week, while Tiantian News was shut down for three days.
The authorities said the apps had been broadcasting unauthorized news content without an online broadcasting license.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.