Addressing the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi Jinping asserted the importance of “creating a clear and bright cyberspace” (营造清朗的网络空间) and the “correct public opinion guidance” (正确舆论导向). China’s censorship apparatus has aided the state and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader´s goal by removing unwelcome online content. But is only now turning its attention to actively fostering content it does like even by regulation– a move that could potentially push authorities’ already infamous online information control to new levels.
Officially encouraged online content is described in the Cyberspace Administration of China’s (CAC) Provisions on Governance of the Online Content Ecosystem. They came into force on 1 March and call for “correct portrayals of the Party” and “presenting true image of China to the world”. The provisions resemble a political directive and envision an “online content eco-system” (网络信息内容生态) in which online platforms like Weibo or WeChat play a central role. As they control the technical infrastructure, they are expected to make welcome content more visible, even via recommendation services like the Weibo’s list of trending topics.
Chinese officials admit that “good netizens do not fall from heaven” (好网民不是天上掉下来的). The CAC hopes to build on its already lengthy experience in engaging with the online public. For example, the CAC launched its campaign “Strive to be a good Chinese netizen” (争做中国好网民) in April 2016 to encourage voluntary pro-regime voices to be active on the internet, promote “online role models” and organize meetups and training.
China has build a solid foundation of pro-regime bloggers
According to state media, one CAC-inspired online training program conducted by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in 2017 attracted 160 million participants, roughly twenty percent of all internet users in in the country that year. The CAC’s campaign – which also targeted college students, members of the Communist Youth League and military veterans – built a solid foundation of pro-regime bloggers, raised awareness about the ideological work of the state, and helped to disseminate ideological expectations among the broader public.
Campaigns like this expanded the ranks of voluntary pro-regime voices, diminished critical voices through repeated crackdowns and used censorship to control the online environment. It is fair to assume that this gave authorities the confidence to push for further legal regulation – even if the resulting definitions are often not very precise. For example, the new rules require netizens to avoid “making improper comments on natural disasters and major accidents” (不当评述自然灾害) that fall under the “undesired content” (不良信息). Such vague formulations risk triggering a wide spectrum of interpretation and makes compliance difficult.
Beijing wants to keep netizens on their toes
But Beijing’s preferred goal is clearly not to flood the judiciary with cases. It wants to keep users on their toes so that they themselves counter attempts to publish unwelcome information at initial stages of content production or reproduction and fill the cyberspace with positive accounts. Uncertainty about legal norms forces stakeholders in the ecosystem to be over-cautious, monitor others, adjust as the Party line adjusts, and self-censor as a last resort.
This soft law approach to desirable content aided by existing laws to suppress undesirable content. The criminal and administrative laws allow much unwanted information to be dubbed as “spreading rumours”. This can lead to detentions – and even criminal sanctions in case they cause social unrest or become too popular. Authorities can now easily issue warnings and temporary restrictions while still relying on harsher penalties in case of non-compliance. Content producers constantly have to second-guess themselves.
A more self-reliant system for preliminary content management could be useful as Beijing turns towards promoting the spread of “positive energy” (正能量) and calls for more “gratitude” (感恩) in the coronavirus crisis. While media outlets and social media accounts continue to have undesired content sanctioned by professional censors, a voluntary popular censorship is emerging. “Good netizens” are meant to counter critical voices and post positive news hailing the achievements of the system and helping it resolve political and societal issues.
Here is an example of the system in action. The story of Ai Fen, a doctor who shared information about the coronavirus early and was reprimanded by the police, spurred a wave of digital disobedience. But one influential Weibo user argued supporting Ai Fen was pointless given the thousands of medical workers involved. He stressed Beijing’s propaganda that the US was hiding cases and Europe showing a lack of solidarity. This user has over 6 million followers and the CAC’s named him a top 100 “positivity online role model” (网络正能量榜样).
Such posts help Beijing divert attention from sensitive topics and reinforce the regime’s narrative by guiding the public through China's as yet contested cyberspace. Once the regime has mobilized enough loyal content producers to counter unwelcome narratives, critical platforms and users that fail to self-censor their online contributions could be pushed to the margins of China’s clear and bright cyberspace. All with the help of the new regulations.
About the author:
David Lenz is an intern in the Public Policy and Society team at MERICS. He is pursuing an MA in Sinology and Law at the University of Vienna. He has worked as a developer and data analyst in the ERC-funded project on “The Microfoundations of Authoritarian Responsiveness: E-Participation, Social Unrest and Public Policy in China“.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.