Tea Leaf Nation

China’s New Internet Crackdown: Not About Porn

China’s New Internet Crackdown: Not About Porn

BEIJING — Chinese authorities have put would-be free speech advocates on notice: Step away from the computer. As an April 14 article in Communist Party-run news portal Seeking Truth avers, from mid-April until November, government offices nationwide will be striking out at online media in a dedicated campaign called "sweep out porn, strike at rumors." An April 16 headline on state news service Xinhua declares the move is in response to "calls from people in all walks of life." But at its core, this is about going after rumors — party parlance for destabilizing falsehoods  – in the name of going after porn. In other words, it’s about ensuring that party organs, and not the Chinese grassroots, have the loudest voice on the country’s Internet.

This latest campaign has been months in the making. On Feb. 5, the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), the party organ tasked with censorship and information dissemination, ordered an investigation of "pornographic and vulgar information" — one whose main target was actually a variety of online columns, infographics, and trending or recommended reading. Interpretation of the actual meaning of "pornographic and vulgar information," of course, rests entirely with the CPD. Over 20 literary websites, including Sweet Potato Net, an inoffensive fantasy fiction site, have already been reportedly closed or investigated.

The public impact is becoming increasingly visible. On April 14, Sina Reader, a large online portal for book lovers, stated that it was temporarily shutting down for an internal investigation because of suspicions that some of the content on the channel posted by users endangered a "clean online environment." This implies that further censorship campaigns of greater scale will likely emerge soon. The campaign’s very name is redolent of 2013’s attack on online rumors — both of which have been styled as "jing wang," or efforts to cleanse the web — and Seeking Truth has explicitly stated this latest announcement marks a continuation of a larger movement.

The party has long controlled the media. One lever for doing so has been legal ambiguity; China does not have clear regulations governing  news, and so it’s unclear when a line has been crossed. The goal of the new campaign is to move the line again, putting pressure on the rights of reporters and netizens who wish to express their own opinions.

It’s a method of speech control we’ve seen all too often. Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, central authorities have been tightening the net, detaining a growing number of reporters and netizens. Shortly after Xi took the reins, the CPD prohibited "foreign media personnel" from "irresponsible" Weibos, meaning micro-blog postings, and ordered that certain websites be subject to "manual review" and strict regulation. The goal was to control the flow of information between Chinese netizens and foreigners. And the CPD is trying to smother mentions of Xu Zhiyong — it issued a Jan. 26 order prohibiting anything that "hypes" the civil society organizer, who was sentenced that day to four years in prison for the spurious charges of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place."

Some have come to feel that Xi and other central leaders are the enemies of free speech. This latest notice puts the Internet at the forefront of an assault on what the government calls fake media and fake reporting. Of course, central authorities have long taken a defensive stance against the Internet. Some netizens have taken to calling online opinion leaders, also known as "Big Vs," a contemporary member of the "black five" — the five types of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, the disastrous 1966-1976 attempt by then-Chairman Mao Zedong to re-engineer Chinese culture.

The Chinese constitution explicitly provides for freedom of speech — but in practice, authorities don’t respect that right at all. China’s Criminal Law already criminalizes "inciting others to overthrow national authorities" and other types of speech. Chinese authorities have erected the so-called Great Firewall of Censorship to keep out foreign social and mainstream media like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, not to mention the New York Times. More recently, after Li Wufeng, the deputy director of the State Council press office, fell to his death on March 26, the CPD attempted to scrub mentions of Li from social media and mainstream sites. (Li had been a high official responsible for censoring online content and had previously worked in managing the Great Firewall.)

As social conflicts intensify, particularly between Chinese officials and the people they are supposed to serve, central authorities hope to clamp down, clean up, and suppress any so-called "harmful information" that is disadvantageous to their dictatorship. Central authorities will do anything in their power to severely regulate media and Internet, turning it from a platform for relatively free expression into just another propaganda tool in the process.

Translated by David Wertime.