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China Kicks Off New Web Crackdown

It’s spring -- time again to "sweep out porn" and "strike at rumors."

Censorship

It looks like the Chinese web may be in for another round of spring cleaning. On April 2, China’s National Sweep Out Porn, Strike At Rumors Office announced that three major domestic companies had been investigated and fined for pornographic content posted to their online platforms: web search giant Baidu, news site NetEase, and Momo, the Alibaba-backed mobile dating app whose December 2014 IPO in New York raised $216 million. The fines come as the first slate of cases in this year’s “sweep out porn, strike at rumors” campaign, kicking off the third year of what now seems to have become an increasingly institutionalized push to remove sexually explicit — and politically objectionable — material from China’s turbulent Internet.

State media have hailed the campaigns as a way to keep children safe from “harmful information” on computers and mobile phones. In classic form, an April 3 article in state news agency Xinhua featured an interview with a Shanghai mother name Zhao Yan, who told reporters that “when relevant government authorities sweep out porn and strike hard at rumors, it creates a clean and bright Internet environment for children to grow up in.” But detractors have argued that the core of the web cleanup is not removing pornography but rather silencing dissent and preventing the spread of information that authorities consider destabilizing.

The first censorship campaign of this type began in 2013, accompanied by an ambitious crackdown on Internet “rumors,” a vague term that covers not only rumors, lies, and libel — none of which are particularly hard to find on the Chinese web — but also content that authorities deem politically sensitive or potentially destabilizing. In August 2013, authorities arrested several influential microbloggers for spreading rumors and “creating a disturbance,” and a September 2013 law subjected to criminal liability Internet users who posted a rumor that was subsequently forwarded more than 500 times. In January 2014, the China Internet Network Information Center reported that the number of users of Weibo, the country’s major microblogging platform, had fallen by 9 percent in 2013, a decline some attributed to censorship’s dampening effects.

In April 2014, the “sweep out porn, strike at rumors” campaign hit the ground running, making state-media headlines for weeks. During that campaign, government didn’t shy away from punishing even large Internet companies that failed to abide by censorship regulations; authorities even suspended the online publication license of Sina, a private company that operates Weibo, for failing to remove forbidden content from the platform. State news agency Xinhua reported on Jan. 17 that in 2014, one billion posts had been removed as part of the 2014 campaign, though the actual number of censored material is likely greater.

While it’s too early to judge the character of this year’s campaign, it initially seems to be narrower in scope than previous efforts. While the 2014 drive targeted porn, “cultural trash,” “fake media,” “fake reporters,” and “fake reporting sites,” this year the only stated target is “harmful information such as sexually explicit material on big websites and illegal websites.”

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has seen a marked tightening of what’s permissible online. In the past, attempts by the ruling Communist Party at reform — be it strikes against internal graft or online skullduggery — have often come in the form of periodic campaigns that fail to effect lasting change. But Xi has vowed to cement his signature initiatives, including a sweeping anti-corruption campaign and a push to implement rule of law, into systematic and enduring reforms. With the “sweep out porn, strike at rumors” campaign now entering its third year right on schedule, it seems that stricter online policing may really have become the new normal.

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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