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China’s Growing Censorship Is Training the Public to Be Online Snitches

Everyone from feminists to nationalists is a potential target.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
A man uses his cellphone in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
A man uses his cellphone to take a picture during the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on March 3, 2018. Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

In March, when the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials over China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Chinese netizens called for a boycott of H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry, and a few other western fashion brands. In April, an old acquaintance of mine, an engineer living in Jiangsu province, posted on his WeChat Moment—a public-facing part of the ubiquitous social media platform and messaging service—expressing his frustration that people kept purchasing items from these brands. He received support from a few others with a similar mindset, and they later on formed a WeChat group, designed a few leaflets arguing for boycotts, and planned to distribute these leaflets in front of a major department store on Labor Day.

In May, he updated his WeChat Moment, saying he received a polite phone call from a local policeman, warning him that gathering at public places could be illegal and be considered as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—a criminal charge often used to detain activists. He told me via private messages that he was both shocked and scared, felling that his patriotic behavior was misinterpreted.

The Chinese state often backs nationalist rhetoric and even works to encourage it—but when it’s unapproved, patriots run the risk of stumbling into an ever-growing censorship system, with legions of new online informers who report posts.

In March, when the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, and the United States announced sanctions on Chinese officials over China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Chinese netizens called for a boycott of H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry, and a few other western fashion brands. In April, an old acquaintance of mine, an engineer living in Jiangsu province, posted on his WeChat Moment—a public-facing part of the ubiquitous social media platform and messaging service—expressing his frustration that people kept purchasing items from these brands. He received support from a few others with a similar mindset, and they later on formed a WeChat group, designed a few leaflets arguing for boycotts, and planned to distribute these leaflets in front of a major department store on Labor Day.

In May, he updated his WeChat Moment, saying he received a polite phone call from a local policeman, warning him that gathering at public places could be illegal and be considered as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”—a criminal charge often used to detain activists. He told me via private messages that he was both shocked and scared, felling that his patriotic behavior was misinterpreted.

The Chinese state often backs nationalist rhetoric and even works to encourage it—but when it’s unapproved, patriots run the risk of stumbling into an ever-growing censorship system, with legions of new online informers who report posts.

In 2019, for instance, on Douban, a popular discussion forum akin to Reddit, one group called for a boycott of the NBA in China, after Daryl Morey, then the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, tweeted an image reading “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” According to a discussion thread on this forum, before a Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets game in Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena that October, “people donated some money to purchase banners on Taobao, and planned to hand out these banners to the audience in the arena to boycott the NBA, however, people who planned to head to the arena were summoned by the police.”

It’s not just aspiring nationalists who suffer. In the past two years, China’s censorship system has become ever stricter, both in professional and private contexts. New rules were passed and implemented in January by the National Press and Publication Administration to require Chinese journalists to have their social media posts reviewed as a part of the annual verification process for getting journalism credentials. In February, the China Association of Performing Arts issued new guidelines including requiring performers to “support the party’s line, principles, and policies.” Netizens would spontaneously check whether celebrities have shared patriotic posts on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) written by state-affiliated organizations like China Daily.

Many comments that were largely harmless a decade ago are risky today. Liu Yun, a scholar and deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Hunan Metropolitan Vocational College, said publicly on Weibo: “In the past, criticisms were only directed at public intellectuals, now the fire is finally burning everyone.” Wang, a senior editor working for a state-affiliated media outlet in China, who asked to use a pseudonym, agrees. She told me that many articles she thought did not involve sensitive political topics were eventually withdrawn by the leadership, and she said journalism had been getting harder and harder.

A reporter working for a major online media outlet in China who preferred to stay anonymous told me that in May she headed to Chengdu to investigate the death of a student at Chengdu No. 49 Middle School. She was present when people gathered at the school gate to show condolences over the student’s death and was included in a widely circulated photo. Netizens called her and other people appearing in this photo “hostile foreign forces”—a Communist Party term used to blame problems on imaginary outside saboteurs—and people disagreeing with this view were silenced.

While professionals and patriots might run into problems, marginalized groups like women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities are even more vulnerable.

On March 31 this year, the feminist Xiao Meili’s Weibo account was banned by parent company Sina. Before being banned, she was abused and harassed by netizens and was labeled a “Hong Kong separatist” for supporting the Umbrella Revolution of 2014. Dozens of feminist accounts have been silenced.

Liang Xiaowen, a lawyer and feminist who organizes online and offline events, was one of those who lost her account. She told me that amid the barrage of threats and insults she received, some threatened to find out where her parents lived and bring the internet violence offline, while others threatened to call the National Security Department to report her. She never got the chance to appeal or provide extra evidence when her account got banned, and the CEO of Sina publicly stated that she published “illegal and harmful information,” while the bloggers who verbally abused her remain untouched. “There are fewer and fewer social topics that can be discussed now,” Liang said, “Patriotism has become the only topic that people can get behind. They feel empowered when using patriotism to crusade against others.”

The censorship machinery is also cracking down on LGBTQ groups. The public WeChat accounts of LGBT associations in many universities in China were collectively blocked on the evening of July 6 without warning. They have become “unnamed public accounts”—the equivalent of a 404 notice.

The public WeChat account Chiapas Dongfeng Radio argued in an article that “this cleanup action is, beyond all doubt, another [form of] outright discrimination and persecution of Chinese sexual minorities.” Many comments under this article responded by arguing that these public accounts were likely to be used by hostile “foreign forces.” Soon enough, Chiapas Dongfeng Radio became one of the many “unnamed public accounts” to disappear.

Censorship has been a constant part of Chinese life for decades—but the intensity has increased dramatically under Xi Jinping’s rule. Topics once considered acceptable have become risky in the space of months or years. On LGBTQ issues, for instance, just three years ago, in 2018, the official Weibo account of the state-run People’s Daily posted: “There is more than one sexual orientation. Whether it is homosexual or bisexual, it is normal, and it is definitely not a disease.”

In part, this is because the censorship machinery itself needs to justify its existence. Chinese official life runs on quotas—for censors, that means a certain amount of posts have to be deleted or a certain number of accounts deleted. With people too afraid to post meaningfully threatening or dissident content, the censors thus have to brand milder content as unacceptable to meet their own quotas.

But it’s also driven from below. The constant loss of freedom of speech makes some people anxious—but drives others to take advantage. A group of aggressive and assertive nationalists are able to become internet influencers by attacking people who they consider not patriotic enough. Some of the nationalists have made a successful career by doing so, including the Weibo user Gu Yan Mu Chan, who was named as an “ambassador to promote internet civilization” for Guangdong province.

Psychologically, instead of questioning the Chinese central government’s policies, people can resolve with themselves better by accepting those as in line with China’s unique conditions. A good amount of people who once tried so hard to use virtual private networks to break through the Great Firewall have now begun to believe that building a firewall is actually protecting Chinese people from “hostile foreign forces,” aka foreign media outlets. As Human Rights Watch has pointed out, as the control of speech in China gets savvier and more aggressive, a whole generation of people have also grown more nationalistic. Imagine the witch-hunting of the worst parts of Twitter—but backed by a totalitarian state.

For example, in June, the Fuzhou Gezhi Middle School’s broadcasting station played the music video for the popular K-pop group BTS’s song “On.” Some netizens filed a complaint with the Fuzhou Education Bureau, criticizing the pop group for a host of trivial reasons, such as one member’s politically unacceptable discussion of a shared “history of pain” with the United States over the Korean War, the failure of another member to abide by traffic rules, and a member’s violation of COVID-19 pandemic prevention regulations. On June 25, the Fuzhou Education Bureau announced that it had requested Gezhi Middle School investigate the incident and “immediately make corrections.”

Superfans of celebrities or bands also abuse the growing censorship system. Online fan groups will find comments criticizing their favorite star and then report the comments to the authorities en masse. Their reports include language the censors favor, arguing the critics “use extreme subjective judgments to provoke and incite oppositional emotions” and “damage the secure network environment and do harm to the internet society.” It’s a tactic that’s often successful.

In 1966, when China’s communist leader Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, people turned each other in for criticizing Mao. Kids denounced their parents, wives turned on their husbands, and students criticized their teachers.

China isn’t necessarily heading back to those years of chaos—but the energy online feels worryingly familiar. In China today, there are still people taking huge risks to fight for freedom and democracy. But for some, reporting and hurting each other is an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to the ruling party.

Tracy Wen Liu is an author, reporter, and translator.

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