China’s censorship of its own citizens


The most recent operation undertaken by China to cleanse its cyberspace involved the release of a report on May 27, providing a detailed account of a two-month campaign targeting bloggers and other users of social media platforms. This endeavour resulted in the interrogation of 2,089 bloggers, closure of 66,600 social media accounts, and deletion of 1.41 million posts. Moreover, recent reports indicate that the enforcement of stricter censorship measures, exemplified by the arrest of a popular stand-up comedian on May 18, has caused apprehension within China’s comedy and live arts community.

Despite casting a gloom over the remnants of self-expression in China, experts argue that this censorship operation signifies a sense of desperation. They contend that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has lost confidence in its governing capabilities, which is reflected in the intensified cyberspace restrictions, indicating an extreme fear of public opinion. The “rectification campaign” launched by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on March 10 aimed to eliminate individual social media users who disseminated rumors, misinformation, or engaged in impersonation, the exploitation of popular issues, pursuit of influence, or illegal monetization.

This recent campaign builds upon the efforts of Operation Qinglang, meaning “Operation Clear and Bright,” initiated by the CAC in 2021. The campaign has specifically targeted bloggers’ accounts on prominent Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, Tencent, Douyin, and Kuaishou. As of May 22, authorities had penalized approximately 930,000 social media accounts, with punishments ranging from follower removal to suspension or cancellation of profit-making privileges. Notably, around 67,000 accounts were permanently closed.

The alleged offenses included spreading rumors, impersonating CCP, government, or military authorities, promoting counterfeit businesses, disseminating misleading information, or sensationalizing contentious matters. Earlier this month, authorities reported their closure of over 100,000 online accounts focused on the propagation of “fake news,” particularly those misrepresenting news anchors and media agencies.

Wu Shaoping, a Chinese human rights lawyer based in the United States, mentioned that the regime began targeting Chinese bloggers soon after Xi Jinping assumed the role of CCP General Secretary in 2012. One noteworthy incident was the 2013 arrest of Charles Xue, a Chinese American venture  capitalist and social media influencer known as Xue Manzi. As an activist and “Big V” (a popular term for verified influencers on Weibo), Xue voiced his opinions on topics such as child trafficking and the struggles of the underprivileged, thereby testing the boundaries of online expression in China.

Wu stated that the CCP’s cyberspace censorship has recently expanded its scope from influential online figures to encompass ordinary grassroots users. He opined that the CCP’s suppression of free speech will continue to escalate, with the ultimate objective of extending its control over all sectors of Chinese society and all individuals. The recent arrest of the stand-up comedian Li Haoshi exemplifies the expansion of censorship into the realm of entertainment, according to Wu. Li, widely known as “House,” was apprehended after authorities became aware of one of his comedy routines.

During a performance in Beijing on May 13, later posted on Weibo, Li recounted the antics of his adopted dogs while chasing a squirrel. In the process, he jokingly evoked a well-known CCP slogan for the People’s Liberation Army, popularized by Xi. Despite Li’s numerous public apologies, he was detained on May 18, resulting in his company being fined $2 million. The company terminated his employment and issued apologies of its own, but its offices in Beijing and Shanghai were subsequently shut down, as reported by NBC. Additionally, a social media user who protested against Li’s suspension was also arrested.

The substantial fine imposed on the comedian’s employing company has led to speculations that stand-up comedy could face virtual eradication in China, owing to fears of similar punitive measures. The repercussions of Li’s arrest were immediately felt, as a popular Malaysian comedian had his Chinese social media account suspended on May 22 for mocking China.

Nigel Ng, known by his stage name “Uncle Roger,” had shared a video clip on May 18 from an upcoming comedy special, in which he ridiculed Chinese surveillance and Beijing’s territorial claims over Taiwan. In the video, Ng interacted with an audience member who identified as being from Guangzhou, a major city in southern China. Ng jokingly remarked, “Good country, good country, we have to say that now, correct? All the phones listening.” Ng’s Weibo account was subsequently banned from posting due to “violations of relevant laws and regulations.”

Consequently, China’s comedians have been stifled, and the country’s live music scene has also been affected, with the BBC reporting that authorities are now targeting live music performances, which were just beginning to recover from the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Wu referred to the CCP’s heightened control as “Cultural Revolution version 2.0,” in which even laughter is subject to censorship. He stated that “the laughs scare the dictator.” In addition to reporting the outcomes of its “rectification” endeavors, the CAC has encouraged netizens to actively oversee and report on bloggers and their posts, creating a false perception of “societal support for its censorship.” All the while, Wu believes that these actions serve to suppress the “escalating societal discontent.”

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