China and the Moral Policing of the Internet

Eli Wallach, Johns Hopkins University:

Welcome to the Internet of no swear words, nudity or extreme violence. While Chinese Internet monitors may still have a long way to go before reaching this goal, China’s most recent “clean up the Internet” campaign under President Xi Jinping has gained traction in ways not seen in the CCP’s past efforts, begging the question: is it possible for CCP to keep obscenity off of China’s Internet?

This past Tuesday, the Beijing’s Haidian District People’s Court ruled against Internet giant Qvod Technology Co. Ltd. (快播). The Shenzhen-based video streaming provider, which in 2013 boasted 25% of China’s online video market share, had been under investigation for allegedly consciously profiting from the large online presence of pornographic content. During the hearing, Qvod CEO Wang Xin pleaded not guilty, arguing that the responsibility lay with the viewers of the content and not with Qvod, which Wang argued operates like a DVD player that had over 400 million users at the time of the investigation. With over 44 million netizens live-broadcasting the case, Wang’s defense propelled the case to the center of public debate, with Wang bearing the cause of Internet freedom – a freedom quickly diminishing in China.

The CCP has for many years made efforts to prohibit crude content from the internet. These efforts, led by the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications (NOAPIP), traditionally have only reached limited success, as removed videos so often reappear in another facet of the web.

This has changed under President Xi Jinping. Since Xi’s rise to the presidency in 2013, the CCP has significantly tightened its grip on Internet content by both raising the cleanliness standards of posts and pushing responsibility onto the Internet company’s servers. While fines and warnings have been directed at Internet giants such as Baidu and, the recent ruling against Qvod backs up such action of the CCP with legal precedent. This has sent a clear message to Chinese Internet companies: monitor your users’ activity or risk prosecution.

To go a step further, this past May, the CCP has required that Internet video companies change their management structure. The Chinese government already tightly controls online video websites through licensing. Currently, only seven Chinese companies have licenses to stream videos in the country. The new guidelines, put forward by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), requires that these licensed video companies give one of five state media companies a board seat and stock in an arrangement called “Special Management Rights.” Under these terms, the state media company would have jurisdiction solely over content oversight.

And the CCP is not just targeting pornography. This most recent campaign to “clean up the Internet,” has brought both news pieces and swear words under fire. Earlier this year, in April, popular Chinese video blogger Papi Jiang had her videos temporarily taken off the Chinese Internet for allegations of inappropriate language. SAPPRFT required that the blogger, whom Chinese media outlets named the most popular online celebrity of 2016, remove all curse words from her videos before being able to repost them online. The targeting of Jiang can be seen as part of a broader campaign against online swear words. In 2015, then Internet chief Lu Wei, representing the CCP, issued a list of 25 swear words that he wanted eradicated from the Chinese Internet. While ambitious in scope, it is clear that this rule applies to those producing content to wide audiences.

The tightened grip on the Internet has also affected the streaming of TV shows on the Chinese Internet, where new regulations in place to give online dramas the same censorship treatment as those procured for television sets. This has meant the removal of many popular dramas from the Chinese Internet, including Addicted, a gay-themed drama, and other shows that have drawn wide public discussion on the Internet.

It is clear that Xi’s government is exerting tighter control over the Chinese Internet than ever before. The primary strategy of executing this is through coalescing content platforms and providers to self-regulate under new additional oversight from state media companies. Moreover, the ruling against Qvod legally puts the responsibility to actively oversee moral behavior on the online platforms, threatening prosecution at a failure to do so.

The popularity of the Qvod CEO with China’s netizens, and the message to other Internet companies sent by his conviction, show just one a crack in the “ruling through benevolence” model generally espoused by the CCP. Increasing censorship, however, can be argued as a logical political move for a party, anxious to hold onto power while dealing with a major economic transition to a consumer-based society. The question still holds, though, whether or not such tight control of the Internet acts counterproductively and frustrates more than “protects.”



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