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Welcome to Xi’s Net: Where Politics, Porn and Pooh Are Forbidden

For anyone still wondering about China’s ability, or willingness, to control its people’s access to the internet, the past few weeks have provided some clarity.

The country’s government moved this month to stop individuals from using virtual private networks (VPNs), one of the most popular ways for expats and locals to access banned websites like Twitter and Google. It’s disrupted the WhatsApp messaging service, which had provided a secure forum for sensitive communication. Even the Waldorf Astoria Beijing, which used to help foreign guests bypass censorship controls as a courtesy like many top-tier hotels, started notifying visitors that such services would not be extended, according to people familiar with the matter. 

A poster of President Xi Jinping in Kashgar, in Xinjiang province.

Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This isn’t a temporary tightening, but rather the new reality of President Xi Jinping’s internet. China’s censors have shown they can erase political criticism and dissent, and are now growing more ambitious, aiming to shape the world online to reinforce Communist Party values and morals. While embracing the efficiency and growth of the internet, what Chinese authorities want is an altered and nonthreatening version.

“It’s a decidedly Orwellian moment for China,’’ says Jeff Wasserstrom, a Chancellor’s Professor of Chinese History at the University of California at Irvine. 

Predictably, official censors and internet companies scrubbed memorial photos of Liu Xiaobo from Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat and Sina Corp.’s Weibo, following the long-imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer’s death in mid-July. Liu was an author of Charter 08, a document calling for democracy in China, and Beijing aimed to smother that intellectual legacy. But the censorship machinery has also been trained on rowdy video games and livestreaming channels that offer up smutty temptresses. Internet regulators said they shut down 3,918 websites in the second quarter for spreading information that’s violent, pornographic or a danger to national security. Even alleged foreign instigator Winnie-the-Pooh was reportedly kicked out, after he started popping up as a proxy for the stout Xi.

Protesters march in Hong Kong to mourn the death of Liu Xiaobo, on July 15.

Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

While Xi’s predecessors – Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and Deng Xiaoping – focused on gaining public support by making people’s lives materially better, his government has put a more pronounced emphasis on winning hearts and minds. That’s evident in how often he’spersonally mentioned in state media reports, prompting some observers to question if Xi favors the ideological, personality-driven leadership style of Mao Zedong over the pragmatic, collective approach of Deng.

Unlike Mao however, Xi has the internet to contend with. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese propaganda posters depicted ruddy-cheeked peasants smiling as they labored for the good of the nation. Xi’s government now seems intent on imposing his vision of China pastoral on the Web, which involves stamping out unwanted influences – whether that means dissenting views or simply “vulgar” ideas and images.  

In July, Chinese state-run media took aim at Tencent’s most popular video game, Honour of Kings, criticizing the fantasy role play for spreading “negative energy” and addicting China’s young people. “Whether they entertain the masses or hurt lives, when it comes to earning money versus the potential for harm, we have to be even more wary,” read an editorial in the state-run People’s Daily newspaper.

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The following week, the Cyberspace Administration of China, called a meeting with representatives from leading internet companies, including Tencent, Baidu Inc., and Sohu.com Inc., to instruct about the need for “immediate cleaning and rectification” of online content, or increased self-censorship. In June, regulators shut down a dozen livestreaming apps, part of an apparent campaign to tame vulgar or overly sexualized influences. Female livestreamers have been banned from provocatively eating bananas.

This is Xi’s idea of “cyber sovereignty,” or securing the country’s internet from undue foreign influences. The recently enacted Cybersecurity Law, which limits cross-border data flows, and ongoing efforts to curb use of unauthorized personal VPNs have both sparked concern among multinationals and expats in China. Less noticed, however, is the other aspect of Xi’s vision, his call last spring for the development of a “clean and healthy cyberspace.” While his predecessors saw the internet first as a curiosity, then as something to be politically controlled, Xi additionally sees it as ground zero in the battle for public opinion.

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That’s why this summer’s wave of internet crackdowns in China – from shuttering online celebrity gossips sites to censoring images on Facebook’s WhatsApp – isn’t likely to let up anytime soon. This fall marks the 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing, a time of sensitive personnel changes that’s often preceded by tighter censorship. But Xi’s vision for the web goes beyond politics. “Xi Jinping has and will continue to tighten controls. I see them as part of the broader trend,” says Adam Segal, Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Says Damien Ma, a fellow and associate director at the Paulson Center in Chicago: “A more fickle and generally onerous internet is probably going to be the new normal.”

— With assistance by Christina Larson, and Steven Yang


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