As China creates a new narrative for a great society, it is starting by ‘purifying’ its world online
Dina Temple-Raston September 29, 2021

As China creates a new narrative for a great society, it is starting by ‘purifying’ its world online

Dina Temple-Raston

September 29, 2021

As China creates a new narrative for a great society, it is starting by ‘purifying’ its world online

China’s cyberspace watchdog added to the litany of regulations it has been producing since the summer, by announcing new details about a three-year campaign to manage the nation’s algorithms. 

The rules focus on tech companies’ recommendation algorithms and include, among other things, the requirement that tech companies sign up for a new registration system and subject themselves to a review process to guard against what it calls “ideological risks.”

“In order to standardize Internet information service algorithm recommendation activities, safeguard national security and social public interests… and promote the healthy development of Internet information services,” the Cyberspace Administration of China, or CAC, said in a written statement announcing the new  “Internet Information Service Algorithm Recommendation Management” regulations.

The watchdog said it is seeking to standardize algorithm recommendation activities in order to, among other things, “promote socialist core values.” Among the raft of new requirements: service providers will have to provide users the ability to select, modify or delete user tags used for algorithm recommendation services.

“There is so much regulation going on and so many attacks on tech companies in China right now,” said Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The tech companies were operating in an unregulated space so it was seen as bad for the common people so that is part of the motivation.”

Indeed, there is still a fair bit of ambiguity surrounding the new rules. Consider the idea of having to register algorithms with the government. “That could mean you tell us what your algorithm does or it could mean you have to turn over your code to us,” said Josephine Wolff, associate professor of cyber security policy at Tufts University. “A lot of countries are struggling with what transparency means with algorithms and China is no different. That said, this is not the first tech regulation we’ve seen about registration, the Chinese did this with encryption and it ended up not being enforced. So we’ll have to wait and see.”

The new regulations appear to be part of a broader campaign by the central government in Beijing to bring technology companies to heel and steer the nation’s online narrative away from celebrities and pop stars and back to what President Xi Jinping has said are the basics: China’s socialist ideology.

Segal says the changes in regulation help to control the conversation online. “Under Xi the space that online discussions could occur in was already pretty narrow,” he said. “And now there has been a proliferation of state narrative and state propaganda and this fits into that trend. We are entering an extremely ideological period in China right now.”

Nicholas Eftimiades, a former senior intelligence official who worked on China issues for years, agrees.  “They are creating a narrative for a great society. The Chinese people are getting richer but they are feeling adrift. Money used to make them happy, now it doesn’t. So President Xi needs a cultural movement to deal with the emptiness—and that’s what I think we are starting to see take shape.”

Signing a Pledge

Earlier this month, the China Association of Performing Arts called more than a dozen social media platform leaders together to discuss cleaning up what government officials have called the “chaos” online. 

The tech giants—including representatives from WeChat, TikTok, Tencent Video, the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo—emerged with the news that they had signed a pledge to promote “healthy” and “upright” content with positive values on their sites. CAPA announced the agreement in a written statement on WeChat shortly after the meeting. Representatives from the companies did not immediately respond to The Record’s request for comment.

Chinese tech firms including WeChat signed a pledge to promote “healthy” and “upright” content with positive values on their sites.

China’s National Radio and Television Administration also has weighed in. It recently issued its own directive aimed at managing what it called the “chaos of fan clubs.” It has vowed to ban broadcasts of “vulgar internet celebrities” and feminine-looking men. It will focus instead on programming that “loves the party and loves the country.” Weibo has already said it would help in that effort.

No book clubs or bowling leagues 

If de-platforming K-pop fans seems a little excessive, it is important to understand that the Chinese government doesn’t see the young BTS and Blackpink groupies as working to ensure their favorite band members are trending and enjoying sold-out concerts. The K-pop armies, as they call themselves, have become expert at organizing and exerting influence online—the very thing that worries leaders in Beijing. 

One of the most comprehensive studies of the way the Chinese government manipulates and censors the internet came from a team of scholars at Harvard University back in 2013. Gary King, who directs the Institute for Quantitative Social Science there, published a landmark report that found that the Chinese government was less interested in stifling public opinion than it was in suppressing collective action—any collective action no matter how small. 

King and graduate students Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts analysed more than 11 million Chinese social media posts over the span of six months, tracking both those that were politically sensitive and those that were innocuous. They had developed a method to revisit the posts even after they had been censored by the Chinese government. What they found was that mere mention of collective action—of any large gathering not sponsored by the state, whether peaceful or in protest—was immediately censored. 

Fast forward to today: with legions of BTS fans able to produce screaming flash mobs, it isn’t hard to understand why leaders in Beijing are alarmed and companies like Weibo have been quick to say they want to “purify” the online atmosphere.

‘A profound revolution is coming’

The Chinese leadership appears to want to amplify the thoughts of people like Li Guangman, a retired editor of a technical magazine in China who recently leapt to prominence after he wrote an essay railing against celebrity culture and greedy corporations. At least five major Communist Party-run news websites republished his essay, suggesting at least some sort of official support. 

Li wrote admiringly about the detention of wealthy stars. He lauded recent investigations and fines leveled against some of China’s biggest companies, like Alibaba and Did.  

“A profound revolution is coming,” he wrote in an August 27 dispatch, adding that Xi Jinping is setting the nation on the correct path by cleansing it of these kinds of influences. “This transformation will wipe away all the dust,” Li wrote. “Capital markets will no longer be a heaven where capitalists can make a fortune overnight. The cultural marketplace will no longer be a heaven for sissy-boy celebrities.”

Communist Party news sites republished a toned-down version of the essay two days later. 

The essay, and its amplification in official channels, sparked a rigorous debate with some critics expressing concern about his language, which seemed reminiscent of the kind of fiery language associated with the Cultural Revolution sixty years ago. 

Back then, revolutionary fervor came from the lips of a lowly transportation specialist in the People Liberation Army named Lei Feng. Mao advised the Chinese people to “learn from Comrade Lei Feng!” who, among other quotable things, allegedly said he was sorry he had but one life to give to Chairman Mao. (Scholars disagree about whether Lei Feng was a real person or whether some of his stories were exaggerated. He allegedly died in 1962 in a freak accident: a telephone pole fell on him.) 

Li Guangman was presented, however fleetingly, as a modern day version of Lei Feng—extolling the virtues of President Xi’s campaign—before his essay started to disappear from websites on the internet. “Xi doesn’t want to go back to the Cultural Revolution,” said CFR’s Segal. “But he’s very willing to use these kinds of mass mobilization techniques to get what he wants.”

Dina Temple-Raston is a senior correspondent at The Record, and previously served on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories about national security, technology, and social justice.