Tea Leaf Nation

China's Failed Porn-Killing Hashtag

What looks like an official effort to keep the web clean isn't working.

The Chinese government's latest effort to bring the country's social web under control appears to be backfiring. A new phase in a government crackdown on undesirable online content announced March 28 -- called "sweep out yellow, strike at rumors" (the former referring to pornography, the latter including opinion contrary to the Communist Party line) -- has become a hashtag on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, bearing the same name. It appears to be an astroturf campaign: authorities have encouraged the hashtag, even if they did not generate it, by inviting netizens to get in on the anti-porn action through "joint monitoring and reporting." And join they have, by labeling not-quite-pornographic material with that tag in what looks an awful lot like a bid to taunt censors.

One user in Dongguan, a former industrial hub in Guangdong Province infamous for its sex trade, used the hashtag in his post of an excerpt, rife with sexual innuendo, from the classic Qing dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber. He added, "Uncle Policeman, what do you think about this?" Another user tagged an understated but clearly homoerotic passage from the same novel, ending with the dare, "Come and get me!" (The campaign has included the arrest of over a dozen writers of homoerotic online fan fiction, or "slash," all of them women.) One user took the campaign's name literally (in Chinese, "yellow" can mean "pornographic"), daring authorities to delete this image:


Beijing has successfully harnessed the Internet's viral power in the past: President Xi Jinping made an unescorted, tailor-made-for-social-media visit to a modest bun shop in December 2013, which caught on like wildfire, turning the restaurant into something of a pilgrimage site. But more often, it falters: The hashtag "Brother Qiang Style," using the common online nickname for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and echoing the wildly popular song "Gangnam Style," quietly appeared on Weibo in late 2013. In March 2014, a spate of articles, including one on Xinhua, China's state news agency, heralded the popularity of "Keqiang Style," the premier's allegedly distinct and attractive governance style. But despite what appeared to be official support, the hashtag was dead on arrival, to date boasting an anemic 95 posts, many of which read like clunky dialogue from a propaganda film. This one has fared far better, with 23 electronic "pages'" worth of mentions since its inception. But that's partly because the tag also has the likely unintentional effect of allowing users to find (blurred) pornography more easily.

Fair use/Sina Weibo

Tea Leaf Nation

China's New Internet Crackdown: Not About Porn

Authorities say they are trying to "clean up" the country's raucous web. Don't believe them.

BEIJING — Chinese authorities have put would-be free speech advocates on notice: Step away from the computer. As an April 14 article in Communist Party-run news portal Seeking Truth avers, from mid-April until November, government offices nationwide will be striking out at online media in a dedicated campaign called "sweep out porn, strike at rumors." An April 16 headline on state news service Xinhua declares the move is in response to "calls from people in all walks of life." But at its core, this is about going after rumors -- party parlance for destabilizing falsehoods  -- in the name of going after porn. In other words, it's about ensuring that party organs, and not the Chinese grassroots, have the loudest voice on the country's Internet.

This latest campaign has been months in the making. On Feb. 5, the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), the party organ tasked with censorship and information dissemination, ordered an investigation of "pornographic and vulgar information" -- one whose main target was actually a variety of online columns, infographics, and trending or recommended reading. Interpretation of the actual meaning of "pornographic and vulgar information," of course, rests entirely with the CPD. Over 20 literary websites, including Sweet Potato Net, an inoffensive fantasy fiction site, have already been reportedly closed or investigated.

The public impact is becoming increasingly visible. On April 14, Sina Reader, a large online portal for book lovers, stated that it was temporarily shutting down for an internal investigation because of suspicions that some of the content on the channel posted by users endangered a "clean online environment." This implies that further censorship campaigns of greater scale will likely emerge soon. The campaign's very name is redolent of 2013's attack on online rumors -- both of which have been styled as "jing wang," or efforts to cleanse the web -- and Seeking Truth has explicitly stated this latest announcement marks a continuation of a larger movement.

The party has long controlled the media. One lever for doing so has been legal ambiguity; China does not have clear regulations governing  news, and so it's unclear when a line has been crossed. The goal of the new campaign is to move the line again, putting pressure on the rights of reporters and netizens who wish to express their own opinions.

It's a method of speech control we've seen all too often. Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, central authorities have been tightening the net, detaining a growing number of reporters and netizens. Shortly after Xi took the reins, the CPD prohibited "foreign media personnel" from "irresponsible" Weibos, meaning micro-blog postings, and ordered that certain websites be subject to "manual review" and strict regulation. The goal was to control the flow of information between Chinese netizens and foreigners. And the CPD is trying to smother mentions of Xu Zhiyong -- it issued a Jan. 26 order prohibiting anything that "hypes" the civil society organizer, who was sentenced that day to four years in prison for the spurious charges of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place."

Some have come to feel that Xi and other central leaders are the enemies of free speech. This latest notice puts the Internet at the forefront of an assault on what the government calls fake media and fake reporting. Of course, central authorities have long taken a defensive stance against the Internet. Some netizens have taken to calling online opinion leaders, also known as "Big Vs," a contemporary member of the "black five" -- the five types of people persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, the disastrous 1966-1976 attempt by then-Chairman Mao Zedong to re-engineer Chinese culture.

The Chinese constitution explicitly provides for freedom of speech -- but in practice, authorities don't respect that right at all. China's Criminal Law already criminalizes "inciting others to overthrow national authorities" and other types of speech. Chinese authorities have erected the so-called Great Firewall of Censorship to keep out foreign social and mainstream media like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, not to mention the New York Times. More recently, after Li Wufeng, the deputy director of the State Council press office, fell to his death on March 26, the CPD attempted to scrub mentions of Li from social media and mainstream sites. (Li had been a high official responsible for censoring online content and had previously worked in managing the Great Firewall.)

As social conflicts intensify, particularly between Chinese officials and the people they are supposed to serve, central authorities hope to clamp down, clean up, and suppress any so-called "harmful information" that is disadvantageous to their dictatorship. Central authorities will do anything in their power to severely regulate media and Internet, turning it from a platform for relatively free expression into just another propaganda tool in the process.

Translated by David Wertime. 

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