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. 

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Captain America, Captain China

Why a patriotic U.S. film is raking in the renminbi.

SHANGHAI — This week, while U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's trip to China was underscoring bilateral tensions between the two powers, the Chinese masses were busy embracing another U.S. visitor. The Marvel superhero sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- which (spoiler alert) sees World War II hero Steve Rogers adjusting to life in the 21st century after a 70-year-long sleep, all while battling nefarious elements including spies and Nazis within his employer, a government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. -- has cleaned up at the Chinese box office, selling over 5.6 million tickets and raking in $39.2 million in its opening weekend. That's less than the $95 million the film earned in its debut weekend in the United States, but it's not shabby for China, besting even the opening weekend for 2013's Iron Man 3, which went on to become China's second-highest earning film in 2013. Chinese viewers have embraced the film on Douban.com, China's leading social site for film buffs. Over 20,000 Douban users have collectively given the film an average score of 8.2, edging out even acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's 2000 tour de force In The Mood for Love.

Why has an avowedly all-American hero proved so popular here? Launching the film on a three-day holiday weekend shortly after its stars toured Beijing certainly didn't hurt. But Winter Soldier also resonates because it keeps the hero's fundamental patriotism intact while modernizing his conflict for a complicated new era, pitting him against enemies burrowed deep within the government he serves. "[The new villain] is the very country he loves and protects," writes one Douban reviewer. "To love one's country isn't the same as loving one's government: This is the main draw of Captain America." 

These and other Douban authors implicitly acknowledge that a film tackling such themes -- even hidden behind the guise of an imagined superhero -- could never be made under the watchful eye of China's image-conscious government and its army of censors. One online review, titled "Why is there no Captain China?", tackles the question explicitly. The post argues that Chinese censors would never allow scenes of iconic buildings like Tiananmen Gate or state-run China Central Television's iconic headquarters, both in Beijing, being destroyed: How could such a thing be possible, after all, under the ruling Communist Party's protection? (A superhero would be unnecessary because China's unrivalled People's Armed Police would catch the villain and send him off to re-education through labor.) The best a Captain China could hope for, the user argues, would be a job as a Beijing policeman. Not that China would ever have true villains anyway; would-be filmmakers, the user concludes, shouldn't even think about depicting enemies within the ranks of the government.

Taken together, the mass of Douban reviews also suggest that Winter Soldier continues a tradition in which Hollywood's success in China inspires navel-gazing about the country's domestic film industry and broader culture. In a review titled "Why do we need Captain America?", one user bemoans the lack of masculine heroes in current Chinese films, and laments that earlier folk heroes like kung-fu legends Huang Feihong and Ip Man are no longer suited to the silver screen. These protagonists are "too nationalist," she writes, fending off as they do a parade of foreign devils and other villains from the bad old days of China's "century of humiliation" at the hands of other powers like Japan and Britain. It's a theme for which many other members of Douban's relatively liberal user base have evinced more than a little fatigue. 

It would be folly, of course, to chalk Winter Soldier's success in China up to its politically resonant plot alone. Some of the factors at play behind Captain America's successful Chinese conquest are rather simple. One review entitled "The male lead is handsome -- that's the only reason" is representative of a sizable star-gazing chunk of the short reviews, while the most popular full-length review is a playful bromantic interpretation of the relationship between two male leads. The appeal of big explosions and eye-catching stars, it seems, transcends borders.

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