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China's growing censorship trains the public to be on top online

When the UK, the European Union, Canada and the United States announced sanctions against Chinese officials for China's treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in March, Chinese internet users called for a boycott of H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry and a few others on Western fashion brands. In April, an old friend of mine, an engineer who lives in Jiangsu Province, posted his frustration at having the People kept buying items from these brands. He received support from a few others with a similar mindset, and they later formed a WeChat group, drafted some leaflets advocating boycotts, and planned to distribute those leaflets in front of a large department store on Labor Day.

In May, he updated his WeChat moment and said he received a polite phone call from a local police officer warning that gatherings in public places could be illegal and could be viewed as "creating disputes and provoking trouble" – one criminal charge often used to detain activists. He told me in private messages that he was both shocked and scared and that his patriotic behavior had been misinterpreted.

When the UK, the European Union, Canada and the United States announced sanctions against Chinese officials for China's treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in March, Chinese internet users called for a boycott of H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry and a few others on Western fashion brands. In April, an old friend of mine, an engineer who lives in Jiangsu Province, posted his frustration at having the People kept buying items from these brands. He received support from a few others with a similar mindset, and they later formed a WeChat group, drafted some leaflets advocating boycotts, and planned to distribute those leaflets in front of a large department store on Labor Day.

In May, he updated his WeChat moment and said he received a polite phone call from a local police officer warning that gatherings in public places could be illegal and could be viewed as "creating disputes and provoking trouble" – one criminal charge often used to detain activists. He told me in private messages that he was both shocked and scared and that his patriotic behavior had been misinterpreted.

The Chinese state often supports and even works to promote nationalist rhetoric – but if not approved, patriots run the risk of falling into an ever-growing censorship system with legions of new online whistleblowers reporting.

In 2019, for example, a group on Douban, a popular discussion forum similar to Reddit, called for a boycott of the NBA in China after Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, tweeted a picture that read "Fight" for freedom. Stand by Hong Kong. ”According to a discussion thread on this forum, ahead of a Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets game at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai in October, people donated some money to buy banners on Taobao and were planning to these banners to the audience in the arena to boycott the NBA, however, people who wanted to go into the arena were summoned by the police.

Not only emerging nationalists suffer from it. In the past two years, China's censorship system has become increasingly strict in both professional and private contexts. In January, the National Press and Publications Administration adopted and implemented new rules requiring Chinese journalists to review their social media posts as part of the annual journalistic credentials review process. In February, the China Association of Performing Arts issued new guidelines, including calling on performing artists to "support the party's line, principles, and guidelines." Netizens would spontaneously check to see if celebrities shared patriotic posts on Weibo (China's version of Twitter) by government-affiliated organizations such as China Daily.

Many comments that were largely harmless a decade ago are risky today. Liu Yun, a scholar and deputy secretary of the Hunan Metropolitan Vocational College Party Committee, publicly said on Weibo, "Previously criticism was only directed at public intellectuals, now the fire is finally burning on everyone." State-owned media company working in China and asked for a pseudonym to be used, agrees. She told me that many articles that she thought were not on sensitive political issues were eventually withdrawn by the leadership, and she said journalism had become increasingly difficult.

A reporter who worked for a major online media company in China and preferred to remain anonymous told me that she went to Chengdu in May to investigate the death of a student from Chengdu No. 49 Middle School. She was present when people gathered at the school gate to express their condolences on the student's death and was included in a widely shared photo. Netizens called them and others in this photo “hostile foreign forces” – a Communist Party term used to blame imaginary outside saboteurs for problems – and people who disagree agreed were silenced.

While working professionals and patriots may encounter problems, marginalized groups such as women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities are even more vulnerable.

On March 31 of this year, feminist Xiao Meili's Weibo account was blocked by parent company Sina. Before she was banned, she was abused and harassed by internet users and referred to as a "Hong Kong separatist" for supporting the 2014 umbrella revolution. Dozens of feminist accounts have been silenced.

Liang Xiaowen, a lawyer and feminist who organizes online and offline events, was among those who lost her account. She told me that amid the spate of threats and abuse she received, some threatened to find out where their parents lived and take the internet violence offline, while others threatened to phone the National Security Department to report them. She never had an opportunity to appeal or provide additional evidence when her account was suspended, and Sina's CEO publicly stated that she posted "illegal and harmful information" while leaving the bloggers verbally abusing her unaffected. “There are fewer and fewer social issues that can be discussed now,” said Liang. “Patriotism has become the only issue that people can stand behind. They feel empowered when they use patriotism to fight others. "

The censorship machinery also acts against LGBTQ groups. The public WeChat accounts of LGBT associations at many universities in China were collectively blocked without warning on the evening of July 6th. They have become "unnamed public accounts" – the equivalent of a 404 notification.

The public WeChat account Chiapas Dongfeng Radio argued in an article that "this purge is without a doubt another (form) of open discrimination and persecution of Chinese sexual minorities". Many comments on this article responded by arguing that these public accounts would likely be used by hostile "foreign forces". Soon Chiapas Dongfeng Radio became one of the many "unnamed public accounts" that disappeared.

Censorship has been an integral part of Chinese life for decades – but the intensity has increased dramatically under the rule of Xi Jinping. Issues that were once considered acceptable have become risky within months or years. On LGBTQ issues, for example, just three years ago, in 2018, the official Weibo account of the state people's newspaper wrote: “There is more than one sexual orientation. Whether homosexual or bisexual, it is normal and definitely not a disease. "

This is partly because the censorship machine itself has to justify its existence. Chinese official life runs according to quotas – for the censors this means that a certain number of posts must be deleted or a certain number of accounts must be deleted. Therefore, since people are too afraid to post threatening or deviant content, censors need to brand milder content as unacceptable in order to meet their own quotas.

But it is also driven from below. The constant loss of freedom of expression makes some people anxious – but drives others to take advantage of it. A group of aggressive and assertive nationalists can become internet influencers by attacking people they think are not patriotic enough. Some of the nationalists have made a successful career with it, including the Weibo user Gu Yan Mu Chan, who was named as "Ambassador for the promotion of Internet civilization" for Guangdong Province.

Rather than questioning the policies of the Chinese central government, people can get on better psychologically with themselves by accepting them as appropriate to China's unique conditions. Many people who once tried so hard to use virtual private networks to break through the Great Firewall now believe that building a firewall will actually protect the Chinese from "hostile foreign forces," including foreign media. Human Rights Watch has indicated that an entire generation of people has become more nationalistic as language control in China becomes more skillful and aggressive. Imagine the witch hunt in the worst parts of Twitter – but backed by a totalitarian state.

In June, for example, the Fuzhou Gezhi Middle School broadcaster played the music video for the song "On" by the popular K-pop group BTS. Some internet users filed a complaint with the Fuzhou Education Bureau, criticizing the pop group for a number of trivial reasons, such as one member's politically unacceptable discussion of a shared "history of pain" with the United States about the Korean War, another's failure Member complying with traffic rules and a member violating COVID-19 pandemic prevention regulations. On June 25th, the Fuzhou Education Bureau announced that it had asked Gezhi Middle School to investigate the incident and "make corrections immediately."

Super fans of celebrities or bands are also abusing the growing censorship system. Online fan groups find comments criticizing their favorite celebrity and then report the comments en masse to the authorities. Their reports, using language preferred by the censors, argue that the critics "use extreme subjective judgments to provoke and stir up oppositional emotions" and "damage the secure network environment and harm Internet society". A tactic that is often successful.

In 1966, when China's communist leader Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution, people turned against each other for criticizing Mao. Children denounced their parents, women turned against their husbands, and students criticized their teachers.

China doesn't necessarily return to those years of chaos – but the energy on the internet feels worryingly familiar. Even today, China is taking great risks to fight for freedom and democracy. But for some it is an opportunity to report and hurt one another to show loyalty to the ruling party.

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