Welcome to Foreign Policy's China Brief.
This week's highlights: China is introducing new rules on how much time minors can spend playing games Video games, the details of the proceedings against Canadian inmates Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig revealed, and the US climate ambassador John kerry travels to Beijing for talks.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please register here.
China is restricting video game time
China's new regulations on how much time minors can spend playing online video games went into effect today, restricting young people to only three specific hours a week: between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Fridays, weekends and public holidays. Corporations are expected to enforce the regulations and, as usual, companies like Tencent have no choice but to support the state's new mandate.
A previous law limited online playtime to 90 minutes a day on weekdays; The recent tightening reflects the general paranoia of the state about losing control of young people.
Video games have long been a concern of both parents and Chinese leaders. Between 2000 and 2014, China officially banned the sale and import of video game consoles, although they continued to be widely used. Some parents turned to so-called gaming addiction camps. But it seemed like the government had finally reconciled itself with the financial possibilities of the video game market by opening up space for Chinese games while maintaining control over the content.
The new restrictions are part of a broader crackdown on celebrity culture and entertainment formulated in clear ideological terms – exemplified by a recent article by a nationalist blogger republished by all major state media outlets including Xinhua and the People's Daily became. In the essay, Li Guangman calls for a "profound revolution". "[K] Capital markets will no longer be a paradise for fast-getting rich capitalists, cultural markets will no longer be a paradise for sissy-boy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position to worship Western culture," he writes.
Li, a former editor of a small trade magazine, is likely to be forgotten again. But the government sanctioning his words raises concerns. The essay positions the United States as the main enemy, suggesting they are setting up a fifth column within China and waging a multi-sector war against the country – including "biological warfare," a reference to the conspiracy theories that China has about the US -Military Spread has been responsible for COVID-19.
The infiltration of Western ideas through culture and entertainment is a constant concern of the Chinese state – sometimes intensified, sometimes diminished. Although it has always been part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's rule, recent moves point to an increase in ideological paranoia. The video games and fan clubs are mostly not western made, but the form itself is seen as a dangerous opportunity for foreign division. For example, a recent article in the Global Times called famous fan clubs "the target of foreign forces to divide Chinese society."
In recent years, Chinese state media have been talking about a perceived masculinity crisis linked to both fan culture and video game addiction. Young people, especially boys, are particularly vulnerable to this influence, making them physically weak and unmanly. Likewise, Li's article mentions "that tendencies towards handsome boys and sissy boys are highlighted in our national character" – partly a reference to influential pop stars like Kris Wu, who were recently arrested on rape charges and have long been the target of officials Tut-Tutting.
In addition, not only pop stars were selected, but also regular streamers who are perceived as gay. China is largely liberal on LGBT issues and the public has successfully rolled back on censorship. But the recent closings of LGBTQ accounts, the blocking of related terms on some social media platforms, and the requirement for universities to record the number of LGBTQ students reflect an undercurrent of state homophobia.
The video game restrictions are a small part of this effort to create supposedly healthy youth: hardworking, straight, and nationalistic. The next step is likely to be a similar crackdown on the lives of college students and a new round of compulsory military exercises for high school students.
The charges of two Michaels were revealed. After three years in prison, the details of the charges against Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians arrested in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, have emerged. An unnamed source in a Global Times article said Spavor was accused of taking photos of Chinese military facilities and sharing them with Kovrig, who is also accused of writing reports on "state second level secrets".
The move is an attempt to justify Beijing's hostage diplomacy, which has ruined China's reputation in Canada, where only 14 percent of people view the country positively. The photo narration is likely a lie, but espionage and state secrecy laws in China are broad enough to allow the arrest of virtually anyone.
Chinese state media continue to accuse Meng, who is under largely nominal house arrest in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a martyr as her lawyers fight against extradition to the US on fraud charges. Kovrig and Spavor, meanwhile, have been in solitary confinement for long periods with no access to lawyers or consular officers.
Further restrictions on ethnic minorities likely. A key ethnic affairs conference last week included a statement by Xi that "the Chinese Communist Party's supremacy over ethnic work must be maintained" and that minorities' "sense of identity and national pride" will be strengthened. This rhetoric likely signals further repressive measures, ranging in intensity from the atrocities in Xinjiang to attempts to end Mongolian language teaching, which led to mass protests last year.
China's original ethnic policies, adopted by the Soviet Union, saw the brutal repression of supposed separatists and the betrayal of communist ethnic minority leaders who were promised independence or meaningful autonomy. However, they were also allowed space for cultural and linguistic preservation – something that quickly disappeared.
The revival of Mandarin language teaching in Inner Mongolia a month ago is a particularly strong signal. Not only were the Mongols seen as an exemplary minority, but the scale of the protests last year would likely have led to a rethink in pre-Xi politics.
Kerry travels to China. The US special envoy to the climate, John Kerry, travels to Beijing to meet with Chinese officials. Those who push for climate cooperation and the easing of the conflict between the US and China have often seen Kerry as a representative, although he himself has spoken of the need to be skeptical. There are counter-arguments that China's limited climate cooperation is geared towards essentially geopolitical goals, not climate goals – or that US-China competition might be a more effective route.
Famous actress deleted from the Internet. Zhao Wei, one of China's most famous actresses, has lost much of her online presence in the last week by removing content from social media, removing her name from TV and movie credits, and removing some of her shows and movies from streaming were services. A post on her Instagram account, which has now been deleted, denied that she had fled to France.
The campaign against Zhao is likely related to her husband, Huang Youlong, a multimillionaire businessman. Huang is reportedly in financial trouble, but more importantly, the couple were major investors in Alibaba, the tech giant that became one of the early targets of recent regulatory action. Huang and Zhao also have ties in Hangzhou, Alibaba's hometown, where a political cleanse began last week.
Such disappearances were a staple of life in the Soviet Union, but in an era of internet celebrity they are especially surreal. All of this occurs before any formal or public charges are brought against Zhao. It commemorates the sudden disappearance of Rui Chenggang, one of China's most famous newscasters, who disappeared in 2014 before a criminal complaint was brought against him in 2016.
Sweeping financial news. Three major websites recently published regulatory announcements that they were working to "delete fake financial news." Some concerns are legitimate, such as pump-and-dump systems and fake advisers. But the promise spoke of short sales and doom and gloom about the state of the economy, as well as "skewed interpretations" of data.
Financial reporting in China has often evaded censorship even during raids – in part because the censors did not fully understand it. However, given mounting concerns about the economy from regulatory crackdowns, business reporting is likely to experience more restrictions.
AmCham Southwest has closed. The American Chamber of Commerce in southwest China was forced to close with 48 hours' notice after it was accused of violating draconian NGO laws that came into force in 2017. The organizations known as Chinese AmChams are part of a loose global network, a major force representing US business in China. They have traditionally been tolerated by the government, even if they violated regulations.
If more of them close – especially the core groups in Beijing and Shanghai – it will send another signal that the leadership is no longer interested in doing business outside of the country except on their own terms.