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China steps up social media censorship with mass account deletions

China Censorship (Mike MacKenzie/Flickr)
March 05, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Government censors are stepping up their war on any online content not previously approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

A new set of regulations took effect on Sunday warning content creators and their platforms that content that seeks to “hype” news stories including scandals and official wrongdoing or “improperly comments” on major news events will result in the deletion of user accounts.

Large numbers of social media accounts were being shut down on Monday by content providers, who are obliged to police content published on their platforms, RFA has learned.

Much of the content deemed “improper” by the authorities relates to unapproved information about the coronavirus epidemic.

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“We have to be careful now to avoid getting shut down,” a social media user surnamed Meng told RFA after a group chat on the WeChat social media platform was shut down by the authorities on Friday.

“Our group and our personal accounts were all shut down last night,” Meng said.

A social media user surnamed Sun in the central province of Hubei, worst-hit by the coronavirus epidemic, said he was detained for more than two months after he posted something the authorities didn’t like.

Now, his new account has also been shut down.

“I sent five photos of the [pharmaceutical product] Vedesive,” Sun said. “Now my account has been shut down and the municipal police came to call.”

Paying a heavy price

Beijing-based poet Wang Zang said the new rules outlaw anything that the government doesn’t regard as “positive news.”

“Countless accounts and posts continue to be deleted, as people fight to get through internet loopholes,” Wang said. “Many people have paid a heavy price for their struggle for freedom of speech.”

“With the [new rules], the authorities are continuing to violate Article 35 of the Constitution … In terms of the freedom of speech environment, we are now even deeper into the ice age,” he said.

Under the new rules issued by the powerful Cyberspace Administration, content providers and platforms must refrain from using the internet to “insult, defame, threaten, spread rumors, or violate the privacy of others.”

The rules also take aim at “exaggerated headlines” that seek to “hype up” scandals and other negative news stories.

“Those who produce online news and content must take measures to prevent and resist the production, reproduction, and publication of such content,” the rules say.

Law expert and online commentator Zhao Yiming said the new rules should be subject to the country’s constitution, but in fact they have the effect of overturning it.

The next stage

More than one billion people use WeChat, but complaints of account and group shutdowns are becoming more and more widespread.

Zhang Jianping, an activist from the eastern province of Jiangsu, said the new rules are the next stage in the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s exercise of total control over all forms of public expression.

“If we could solve our country’s problems by keeping our mouths shut, and set it on the path to better development, then we would be willing to do this,” Zhang said.

“But this is clearly not the case.”

Content producers are forbidden to produce, copy, or publish content containing “illegal” information including “endangering national security,” “leaking state secrets,” “subverting state power,” or “undermining national unity.”

They are also forbidden to allow content that smears or mocks the names of revolutionary heroes and martyrs or contemporary public figures.

Social media user Dong Qin said she has had her account shut down 11 times, and counting.

“I am now on my 12th account. The last time I was blocked, I only wrote a couple of words,” Dong said. “I was also blocked another time when I said two words during an audio call.”

“It’s a huge hassle to try to get an account again,” she said. “I only managed to get my 12th account after trying for three days.”

Stability maintenance

Sichuan-based social media user He Xi said online censorship is part of China’s “stability maintenance” system of pre-emptive law-enforcement that protects Communist Party rule.

“This is the way that they maintain stability,” He said. “Nobody has any privacy at all in mainland China.”

“Everything is subject to big data controls. You can start your own business, but your assets won’t be protected … they just don’t run the country according to law.”

Instead of allowing “rumors” and “negative news” onto their sites, content providers are urged to “Propagate Xi Jinping’s thinking on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” and the party’s “theoretical line, policies, and major central decision-making arrangements.”