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China steps up domestic censorship, overseas propaganda ahead of party congress

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Michel Temer/Flickr)
August 28, 2022

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

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is stepping up propaganda and censorship efforts ahead of its 20th national congress, tightening control of domestic internet users and spreading its official narrative overseas.

The country’s powerful Cyberspace Administration said it had recently shut down 1.34 billion social media accounts and deleted 22 million posts.

Officials told a news conference they had also investigated more than five million accounts delivering paid comments, banning some 450,000 chat groups and forums.

The announcement came after social media platform said it had deleted around 20 million posts that “violated” rules and regulations.

Sina Finance news client Toutiao, among others, was ordered to cease posting for 15 days from Aug. 22, in order to rectify “serious problems” with its content.

And it’s not only content viewed as critical of the government that is being targeted.

High-profile pro-CCP and leftist social media stars have recently been banned from posting, including pro-CCP and anti-U.S. pundit Sima Nan, who recently sparked a social media storm with his admission that he owns a house in California.

Sima’s account is still up, but his last post was on Aug. 19.

The account of fellow pundit and Peking University professor Kong Qingdong has been formally suspended “due to violations of the rules and regulations,” a notice on his Weibo account page said.

Major clampdown

Cheng Yizhong, former founding editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily and Beijing News newspapers, said the bans are linked to the CCP’s 20th National Congress later this year.

“The point is to create a public opinion environment that is welcoming to the 20th National Congress and to tease out any online opinions and hot topics that could distract public attention from that,” Cheng told RFA.

“Content that includes extreme populist propaganda and incitement of hatred, such as Sima Nan and Kong Qingdong, are likely to spoil this atmosphere, so they have to be controlled, or told to shut up,” he said.

“It can only be described as a further clampdown on [online] rhetoric.”

Chinese political scientist Chen Daoyin said the CCP is also mindful that nationalistic rhetoric could get out of hand in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to the democratic island of Taiwan.

“They need nationalism, but they can’t allow it to proliferate, or to get too extreme,” Chen said. “Chinese nationalism was getting to extreme levels during Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, with people raising banners and smashing eggs outside the Xiamen municipal government [across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan].”

“If they let that fire burn on, it will definitely undermine the CCP’s ability to govern,” he said. “Sima Nan and Kong Qingdong are where the government is drawing the red lines around officially permitted nationalism.”

“They have served their purpose as a tool [of the CCP].”

Attack dog Hu Xijin

Hu Xijin, the former editor of the nationalistic Global Times, who ramped up his personal brand of nationalism during Pelosi’s visit, appears to be unaffected by the clampdown, however.

“Hu Xijin still has a bit of an official flavor … I don’t think that what he says is without foundation [in the CCP’s political reality],” Chen said.

“If they use Hu as an attack dog, they can call him off again, unlike Sima Nan and Kong Qingdong,” he said.

Shanxi-based current affairs commentator Zhang Kunlun said government censors have succeeded in filleting out any online speech that isn’t totally in line with official narratives in recent months, often banning the accounts that post it.

“All of this part of a bid to strengthen and broaden controls over public opinion … especially in the areas of thought and speech,” Zhang said.

“[They want people] to speak only using their words, and to stay consistent with their line, particularly until they have secured another term,” he said.

CCP leader Xi Jinping will seek an unprecedented third term in office at the 20th National Congress, under constitutional amendments nodded through by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018.

Online commentator Li Xi said his WeChat account is frequently blocked, and he has been warned not to post anything by the state security police.

“WeChat has the most users now, and its influence is also huge,” Li said. “If they say you are breaking the law, then you’re breaking the law.”

“They called me in to drink tea, and told me either to stop posting or they would block my WeChat account,” he said.

Diplomats on offensive

A social media user from the northeastern city of Shenyang who gave only the surname Ding said she doesn’t feel there is any room to speak freely at all on China’s internet.

“There is no freedom now,” Ding said. “If we had freedom, then there wouldn’t be all this online surveillance.”

“It can all depend on which phrase you say that is wrong, which sensitive keyword, a specific word,” she said. “They read your post or message, and tell the local police station, who then have a word with you.”

Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats have been penning op-ed articles in overseas newspapers warning overseas officials not to visit Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, although the CCP has never ruled the democratic island and its 23 million people are happy with their democratic way of life.

In an Aug. 16 article in The Guardian, Chinese ambassador to the U.K. Zheng Zeguang hit out at the United States for constantly playing the “Taiwan card”, saying that China will naturally respond to “provocation” from the United States and “Taiwan independence forces.”

Some publications appear to be listening. The Observer ran an editorial on Aug. 7 calling on U.K. politicians to think twice before visiting Taiwan. It was later criticized by the U.K. representative in Taiwan as being out of touch.

Benson Wong, former assistant politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said some U.K. media pundits still hold the view that one shouldn’t “offend China.”

“Right now a lot of people think China is similar to Russia, and that Taiwan is similar to Ukraine,” Wong, who now lives in the U.K., told RFA.

“They are gradually understanding why defending Taiwan is important, because it’s similar to the British supporting the defense of the Ukraine,” he said.

“[So the Chinese government] are trying to get a shift in public opinion and the media, to win back control of the narrative.”