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Popular AI platform censors itself for China, bans users from making Xi Jinping content

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
April 03, 2023

A popular platform for generating lifelike images with artificial intelligence has banned users from creating images of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The founder of the service, Midjourney, said that privilege was carved out for the increasingly authoritarian leader because the service could be banned in China if it is used to make satirical images at Xi’s expense, the Washington Post reported.

In chats with the Midjourney community last summer, founder and CEO David Holz said Xi would be exempt from AI-generated images because “we just want to minimize drama.”

“Political satire in China is pretty not-okay,” he wrote, adding, “I think people in China using this tech moves a needle in the world in general (in a positive direction). I think random people on here doing Chinese political satire does very little to add to anything. The cost-benefit-analysis seems clear.”

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The policy favoring Xi comes as he has secured an unprecedented third term in office and consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since Communist revolutionary and mass murderer Mao Zedong. U.S. relations with China have also plunged to historic lows amid intensifying competition between the two nations and the spy balloon fiasco.

American Military News on Monday attempted to generate images with the prompts “xi jinping,” “chinese president,” and “xi,” but each time, Midjourney said the terms were banned. After the third attempt, the platform returned the message: “You have triggered an abuse alert. Your account is now under manual review.”

At the time of the Post’s Thursday report, other workaround terms like “president of china” reportedly still generated images of Xi. By Monday afternoon, that term had also been banned, American Military News found.

Fake images of celebrities and political leaders generated with Midjourney have recently gone viral on social media amid a rapid rollout of increasingly advanced AI tools. Midjourney images of former President Donald Trump being arrested and going to prison circulated on social media in March as the nation anticipated news of his criminal indictment.