China’s paranoia over online ‘rumour’ spreading reaches a peak!

Chinese police have designated 2024 as “a year of special action to combat online rumours.” According to CCTV police “severely cracked down (in 2023) on illegal and criminal activities such as fabricating false information about police, epidemics, dangers and disasters”, state broadcaster CCTV said (22 December 2023). China’s paranoia over regime stability is such that it blocks anything that even remotely might be construed as criticism of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CPC). China Daily reported that Chinese police have shut down 34,000 online accounts and punished more than 6,300 people for spreading rumours as part of operation “Clean Net” a crackdown launched in April. The Daily reported that these online accounts were shut for having started rumours or were spreading them, in a crackdown that  began in April 2023.

Li Tong, an official with the Ministry of Public Security told the media (22 December 2023) that to ensure sustained social stability, the Ministry had decided to carry out a yearlong crackdown campaign on online rumours spanning 2024. He added that the campaign will employ multiple measures to make sure it is effective and delivers solid outcomes. Li noted that in 2023, Chinese police had also taken strong hands against criminal acts of cyber violence such as online smearing, insulting and privacy infringement, handling 110 cases so far. Chinese policing of the internet has thus become more intrusive and all pervasive in the last decade or so.

Internet is tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC), and widespread censorship of social media in the name of protecting social stability is often used to suppress certain stories or critical coverage. State broadcaster CCTV noted that “So far, public security organs across the country have investigated more than 4,800 online rumour cases, investigated and handled in accordance to the law more than 6,300 people who spread rumours, and shut down 34,000 illegal accounts.” Chinese police also deleted 27,000 pieces of information and blocked more than 500 social accounts for alleged cyberbullying since the “Clean Net” campaign began.

The campaign is also being used to silence critics of government and its handling of the economy. Consequently, the social media accounts of prominent Chinese business analysts’ have been restricted. CNN reports that some of China’s most prominent analysts had been subjected to social media restrictions, making it difficult for them to comment on the China’s ailing stock markets and struggling economy. Another such instance of social media restriction came to light when in January 2023, China suspended or closed more than 1,000 online accounts that criticized the government’s COVID-19 policies.

Liu Jipeng, an advisor and analyst to the Chinese government, recently asked retail investors in the country to refrain from investing in the stock market. Since early December 2023, he has not posted on social media and users can no longer follow his accounts. Notably, these restrictions have coincided with a major conference hosted by President Xi Jinping earlier in December 2023 to discuss economic targets and policies for 2024. The ruling CPC decided that it should “strengthen economic propaganda and public opinion guidance and promote a positive narrative about the bright prospects of the Chinese economy”.

The New York Times reports (26 April 2023) that China’s internet censorship is such that there are more 66,000 rules controlling the content that is available to people using search engines. The findings suggested that China’s censorship apparatus had become not only more pervasive, but also more subtle. The search engines, have created algorithms to “hard censor” searches deemed to be politically sensitive by providing no results or by limiting the results to selected sources, which are usually government agencies or state news organizations that follow the Communist Party’s line.

Eight online platforms were examined which offered search tools, including Baidu, Sogou and Bing; the social media sites Weibo, Douyin, Bilibili and Baidu Zhidao; and the e-commerce giant Jingdong. It was found that all were subject to extensive legal restrictions that have long censored criminal activity, obscenity, pornography, violence and gore, in addition to virtually any political, ethnic or religious content viewed as threatening to Communist Party rule and social stability. More recent restrictions have extended to defamation of the country’s heroes or martyrs, illegal surrogacy and misleading or false information about Covid-19 in Beijing. China’s internet censorship system, colloquially known as the Great Firewall, has existed since 2000, when the Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield Project, a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance aimed at restricting content, identifying and locating individuals, and providing immediate access to personal records. Initially, the Firewall blocked only a handful of anti-Communist Party Chinese-language websites, and it was relatively easy to circumvent the blockage to access them. Gradually, more websites got blocked, and netizens became increasingly irritated.

Pertinently, the National Security Ministry, has also stepped up efforts to ensure that pessimistic opinion about China’s economic future, especially from those who have “ulterior motives” are quashed. Meanwhile, amongst other challenges, policymakers in China are also grappling with the threat of deflation. CNN reports that consumer prices witnessed their biggest fall since the pandemic three years ago in November 2023, suggesting weakening domestic demand. Latest data from the Ministry of Commerce showed that the main measure of foreign direct investment in China fell to its lowest level in nearly four years in November 2023. The point is that more the Chinese government censors analysis critical of the economy, the more global investors will worry about the state of the economy. Moreover, the Chinese stock markets was among the worst performers in the world in 2023. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index fell 5.7%, while the tech-heavy Shenzhen Component Index lost 16%. The perspective of an authoritarian system of government on regime stability tends to view any online activity as inherently suspicious. Therefore, legal and other measure to curb online dissent are commonplace in China. The pleathora of laws and regulations that China has in place to censor the internet is enormous. The latest crackdown must be seen as a part of Xi Jinping’s efforts to control and curb public opinion that is critical of the CPC and its policies. That this effort is being reinforced with each passing year becomes clear on a closer examination of the manner in which the Chinese state acts to censor online content and restricts the social media accounts of many of its citizens. The lack of transparency will always lead one to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong in China.




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