68 Things You Cannot Say on China’s Internet
“Detailed” plots involving prostitution, rape and masturbation are also forbidden. So are displays of “unhealthy marital values,” which the guidelines catalog as affairs, one-night stands, partner swapping and, simply but vaguely, “sexual liberation.”
Despite the efforts of censors, the internet has long been the most freewheeling of China’s mass media, a platform where authors and artists — as well as entertainment studios — could reach audiences largely free of the Propaganda Department’s traditional controls on broadcasting, publishing, cinema and stage.
But the new restrictions — which expanded and updated a set of prohibitions issued five years ago — reflect an ambitious effort by President Xi Jinping’s government to impose discipline and rein in the web.
They were issued by the China Netcasting Services Association, which includes as members more than 600 companies, including the official Xinhua News Agency, the social media giants Sina and Tencent, the dominant search engine Baidu and the news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.
David Bandurski, an analyst and editor for the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, said the association’s rules created the illusion of industry consensus as the company’s acquiesced to what party officials call “self-discipline.”
“Many of these companies are private, so it’s important for the leadership to have a means of bringing them together and creating a means of applying pressure on the collective,” he wrote in an email. “It is a tactic of co-option.”
Writers, filmmakers, podcasters and others attributed the guidelines and other measures to a new prim and paternalistic ideology taking shape under Mr. Xi, who has called on party members to be “paragons of morality” in pursuit of what he calls the “China Dream.”
Many also attributed the tightening of controls to official nervousness ahead of a major Communist Party congress scheduled for October. The congress is expected to reshuffle the country’s leadership and consolidate President Xi’s already formidable power.
“I feel like people say all the time that after the big congress, things will be O.K.,” said Fan Popo, a documentary filmmaker whose work has run afoul of online censorship because it explores the country’s conflicted views about homosexuality. But then he noted how online censorship has also spiked ahead of important state holidays and following unexpected events like the death of the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
“It’s still going on,” he said, “and it’s getting worse.”
In June, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television announced a new rating system for online bookstores and publishers based on criteria that included upholding moral values.
The powerful Cyberspace Administration — the ultimate authority over what is online in China — also shut down dozens of blogs and social media accounts for covering celebrity news and gossip that month.
Regulators also ordered two popular video streaming sites, AcFun and Bilibili, to stop showing hundreds of foreign television programs, while other state agencies issued a new rule this month prohibiting video sites from streaming even domestically produced shows without a license.
That essentially subjects online programs — often considered edgier — to the same restrictions governing what is broadcast on television, which critics say is dominated by trifles and propaganda.
The directive also ordered online producers to submit plans for creating new dramas between now and 2021 that “praise the party, the nation and heroes so as to set a good example.”
The new industry regulations provoked outrage — online, of course.
The country’s leading scholar of sexuality, Li Yinhe, wrote in a scathing commentary on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, that the new regulations violated two basic freedoms. “The first is a citizen’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of creativity; the second is the constitutionally protected right to sexual freedom of sexual minorities.”
When Ms. Li called on people to “work toward abolishing screening and censorship rules,” her posts were deleted, too.
Much of the online discussion has focused on the new prohibitions of sexual content and the inclusion of homosexuality among a list of “abnormal sexual relations” that also included incest and sexual assault. Critics said the regulation appeared to contradict the government’s own position on homosexuality, which it decriminalized in 1997 and removed from an official list of mental disorders in 2001.
China’s censorship agencies exercise overlapping jurisdiction over the internet and often employ policies that create confusion. The result has been a layered system of control that begins with self-censorship by those who create online content, followed by policing by web platforms, which are often private enterprises, and finally, when necessary, intervention by government regulators or the police.
Some regulations are explicit — no depiction of killing endangered species or underage drinking, for example. Others are imprecise. One, for example, prohibits blurring the lines between “truth and falsity, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.”
Critics say the rules are meant to be so vague that the authorities can justify blocking anything, as circumstances dictate.
“The tightening of content censorship is the general trend, but for content creators, they never know where exactly the lines lie,” said Gao Ming, who until recently produced a satirical podcast on current affairs called Radio HiLight.
Like others, Mr. Gao acknowledged softening his commentaries to avoid trouble, trying to work around, or one step ahead of, the censors. For profit or in pursuit of art, many performers and producers have learn to live with the party’s limitations.
Ms. Song, the writer, works mostly in a literary genre known as danmei that has become hugely popular among young women. Taking its inspiration from Japanese stories and manga, it typically involves homoerotic romances. Ms. Song’s work is often serialized, with readers paying for new chapters as they are posted on one of the biggest publishing sites, Jinjiang Literature City.
“If I want to publish it,” she said of her work, “then I need to follow the rules.”
Ms. Song, who lives in Wuhan, an enormous city in central China, said some of her chapters have been blocked because “sensitive keywords appeared in high frequency.” Usually, she then edits enough of those words out to get her writing past the censors and to her readers.
Ms. Song said she was not particularly worried about the new regulations. “Authors cannot use their works to encourage or incite criminal acts, especially among younger readers,” she said. “Literature, after all, has a guiding effect.”
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