What’s Behind China’s Recent Internet Crackdown?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last weekend, Charles Xue Manzi, a Chinese American multi-millionaire investor and opinion leader on one of China’s most popular microblogs, appeared in handcuffs in an interview aired on China Central Television (CCTV). Xue is just the most visible blogger to be snared by a new Chinese Communist Party dragnet that threatens to charge with defamation any netizen whose microblog post is viewed by more than 5,000 readers. Some observers say that Xue’s self-criticism is the result of a broader crackdown on microblogging that employs political manuvering and tactics not seen since the Cultural Revolution.


This campaign against “pro-democracy” voices in Chinese society will be marked as the harshest since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, and I predict that what we are seeing now is just a beginning. It also is the clearest manifestation yet of Xi Jinping’s political standing and future direction—returning to Maoist mass movement methods to control and mobilize the society, in order to firmly grab the power of the Communist Party.

This generation of Chinese leaders, whether it’s Xi Jinping or Bo Xilai, all are coming from one past—Mao and their own fathers’ Communist revolution, which gave therm “legitimacy” to inherit power. Even as victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Mao is the only role model they can draw from in order to rule Chinese society.  In this sense, Xi and Bo are from the same roots and same political heritage.  

What Bo Xilai did in Chongqing was his way to experiment with creating a “Chinese model.” Despite Bo’s failure in the power struggle, Xi seems to have no different political inspiration than Bo. Today’s China is no longer the China of the 1960s or 70s, but if Xi is taking this Maoist approach politically, it is hard to imagine any democratic opening from the top in the next five to ten years.

Breathtaking, really, to watch Xi bring Bo down with the most open trial in CCP history while borrowing from his Mao-era playbook of public confessions, self-criticisms, mobilization and intimidation to “rectify” the Party and assert control over the strategic heights of the Internet.

Defenders of Xi, like Bo before him, say the Party has grown so sclerotic and its legitimacy so battered that these are desperate times, demanding desperate measures. Civil society leaders, meanwhile, are rightly dismayed that there seems to be no end to China’s cycles of political violence and repression. It doesn’t seem like a sustainable way to run an aspiring super power. It’s sure going to be a bumpy ride.

It is truly horrible watching the slow, steady humiliation of Charles Xue play out on nationwide TV and the Internet in ten minute “news” packages and sanctimonious editorials.

China Central Televison added to the tension by playing an interview with Pan Shiyi, a real estate developer and ‘Big V’ weibo user famous for social activism around air pollution. In the interview, Pan stutters as he repeats the government line that online rumors are harmful to society.  And then there was the detention on trumped up charges of Wang Gongchuan, businessman and supporter of now detained lawyer Xu Zhiyong. All in all, a nasty atmosphere of menace.

But while these tactics of intimidation might be new to some ad agency executive and real estate billionaires who have found a home on Weibo, others have long ago been exposed to the brutal side of information control. For many journalists, writers and activists, the idea of being arrested and humiliated by the security forces is all too familiar. Is the treatment of Charles Xue worse than what happened to Ai Weiwei in 2011, long before Xi Jinping's ascension? Ai was held for 81 days without being charged. The authorities have done nothing since Ai's release to prove that their economic crime charges against him were anything but trumped up. The conditions of Ai’s detention appear to have been significantly worse than Charles Xue’s. 

Nor are the aims of the current campaign and the language used to describe it new. Last year, summarizing government actions on the Internet in 2011 after the July 23 Wenzhou train crash, I wrote this:

[A] carefully orchestrated campaign was launched in the official media calling for an end to the publication of ‘unsubstantiated rumors’ in the blogosphere and on the Internet. The Party Secretary of Beijing pointedly visited Sina, the host-owner of China’s Weibo microblogs and his remarks on rumor control were widely reported. For its part, Sina sent messages to all of its Weibo users warning them that it would suspend the accounts of anyone guilty of spreading rumors and fomenting trouble. As part of the coordinated campaign, Xinhua New Agency released an article calling for an end to ‘poisonous rumors’ on the Weibo blogs, employing highly colored political language that was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution era (1964-1978) and the ‘anti-spiritual pollution’ campaign of 1983.

Comparing Xue’s treatment to Ai Weiwei’s, a cynic could almost find grounds for optimism. After all, Xue was originally arrested for acts that are in fact considered criminal in China’s written laws: soliciting prostitutes and group sex. The police did not just detain him and then find themselves having to make up a charge like they did with Ai Weiwei. But such a reading would of course be naive. The only thing that is clear is that while Weibo might be new media, the authorities will continue using the same old thuggish techniques that they have always used to maintain control.

This is how Lu Wei, the director of the State Council’s Internet Office put it in an editorial published today:

In the Internet era, media convergence is inevitable. If we [the Party] do not effectively capture the new battlefield of public opinion, other people will occupy it, and they will challenge our dominance and our right to speak. We must strengthen our awareness of the battlefield, vigorously promote the integration of traditional and new media, enhance our communication ability, credibility and influence, and ensure that we implement the principle of Party control of media.

If the Internet had been around a hundred years ago, Lenin would perhaps have written something like the lines above. The pushback against Big V’s is nothing new, it’s just the latest example of the authorities’ tried and tested methods of control. It’s not a page out of Bo Xilai’s playbook, nor a return to the  Cultural Revolution. It’s merely business as usual.

While my Xinhua journalist friend tried to convince me that the recent arrest of the Chinese-American businessman Charles Xue was not staged by the authorities, the overwhelming view of the Chinese internet and foreign media points to a “systematic crackdown” aimed at silencing perceived political dissidents in China.

Xue’s seemingly candid admission on Sunday night thickened the plot, with some commentators noting similarities to the class struggle and public humiliation during the Cultural Revolution. "My irresponsibility in spreading information online was a vent of negative mood, and was a neglect of the social mainstream," Xue, 60, confessed.

Perhaps directors at CCTV are trying to set a chilling example for anyone who might want to follow in Xue’s footsteps. Similar actions in the past always have worked in China. Last month, Xue’s former intern, a 22-year-old college graduate who had recently returned from the U.S., was visibly wary when I asked what she thought about Xue’s arrest. She looked around furtively and in hushed tones replied, “I just came back from overseas, and I don’t want to comment too much on this because I might be regarded as spreading rumors.”

This is what the authorities should be really concerned about. A couple of weeks ago, Chinese internet regulator Lu Wei passionately advocated “liberty and order” in cyberspace on a forum in the U.K. But if no one is willing to speak out online for fear of being punished, and most official information is neither transparent nor reliable, what will most likely happen is the spread of more offline rumors that further disrupt social order.

The massive campaign against “online rumor spreaders” also goes against the government’s effort to respond to public opinion (yúqíng, 舆情). The Washington Post reported in August that the government is trying to understand public opinion “on an unprecedented scale” several public opinion centres being built across the country. But the crackdown on internet voices negates that effort.
No one knows what’s behind the curtain, perhaps not even Mr. Xue himself. While everyone is making sense of what's going on, one impossible explanation has been cited tens of thousands of times by events-watchers: Those who submit to me shall be whores; those who resist me shall be johns (shun wǒ zhě chāng 顺我者娼, nì wǒ zhě piáochāng 逆我者嫖娼). If my Xinhua friend genuinely believes Mr. Xue’s arrest was non-political, won't she find the interpretation ironic as well?

I’d say that the current rumor crackdown is just the tip of a very large policy iceberg. Internet control sits at the confluence of a number of policy streams, which together caused the situation on China’s Internet we see today: enormous commercial developments on the one side, and a government that is trying to regain control through increasingly harsh methods on the other.

A first major undercurrent is the increasing clout of the propaganda department. While propaganda and culture had never completely disappeared from the political view, the drive towards development of the cultural industries and the expansion of its turf thanks to the Internet have put media development and governance high on the agenda. This, in turn, is the result of a number of economic and political factors. Economically, China has designated the cultural industries as a crucial area for growth, and its ambitious digitalization agenda is another centerpiece of the drive to transform its economic model and move higher up the value chain. Over the last few years, the Party has  expressed increasing attention to the necessity of ensuring the correct orientation and public opinion among audiences, with the Central Committee Decision Concerning Deepening Cultural Structural Reform as a blueprint. This and other such documents indicate that there is a worry among the leadership that the benefits of growing material welfare result in decadence and corruption, and will derail China’s further path to modernization.

China is dissatisfied that, though it is the world's second largest economy, it has not gotten its way more in international discussions. It sees this as the consequence of a lack of soft power and “discourse power” – the power to set the terms of the debate. Conversely, the idea of discourse power increasingly is used domestically as well, as the Party seems to have realized that no longer does it have the power to keep information under wraps. A large part of its response to this is to strengthen education and propaganda, aiming to lead people to a correct understanding of the bigger picture, recently redubbed the “Chinese Dream.” However, it seems that the fact that these strategies do not seem to work as intended so far is causing some anxiety and a sense of crisis.

A second factor is the impact that the Internet itself has had on shifting communication patterns inside China. Before the advent of the Internet, the Party had brought traditional media outlets under relatively strong control, one of the larger problems at that time being piracy. Now, however, about 600 million Chinese citizens have gained easy access to tools of public communication, and they use these with gusto. However, they do not always use them to the ends that the leadership would like to see. Rather, they use them to expose corruption, organize protests, engage in online scams, black PR, human flesh search engines, pornography, etc. To be fair, this list of problems illustrates the complexity of the current Internet crackdown. Many of these issues would be subject to legitimate state intervention elsewhere. However, the eruption of activity seems genuinely to have disconcerted higher levels of politics, who had been used to a relatively harmonious mainstream media environment with only a tiny minority of troublemakers. While it might be strange to accuse the CCP of naiveté, a smidgeon of magical thinking comes across in its assumption that the majority of the “popular masses” share its worldview and ideals, and would behave better if they were better educated.

This leads us to a third factor, the nature of the Party itself. The Party isn’t just there to attend to some of the arrangements underpinning Chinese society. Its program and its legitimacy rest on the delivery of a comprehensive modernization plan that improves everyone’s livelihoods. The CCP claims that only it has the means and the capacity to lead this process, and consequently claims a monopoly on political leadership. That puts it in a difficult position when it has to deal with social problems and tensions. If something goes wrong, the Party, in its own mind, must respond to alleviate the tension; it cannot stand aside and wash its hands of whichever hiccup occurs. Now, perhaps the Internet is not the most heartening lens into the workings of a society, as anyone who has ever read the  comments posted to news websites or YouTube will know. However, to the Party, such online activity is an indication of profound disharmony, and must be replaced by “responsible, healthy and upward behavior.” Rather a huge and frustrating task, in my view.

Fourth, there is the current state of Chinese politics more generally. We still see the aftershocks of the leadership transition, which historically always have come together with political tensions and high-profile arrests, as well as the necessity to establish a new guiding ideology. Also, a lot of the low-hanging fruits for Chinese development have been picked, and its further trajectory will run into the law of decreasing marginal benefit. As always, it is attractive to deal with such anxieties by focusing on a superficial phenomenon, rather than have to face up to the fundamental structural weaknesses that generate those. It is much easier to say that everything that goes wrong in Chinese society is caused by a few louts spouting whatever on the Internet, than to admit that a number of fundamental ideas in CCP political thinking no longer are purpose-fit and may need to be abandoned. It is more comforting to reach back to slogans and methods from the past than to confront real and profound challenges thrown up in the present.

Just to add a couple of points to the comments above: we are seeing a pattern of arrests on specious charges that are a thin disguise for crimes of opinion. Charles Xue’s TV "confession" had no more to do with the charge of soliciting prostitutes, the formal excuse for his detention, than Ai Weiwei’s alleged tax irregularities had to do with his arrest. Indeed, if soliciting prostitutes really merited the attention of the security forces, we would see a substantial part of the security services themselves up on charges, along with many other members of the elite. This is about intimidation and we can expect to see the tactics spread to other actors.

What are the rumors that the authorities are so concerned about? Anything critical of the Party or anything that inspires people to act on the resentment of arbitrary rule that is comonplace in today's China.  Social protest that has achieved limited tolerance in recent years --  for instance on environmental issues—is likely to come under less sympathetic scrutiny if the government continues to opt for repressing dissent rather than fixing the cause. Intimidating outspoken individuals, identifying potential non-Party leaders, labelling all protest as anti-Party or unpatriotic—as other have said, these are tactics that hail from earlier times.