CHINA: Communist Party Battles to Have Last Laugh on Web Censorship

CHINA: Communist Party Battles to Have Last Laugh on Web Censorship
Photo Credit:Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Communist Party moves to shut down a satirical app are squeezing Chinese people's right to laugh.

By Hacer Z Gonul, Universite libre de Bruxelles, and Julius M Rogenhofer, University of Cambridge

Neihan Duanzi, literally meaning "implied jokes", was a Chinese mobile app where people posted jokes, satirical videos, spoofs and mashups. It was a product of Toutiao, the owner of one of China’s largest news and information content platforms. Once valued at US$20 billion, this privately owned alternative to state-controlled media networks is also one of the country’s fastest-growing tech start-ups.

In April 2018, the State Administration of Radio and Television ordered Toutiao to permanently close down Neihan Duanzi for allowing its more than 200 million registered users to share "vulgar and improper content".

After the public announcement of Toutiao’s closure, Toutiao’s founder and CEO Zhang Yiming "confessed" that the deep-seated problems at the company are a weak understanding of the "four consciousnesses", a term related to unwavering suppor the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leader Xi Jinping, a lack of socialist core values and a biased guidance of public opinion.

He added that: "In the past, we have placed too much emphasis on the role of technology, and failed to realize that socialist core values are the prerequisite to technology. We need to spread positive messages in line with the requirements of the times, while respecting public order and good practice."

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of China's National People's Congress, demonstrates that there are no issues with China's top leadership seeing the funny side during a visit to an aged care complex in Hong Kong May 19, 2016.

But rather than following the example of the company’s founder, loyal fans of Neihan Duanzi erupted in outspoken protest against the application’s closure. Fans of the app organised offline protests and meet ups in Beijing and other cities. Across several cities drivers honked at each other in code, both in order to indicate that they are fans of the app and to show their dissatisfaction.

The Neihuan Duanzi incident exemplifies how the government in Beijing has broadened its restrictions on what people see and say on the internet. At the same time, as journalist Lily Kuo identifies, the government’s move can be seen as jeopardizing the support of the so-called ‘little pink’: young people who express enthusiastic sympathy for the CCP (whose official color is, of course, red).

The abrupt closure of Neihan Duanzi illustrates that while the CCP’s campaign of censorship and repression extinguishes public discourse on politically sensitive topics such as regime change or personal freedoms, it also drives citizens underground where they can more openly question controls over society.

Protests for the "right to laugh" have the potential to give the Communist Party a severe headache as well as to instil nervousness among the Chinese authorities. The expressions of solidarity with slogans and activities of Neihan Duanzi users are thus a remarkable reminder that within Chinese society there is active resistance against the CCP’s suppression of public discourse.

Despite the symbolic significance of the Neihan Duanzi protests, it is too early to expect any real, lasting changes to either the nature of China’s political system or its public sphere. The global Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring in many Middle Eastern states suggest that digital technology and social media are effective at jointly mobilizing large groups of people around vague, general notions, such as dissatisfaction with a regime, inequality or economic hardship. But protesters are often unable to devise concrete and practical next steps.

With the future of Chinese economic growth becoming more uncertain, exorbitant inequality and high levels of corruption are fueling resentment.

Neihuan Duanzi users have shown impressive determination to circumvent restrictions on their online activities by taking their protest to the offline realm. But given the disparate nature in which former Neihuan Duanzi users organize and the opacity of China’s authoritarian regime, it is difficult to arrive at an accurate picture of the protests’ size and scale. Even if critical momentum could one day be achieved, Neihuan Duanzi users have expressed no broader political motive beyond protesting the closure of their beloved application. Historically, the CCP has been quite effective at containing such individual grievances by taking decisive action against the individuals involved.

China’s mobile application cosmos is as vibrant as it is dynamic. From ride sharing to mobile payments and live-casting, Chinese app developers have shown their ability to innovate as well as their ability to come up with viable products connecting the enormous ecosystem of mobile internet users in China. An app like Neihuan Duanzi could easily be superseded by the next, less politically controversial digital trend.

For decades, China has been able to appease its population by trading rapid economic growth and improving living standards for the surrender of political freedoms, including the right to publicly express dissatisfaction with the CCP or to articulate alternative political visions. But with the future of Chinese economic growth becoming more uncertain, exorbitant inequality and high levels of corruption are fueling resentment.

At the same time, digital technology raises citizens’ awareness about issues such as air and water pollution. The CCP has sought to combat such resentment by seeking to boost the economy through the Belt and Road Initiative and by publicly cracking down on corruption. A key question for the regime’s future stability is whether censorship and control of digital platforms will suffice to tame the mobilizing potential of the digital realm.

While China’s censorship efforts, such as those currently aimed at former users of Neihuan Duanzi, have largely been successful, it remains to be seen whether such constraints on digital interactions can be sustainable in the long term.

Hacer Z Gonul is a PhD Candidate at the Universite libre de Bruxelles and a researcher at the University’s EASt Centre.

Julius M Rogenhofer is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge, a Solicitor of the Courts of England and Wales and a Visiting Scholar at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: David Green