Internet users in China will soon be held liable for liking posts deemed illegal or harmful, sparking fears that the world’s second largest economy plans to control social media like never before.
China’s internet watchdog is stepping up its regulation of cyberspace as authorities intensify their crackdown on online dissent amid growing public anger against the country’s stringent Covid restrictions.
The new rules come into force from Dec. 15, as part of a new set of guidelines published by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) earlier this month. The CAC operates under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by leader Xi Jinping.
The new rules have gained attention on social media in recent days and will take effect just weeks after an unprecedented wave of public anger started sweeping the country. From Beijing to Shanghai, thousands of demonstrators protested in more than a dozen cities over the weekend, demanding an end to the country’s draconian Covid restrictions and calling for political freedoms.
Internet users are taking screenshots of content related to the protests to preserve them and using coded references in messages to evade censors, while the authorities are scrambling to scrub the internet of dissent.
The regulation is an updated version of one previously published in 2017. For the first time, it states that “likes” of public posts must be regulated, along with other types of comments. Public accounts must also actively vet every comment under their posts.
However, the rules didn’t elaborate on what kind of content would be deemed illegal or harmful.
“Liking something that is illegal shows that there is popular support for the issue being raised. Too many likes ‘can start a prairie fire,’” said David Zweig, professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to a Chinese expression about how a single spark can start a far larger blaze.
“The threats to the [Chinese Communist Party] come from an ability to communicate across cities. The authorities must have been really spooked when so many people in so many cities came out at the same time,” he added.
Analysts said the new regulation was a sign that authorities were stepping up their crackdown on dissent.
“The authorities are very concerned with the spreading protest activities, and an important means of control is to stop the communications of the potential protesters including reports of protest activities and appeals of joining them,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.
“This cyberspace control is an important lesson absorbed from protest activities like the Arab Spring,” he said, referring to protests that washed over Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia in 2011.
“What is important to note is that in the wake of the [China] protests, we will likely see more aggressive policing of Chinese cyberspace, especially if the protests expand,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, a China risk consultancy firm based in New York.
In recent years, China has gradually intensified its censorship of social media and other online platforms, including launching crackdowns on financial blogs and unruly fan culture. This year, the country’s strict zero-Covid policy and Xi’s securing of a historic third term have sparked discontent and anger among many online users.
But under the increasingly strict internet censorship, many voices of dissent have been silenced.
According to the regulation, all online sites are required to verify users’ real identities before allowing them to submit comments or like posts. Users have to be verified by providing their personal ID, mobile phone, or social credit numbers.
All online platforms must set up a “vetting and editing team” for real-time monitoring, reporting, or deleting content. In particular, comments on news stories must be reviewed by the sites before they can appear online.
All platforms also need to develop a credit rating system for users based on their comments and likes. Users with poor ratings dubbed “dishonest” will be added to a blocklist and banned from using the platform or registering new accounts.
However, analysts also questioned how practical it would be to carry out the newest rules, given that public anger is widespread and strict enforcement of these censorship requirements would consume significant resources.
“It is almost impossible to stop the spread of protest activities as the dissatisfaction continues to spread. The angry people can come up with all sorts of ways to communicate and express their feelings,” Cheng said. “The major deterrent lies in the perception that the (Communist) Party regime is still in control and the sanctions are severe.”
Chongyi Feng, an associate professor in China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said that it is “extremely difficult” now for the Chinese public to voice their grievances and anger.
“Cyberspace policing by Chinese authorities is already beyond measure, but that does not stop brave Chinese citizens from challenging the regime,” he said.