On December 20, 2019, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top body for internet control and regulation, released new rules governing online information, setting out both generally encouraged content types and content that would be regarded as unacceptable — and making clear that all members of Chinese society have a responsibility to take part in internet governance.

The “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem” (网络信息内容生态治理规定), available in translation at China Law Translate, were released in draft form back in September as the CAC formally solicited feedback on the regulations from other departments and the public. The final regulations show little substantive change based on a comparison of the texts, although fines for serious content violations that were specified in the draft version at “100,000 yuan or above, not exceeding 500,000 yuan” were apparently removed in the final version, leaving the question of fines ambiguous.

A reading of the new regulations posted during the draft phase in September by the news app of China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Communist Youth League, said one of the most notable aspects of the new approach in the draft was the “diversification of the agents of internet ecology governance” (网络生态治理主体的多元化). The post suggested the new approach amounted to a “collaborative governance model” (协同共治的治理模式), and that the process of internet governance “needs to break through the dominant oppositional and singular model of opposition between the market and the government.”

Internet governance, in other words, is a process that should include all aspects of society, focusing the energies of more diverse parties on achieving the information control objectives of the Chinese Communist Party. All of this is very much in keeping with Xi Jinping’s interest in reviving the notion of the “mass line” in social governance, and his emphasis on Mao-era approaches such as the so-called “Fengqiao experience,” which the official Xinhua News Agency touted as a Xi interest as late as November.  

Article Two of the new regulation states clearly that “governance of the online information content ecosystem” as stipulated in the document refers to a range of actions, including deletion of “illegal and harmful information,” carried out by “the government, enterprises, society, internet users and others.”

The “Provisions” also reflect this mass line participatory approach to control in defining not just areas of prohibition, but information content to be encouraged. While news and propaganda policy language in the past – particularly in the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras – would often refer to “emphasizing positive propaganda” (正面宣传为主) as a duty of the news media, the nature of such propaganda was generally not made explicit – and this was the prerogative of the media as the front line in maintaining “correct guidance of public opinion,” not of broader society. By contrast, Article 5 of the new regulations defines 7 points of “encouragement” for “producers of online information content” (网络信息内容生产者), which can be defined quite broadly in the world of interactive digital media, where the line between producer and consumer is blurred:

  • Propagating Xi Jinping Though on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era; comprehensive, accurate and vivid interpretation of the path, theories, system and culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
  • Propagating the Party’s theoretical line, policies, and major central decisions.
  • Displaying the highlights of economic and social development, reflecting the great struggle and fiery life of the people.
  • Carrying forward socialist core values, publicizing the outstanding moral culture and the spirit of the times, and fully demonstrating the uplifting spirit of the Chinese nation.
  • Effectively responding to social concerns, solving doubts, clarifying matters, and assisting with the formation of mass consensus.
  • Increasing the international influence of Chinese culture, showing the world a true and comprehensive China.
  • Other content dealing with proper taste, responsibility, encouraging truth and beauty, and promoting solidarity and stability.

In a December interview, an unnamed official at the CAC said that the new regulations served to clarify for “producers of online information content” the nature of “positive energy” (正能量), or content deemed to advance the social and policy goals of the CCP. The official said: “The regulations clarify the concrete scope of positive energy information, illegal information and harmful information. They encourage producers of online information content to produce, copy and distribute information with positive energy content.”